Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies
The ‘international theme’ – Old World/New World – was a foreground concern of Henry James. It typically featured the experience in Europe of an American innocent abroad, tasting the established, superior culture but also confronting the worldlier, more devious mindset of the host nationality. Posh transatlantic marriages could be made that way (Churchill’s parents for one).
In Testimony the hero-narrator, Bill ten Boom, a distinguished and well-connected lawyer, is on his way out of, not into, a marriage, but the international theme casts an unavoidable shadow. The first sentence of the book is ‘At the age of fifty, I had decided to start my life again.’ ‘Boom’, as he likes to be known, is deserting the familiar Turow territory of Kindle County, Illinois, to perform as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The Court’s function is ‘to bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crimes known to humankind – war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide’, above all when national courts are unavailing or uncooperative.
This opportune shift abroad is Boom’s bold, or rash, answer to a demoralising mid-life crisis that has left him ready to take a leap in the dark. Since the US weaselled out of participation in the ICC, leaving the suspicion that its ulterior motive was to protect its own torturers, his position is ambivalent from the start. The case is a historic one, deriving from a incident in Bosnia during the tragic and bloodthirsty Yugoslav Wars in 2004. Its complexities are labyrinthine, but with his native can-do outlook and the energy of a fresh start Boom feels up to it.
Early in Chapter 7 he voices a personal ‘testimony’ to the ingenuous American amour-propre which uplifts many US citizens whatever their political colouring: ‘In this nation, we did a lot of very big things far better than anyone else.’ There’s some truth in that, but big things are not always desirable things and they are seldom simple things. When, more than a decade after the event, condign punishment is sought for atrocities committed during bitter intercommunal warfare the convolutions, and the risks of error, mount. The reported Roma victims (nomadic ‘gypsies’ to the non-Roma, or ‘Gadje’) are unpopular outsiders. There are variant eddies of rumour about who committed the massacre and where the weaponry came from. In this instance there seems to be a sole surviving eye-witness, himself elusive and problematic, and the prosecutor is drawn far afield into gathering evidence, along with Esma Czarni, a British barrister claiming Roma blood who has a pulsating libido and an ‘Oxbridge accent’ (this is a new one on me, but not, I think, just one of those American howlers, since it also turns up in Joseph Knox’s Sirens, 2017 and indubitably Brit – ‘Mancs’ – crime). In attendance at key moments, and a very useful person to know, is a cross-dressing lesbian hustler, Attila Doby, ex-US Army and with the sulphurous mouth to prove it.
Add the comparatively liberal-minded US General Layton Merriwell (‘Merry’), a former NATO commander in Bosnia now eclipsed by scandal, and Goos, an oddball, displaced Belgian forensic anthropologist speaking heavy-duty ‘ocker’ Australian, and what results is an exotic crew engaged in a classic quest narrative, what Raymond Chandler called the hero’s ‘adventure in search of a hidden truth’. By ‘classic’ I mean a story which is intriguingly difficult for the reader to follow; fail to grasp one switcheroo as the ground shifts and wanders, you might have to read back to catch up. It’ll be worth it. As one US reviewer has put it, the novel is ‘a tour de force of collapsing perceptions’ for narrator and reader alike. Mysteries are dissolved into further mysteries, all data is questionable, pretence and deceptions abound, and the one who sticks the knife in you is as liable to be your old friend or adored paramour as a declared enemy.
Sounds like John le Carré, doesn’t it? A Venn diagram of the two authors’ sensibilities and interests would certainly reveal a decent overlap (though Turow would surely be kinder to the Americans). The post-Cold War world is more than ever a violent, hate-inflamed combat zone, prompting Leonard Cohen’s sardonic plea ‘Give me back the Berlin wall, give me Stalin and St Paul…’. Truth and personal integrity are at a discount. Boom is the naïve, well-meaning American entangled in European affairs; like Jerry Westerby, le Carré’s ‘honourable schoolboy’, he is tempted into mortal jeopardy by his sense of honest purpose, eventually accepting that he has been ‘incredibly stupid’ in more ways than one.
There is a popularly quoted saying in the US: ‘the Supreme Court follows the election returns’. In other words, since the administration of law is a function of the nation-state, legal systems and concepts of justice derive from political forms. That complicates matters even for democratic societies in peacetime. What Boom finds himself pursuing through a maze of lies and the fog of war is evidence (much of which has gone up in smoke) for a proposed trial where mass killing, including the ethnic cleansing of civilians, has followed the splitting-up of a composite nation-state into mutually aggrieved smaller nations with conflicting notions of justice. It is a task which, adventitiously, takes in the tracking of a major war criminal whom readers will recognise as a fictional avatar of Radovan Karadžić.
To this ambitious novel, a serious thriller which I recommend without hesitation, Turow has added an Author’s Note which can be instructive in understanding the process by which a novelist relates an invented story to historical reality. That also requires integrity.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Scott Turow, Testimony (Mantle: London, 2017). 978-1509843329, 483pp., hardback.
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