I wouldn’t have thought the premise of Testimony—the Bosnian war and the fate of a group of Roma, the long-persecuted nomadic people erroneously named “Gypsies” (they originally emigrated from India, not Egypt)—would be a subject that would interest me enough to pick up the book. But I did, and I’m glad. And although I fully acknowledge the horrors of the 1990s Balkan conflict that tore lives, and countries, asunder amid brutal ethnic cleansing, I may never again read much about it. But I put myself in the hands of attorney-author Scott Turow, and this novel captivated my attention. And now I know more than I otherwise ever would have about this strategically interesting region of the world, the people that populate it, and the political/religious/ethnic shifts that made the former Yugoslavia disappear as a nation-state.
The plot line is fairly straightforward: American Bill ten Boom, during a midlife crisis, leaves for the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands to prosecute the case of 400 Roma allegedly buried alive in a mine in 2004 post-war Bosnia. NATO peacekeeping forces had remained in the region, partly in hopes of capturing the long-elusive sociopathic, megalomaniacal ethnic butcher Laza Kajevic, one of the suspects in the mass murder (his character was based on Radovan Karadzic, recently sentenced to 40 years in prison for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity). (Actually, learning about The Hague and the international crimes tried in its courts is one of the most educational and fascinating aspects of the book.) Ten Boom’s job is to discover who committed the atrocity against the Roma and deliver the guilty party into the hands of the tribunal for punishment.
What isn’t so straightforward is figuring out the career and personal motives of the various intriguing personalities, including:
• the sole Roma survivor, Ferko Rincic, who isn’t quite what he seems, but whose testimony offers the only possibility of convicting the perpetrator;
• Rincic’s lawyer and interpreter, the Roma-born Esma Czarni, who uses her “Gypsy” wiles to seduce anyone in her path in order to get whatever she wants—and herself isn’t quite what she seems;
• Layton Merriwell, a former US major general in charge of NATO’s peacekeeping forces whose illustrious career didn’t keep him from falling into disgrace after an obsessive sexual affair (his character was based on former Iraq War general/CIA director David Petraeus);
• an Australian investigator/forensic anthropologist called Goos, without whose expertise and language skills “Boom” would be lost—and who told a horrific tale about a Muslim woman and her family that I won’t forget…but wish I could;
• Bill’s lovely and socially awkward Indonesian landlady, running partner, and practicing attorney, Narawanda Logan, who eventually leads a surprising—and indefensible?—defense team;
• the oddest character of all, an American androgynous-looking gay military woman, Sergeant Major “Attila” Doby, who becomes influential and wealthy as a defense operations coordinator after the corrupt civilian contractor was booted out by the general, to whom she is fiercely loyal;
• and, of course, Bill ten Boom himself, who does some impressive verbal sparring and strategic debating with various characters, particularly the general (I enjoyed those scenes the most)—and does somewhat less impressive, but gymnastically fascinating and obsessive sexual coupling with the Roma attorney (I enjoyed those scenes the least).
It is Boom’s incisive, if delayed, investigatory and analytical skills that unravel who did what to whom and why. And his sleuthing was not restricted to the characters in the major plot line, but also extended to his own family history.
One problem for the reader is that Turow’s exploration of these personalities and their enigmatic agendas, set against the backdrop of the Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian conflict, is often confusing. Also, the resolution is odd and not quite satisfying. Yet getting there is a stimulating, often riveting, sometimes harrowing journey through this mine scape of a story. None of the groups involved—Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, neutral NATO forces, international jurists, or American military figures—escape scrutiny. At its most insightful, the book plumbs how human virtues, or lack of them, direct the fates of not only private lives, but of the greater world.
Equal parts crime, mystery, political, war, and human-heart story, Testimony is a stimulating way to learn more about the Balkan war, but even more about the things that make good, evil, and just-plain fallible people do what they do—and how they learn to live with it.