"Testimony" by Scott Turow; Grand Central Publishing (496 pages, $28)
Reviewing "Testimony" by Scott Turow presented a real problem for me. I read through it quickly, mostly because some of it is set in a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) that I know fairly well, and the subject matter of the narrative is familiar to me. At the same time, in spite of the fact that Turow is a well-known writer with many best-sellers to his credit, I found "Testimony" to be flawed as a novel.
What was fun in the book for me was revisiting the towns and people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. "Testimony" also provides glimpses of the international courts and the American bureaucracy including the departments of Defense and State.
The cast of characters involved in contracting goods and services in places such as BiH, Somalia and Lebanon were familiar and summoned up memories. What was worrisome as I looked at "Testimony" from the point of view of a reader who would not know a Chetnik from a pierogi, was that the plot might be difficult to follow.
Turow captures to some degree the bizarre atmosphere of BiH after the 1992-95 war, estimated to have killed 100,000 and left the country in a ghastly mess in spite of the so-called Dayton Accords arrived at among the Serbs, Croats and Muslims under American arm-twisting at Dayton, Ohio.
There were refugee – or, internally displaced – camps, soldiers of many nations, including American, other NATO and Russian forces, and the remnants of different BiH forces, Serb, Croat and Muslim militias, and armed criminal gangs.
In this context in "Testimony," from a camp near Tuzla in northeast Bosnia, the town where Hillary Clinton claimed falsely to have been shot at, some 400 Roma, also called Gypsies, disappeared. To my knowledge, this didn't actually happen, but it serves well as the basis for the novel.
Turow's protagonist, the experienced American lawyer William ten Boom, known as "Boom," acting on behalf of the International Criminal Court based in The Hague, is dispatched to find out what happened to them and why. A witness suggests that the 400 Roma were put into a cave by someone and buried alive.
A subplot, the roman a clef part, centers on the longstanding unsuccessful effort by NATO and the Americans to catch the president of the former Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of the the fractured BiH. In "Testimony" the fugitive is known as Laza Kajevic. In real life – Radovan Karadzic.
The now imprisoned Karadzic was an egotistical homicidal monster, responsible inter alia for the Srebrenica massacre by the Serbs of 8,000 Muslim men and boys. One effort to capture him while I was there involved a relative's funeral in Trebinje in southern BiH, part of my territory.
Another subplot in the book involves a discredited former American general who had been commander of the U.S. troops in the area where the Roma disappeared. Another of the knots Boom is supposed to unravel is whether the Americans had been involved in their fate, and, if so, why. I think the general, in the book, Layton Merriwell, is supposed to be Gen. David Petraeus, who served in BiH. His role in the alleged affair, Boom's deconstruction of it and what was in it for the general remain a little obscure even at the last page.
The story runs, confusingly, from The Hague, to Tuzla and Sarajevo in BiH, to Washington, to Vienna, to Boom's hometown and to New York. I underlined where the characters were while reading along, trying to make sense of what was happening.
The character of Boom is fairly believable, although I found his various love interests, including his ex-wife who had a double identity as a Roma and sometime Iranian, and his Indonesian landlady, excessive and sometimes extraneous to the plot. Some of the other characters, including an important one of uncertain sexuality and another who expressed himself in Australian slang, were not as sympathetic as they were intended to be.
If the reader can keep track of the plot without finding the Bosnia-Herzegovina context impenetrable, "Testimony" is an amusing read. I enjoyed being back in the hills of that mystifying Balkan nation, although Turow leaves out one unpleasant feature: You could not walk around freely because so much of the natural terrain was mined, including some picturesque churches. I don't think Turow named his protagonist Boom as irony, although it would have fit.