The Small Boat of Great Sorrows

( 1 )

Overview

Vlado Petric, a former homicide detective in Sarajevo, is now living in exile, and making a meagre living working at a Berlin construction site, when an American investigator for the International War Crimes Tribunal recruits him to return home on a mission. The assignment sounds simple enough. He is to help capture an aging Nazi collaborator who has become a war profiteer. But nothing is simple in the Balkans: Petric is also being used as bait to lure his quarry into the open, and when the operation goes sour he...

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Overview

Vlado Petric, a former homicide detective in Sarajevo, is now living in exile, and making a meagre living working at a Berlin construction site, when an American investigator for the International War Crimes Tribunal recruits him to return home on a mission. The assignment sounds simple enough. He is to help capture an aging Nazi collaborator who has become a war profiteer. But nothing is simple in the Balkans: Petric is also being used as bait to lure his quarry into the open, and when the operation goes sour he is drawn across Europe into a dangerous labyrinth of secret identities, stolen gold, and horrifying discoveries about his own family’s past.

Intelligent and suspenseful, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows brings together chilling crimes, the lies people live and the cold facts of international politics into a masterful, electrifying thriller.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Deft and gripping. . . . Impeccably written and ably plotted. . . . The action is more or less nonstop.” —The New York Times Books Review

“A literary thriller with historical persepctive. . . . A relentlessly crackling mystery and adventure tale. . . Fesperson’s prose is vivid, almost breakneck in pace. . . . His descriptions of people and places are crisp, precise and memorable.” —The Baltimore Sun

“A modern-day Odyssey that leads its hero through the harrowing Kafkaesque lanscapes of postwar Bosnia and post-Cold War Europe . . . A literary detective novel that thrills as much as it evokes admiration for the prose.” —The Charlotte Observer

"A keep-'em-guessing plot, littered with hidden treasures, international intrigue, lusty old Croatian thugs, and late-night crypt openings." —Entertainment Weekly

“A wonderful book. . . . Timely, thoughtful and vividly written.” –The Seattle Times

“A new standard for war-based thrillers.” –The Los Angeles Times

“A dark and morally complex novel.” –The Daily Telegraph

“A haunting sense of place and enough twists and turns to make the reader giddy. . . . This is not an ordinary thriller and this is enforced by the precision and the quality of the writing. Fesperman’s . . . first-hand experience of war reporting and exhaustive research shine through.” –The Birmingham Post

“[An] ambitious, morally complex thriller.” –The Observer

“Fesperman tells his atmospheric tale with great elegance . . . [and] a sharp analytical curiosity.” –The Guardian

“[A] fine follow-up to the equally fine Lie in the Dark.” –The Orlando Sentinel

“A well-paced tale of deceit, manipulation and double-crossing.” –The Spectator

The New York Times
Fesperman evokes the feel of Vlado's beloved Sarajevo -- ravaged but functioning and maybe even a little bored with this unfamiliar state known as peacetime -- magnificently … Fesperman's biggest contribution to his genre may be his discovery of the narrative potential of the Balkans. Cold war Europe, with its shadowy deceptions and murky defections, has a worthy successor in this land of divided loyalties and uncomfortably overlapping layers of violent history. — Jonathan Mahler
Publishers Weekly
"The past isn't dead, it isn't even past," said William Faulkner about the American South. That goes double for the former Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1998, at the start of this chilling, accomplished espionage novel, the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague decides to pick up a wanted Serbian general, Andric. As a quid pro quo, the French want Pero Matek, a Croatian war criminal from WWII, lifted from Bosnia, where he has become a minor capo. Calvin Pine, from the tribunal, travels to Berlin to contact Vlado Petric, a Bosnian migr and former Sarajevo detective. Taking leave of his wife and daughter, Vlado is debriefed at The Hague, then sent with Pine to post-conflict Sarajevo. Vlado has a secret: some acquaintances of his in Berlin had recently murdered a Serbian war criminal, Popovic, and Vlado helped them dispose of the corpse. At the tribunal, a sinister American named Harkness has been referring enigmatically to Popovic's "disappearance." In Sarajevo, Pine reveals the real reason Vlado was chosen to set up Matek-unbeknownst to Vlado, his late father was an associate of Matek's during WWII. The setup fails; Matek escapes. Following Matek to Italy, Vlado and Pine rendezvous with a former American army intelligence agent, Robert Fordham, who is edgily paranoid. Fordham claims there's a deep connection between the Croats and American intelligence. Just how deep becomes clear as the pair close in on Matek. This tight, intelligent thriller by the author of the well-received Lie in the Dark chillingly describes a world in which justice is always a negotiation between highly compromised alternatives, and history burdens every player-except for the executioners. (Sept. 30.) Forecast: Fans of Alan Furst, John le Carr and James Buchan are the natural audience for this fine sophomore effort. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent and crime novelist Fesperman (the award-winning Lie in the Dark, 1999) brilliantly re-creates Cold War chill in post-Bosnian Europe. Former Yugoslav detective Vlado Petric fled the sniper terror in Sarajevo to find peace if not proper employment in Berlin, where he had sent his wife and daughter for the duration of the Bosnian bloodletting. The post-unification building boom in the German capital provides plenty of unskilled jobs for refugees, and Vlado would be perfectly happy to stay in Prussia and run his frontloader. But the international war crimes tribunal has other plans for him. American Calvin Pine drops into the Petric flat with an offer Vlado finds hard to refuse: the chance to capture Croatian Pero Matek, a major mobster with crimes in the present conflict and in WWII, when he served as a ruthless soldier for the fascist Ustasha. Pine thinks Vlado's knowledge of the territory will make Matek's arrest a simple matter. But nothing is simple in the Balkans. Vlado agrees to come only after his involvement in the disposal of the corpse of another Yugo-nasty makes Berlin too hot for him. Back in Sarajevo with Pine, Vlado begins to open not just Matek's past but his own and, more particularly, his father's. It seems Pine and his shadowy associates wanted Vlado for more than his linguistic skills. Their documents reveal Vlado's supposedly Muslim father to have been a Croatian associate of the vile Matek and a possible participant in WWII atrocities. It is no surprise to Vlado when the capture of Matek quickly goes sour and the quarry goes south. Nor is it a surprise that Matek's rural retreat was booby-trapped, causing the death of one of the goodguys. What is surprising is the past revealed in Vlado and Pine's unauthorized follow-up on Matek, an effort that takes them to Italy and the murky world of the Croatian diaspora. And the corpse back in Berlin? It keeps popping up. Pray for more. Agent: Jane Chelius
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400030477
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/14/2004
  • Series: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Series , #2
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 699,951
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Dan Fesperman is a journalist for The Baltimore Sun and served in its Berlin bureau, covering Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia during their civil conflicts. He won the 1999 John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for Lie in the Dark. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and now lives with his family in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

November 1998

Down in the mud of central Berlin you never knew what you might find. Last week it had been an American bomb, as long and fat as a giant bratwurst. A poor fellow from Poland poked it with a shovel and the whole thing went up. Five more fatalities for the casualty lists of World War II, courtesy of a B-17 that hadn't flown for half a century.

Then there was the corpse, or the skeleton, rather, that rose from the ground on the yellow teeth of a backhoe. Probably nobody famous. Just a Russian from 1945 who never made it home, judging by the buttons, the boots, and the rusty helmet. Two efficient men in sport coats and ties hauled him away in a black plastic bag.

Barbed wire turned up, too, on this landscape of accidental archaeology, but that was of a more recent vintage, left by the East Germans in the path of their long and formidable wall. And sometimes when Vlado Petric trudged through the ooze, he pondered all the German shepherds that had patrolled this narrow strip of land, day after day, year after year. Plenty of their leftover shit mixed in the mire, he supposed, and for all those reasons he spent ten minutes at the end of each workday cleaning the waffled soles of his boots with a screwdriver, prying loose the mud. It was the richest sediment of twentieth-century misery the world had to offer, and he had no wish to track it home. He'd tramped enough to his doorstep already, nearly five years earlier, as one of the hundreds of thousands of Bosnians who'd escaped their own war for some quieter venue across Europe's sagging theme park of history.

So, when Vlado and Tomas Petrowski mounted backhoes Monday morning to dig into the muck of Potsdamer Platz, they knew there was always a chance they would unearth some history, even though they were construction workers, not archaeologists. They were the merest of drones, in fact, two among thousands on a landscape that Berlin's boosters were billing as the world's largest construction site. Not since Albert Speer unrolled his blueprints for Hitler had the city witnessed such architectural hubris, and tourists with nothing better to do could pay a few deutsche marks to climb the stairs of a red building on stilts at the heart of it all. Indoors there were photos, maps, and charts to see. But the real attraction was out in the elements atop a switchback of corrugated metal stairs. It was a high viewing platform where you could stand in the wind and rain to marvel at it all, to watch the city be transformed from the inside out, as if an alien spaceship had uprooted a massive high-rise shard of downtown Dallas, and dropped it onto the belly of old Europe.

If you stood there that Monday morning with a set of binoculars, you might have picked out Vlado and Tomas as they went to work, marching toward their backhoes, almost emulating a goose step as they picked their way through the slurping ooze, yellow hard hats bobbing. They were a few hundred yards from the green edge of the Tiergarten, Tomas a short and stubby Pole with the golden hair and beard of a Viking, Vlado of medium build and measured expression, clipped dark hair above deep-set brown eyes, a face that strived mightily to give away nothing. Each wore jeans and a flannel shirt bought from the battered metal stalls of outdoor markets on a gray Saturday morning, and each knew how lucky he was to be working for twelve D-marks an hour, with all the right papers and documents to make it legal.

Neither spoke the other's language, but both spoke enough German to grunt and nod their way through a day on the job. Their task was simple enough. Other men drove stakes and markers into the ground, then Vlado and Tomas dug trenches and holes between them, generally working straight through until lunch. At noon they carried brown bags to benches in some damp birch glade of the Tiergarten, as calm and green as an Alpine meadow, then ate their sandwiches and apples, watching rucksacked legions of young Germans glide past on bicycles.

But this morning, if you'd been patient with your binoculars up there on the viewing platform, you might have noticed an interruption in their routine, shortly before ten, when they shut down their engines and dismounted.

Tomas had found something.

The jagged mouth of his backhoe had struck a slab of buried concrete, and out here that meant you'd made a discovery. The rules were clear on what to do next, and both were careful about knowing the rules.

"Who's going to tell them?" Vlado asked in his halting German.

Tomas shrugged. Somewhere in the warren of trailers where the supervisors sat was a keeper of old maps who could put a name to what they'd found. And somewhere in a ministry nearby, in a room with rolled yellowed charts bearing faded swastikas, there was an authority on this subterranean history, an expert in naming and classifying every hibernation chamber where men in gray had once hunkered down for defeat. He was always the one who decided how to proceed, and so far his decisions had never varied: Rebury it and keep building.

"Maybe it is not something to report," Tomas said, knowing as the words left his mouth that he was wrong.

Vlado's answer seemed to take them both by surprise. "I think maybe you're right. Let's make sure it's worth reporting. Let's investigate."

A half century earlier such disobedience would have earned each of them a bullet in the head. Now, labor rules being what they were, the consequences would scarcely exceed a tongue-lashing as long as everyone's immigration papers were in order. Few Germans would work for these wages anymore, no matter how high the unemployment rate, which is why thousands of Poles, Irishmen, Scotsmen, Russians, and others streamed every morning to this grand amphitheater of mud. Bodies had become too valuable to spare on this front line, especially with companies like Sony and Daimler waiting eagerly to move in.

So, Vlado and Tomas climbed aboard their machines and went back to work, grinning as they heaved and shoved at the earth to expose more of the slab, fighting down a panicky sense that they might be stopped at any moment. Within an hour they uncovered the top of a door. An hour later they reached the bottom, and by 1 p.m., having forgotten about lunch altogether, they'd completed a sloping trench that would let them reach it on foot. It was then, with stomachs growling, that they finally shut down their engines and dismounted again, sweating in the cold, stunned by the sudden silence.

They glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then descended the mud passage and pushed against a heavy steel door—once, twice, then a third time, ready to give up until it began groaning open against the concrete floor. Leaning with their shoulders, they pushed it further ajar, the air issuing from it like the stale breath of a tomb. Then, breathing rapidly, they stepped into the damp chill of May 1945.

Vlado flicked his cigarette lighter to reveal a mural on the opposite wall, as bright and fresh as if it had been painted the day before. The flickering light played across the faces of rugged SS men, dapper in pressed uniforms, standing watch over blond wives and blue-eyed children, a sunny tableau of Aryan comfort for this gray day in November.

Vlado and Tomas might well have spoken, but their new language tended to fail them at moments like this, as if they'd misplaced the manual for some particularly unwieldy tool. But both knew they'd gone far enough, and Tomas strode off to fetch the foreman. Vlado waited in silence, wondering what sort of ghosts might yet lurk in a place where the concrete walls still smelled wet and new after half a century underground.

He took a deep breath, then, flicking his lighter again, walked across the floor into a second room, where he found a row of low iron beds with thin mattresses. Steel lockers lined the opposite wall, but Vlado's eyes were drawn to a yellow-and-black inscription on the door, a lightning-bolt insignia of the SS. Above the door were German words in Gothic script. It took a second for him to translate: THERE ARE MANY PEOPLE, BUT FEW GOOD MEN.

Vlado stepped slowly, as if there might be someone asleep just around the corner. None of the noise from above could make its way down here, and he felt a weight on his chest, a change in air pressure, or perhaps it was all in his head. His flannel shirt was damp with sweat, cooling against his skin.

There was one last room, and he stepped inside. It was emptied of furniture, with a mural on the wall, only this one was a map, a meticulous paint job of the Nazi empire at its zenith. Germany lay at the center in red, her spidery borders encompassing Austria and Czechoslovakia and half of Poland. Beyond it, slanting red stripes covered captured lands—Hungary, Scandinavia, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as much of France, the Soviet Union, and the Balkans. He found his own land, the old name "Jugoslavia," and, to the upper left, "Kroatien," for the puppet fascist statelet of wartime Croatia, its borders encompassing most of what was now Bosnia. His home city merited a black pinprick, and he touched the careful lettering for "Sarajewo," the concrete chilly, its surface just bumpy enough that he could imagine the mountains themselves were beneath his fingertips. How odd to feel a stab of homesickness from this map of conquest, yet, if he closed his eyes, he knew he would see old women in kerchiefs and long dimije skirts scuffing down dirt lanes, bent men in wool caps seated atop mule carts piled with hay, wheels creaking. For the most part Vlado had been raised a city boy, but farms and villages were always only a valley away, and they were the places that called to him now. Strange, he knew, especially down here in this well of captive darkness. Enough to make him feel like a homesick old peasant who'd never been five miles beyond the milking shed.

The sound of a voice made him jump. A column of chattering men was approaching the door down the slope of the muddy trench, and he retraced his steps to the bunker entrance just in time to see a foreman in a hard hat squeezing through the opening, looking hurried and embarrassed, chattering rapidly in German, loud voice going hollow as he entered. Accompanying him was a tall, balding man in a suit, shod in Italian loafers caked with mud. Tomas was behind them, looking scolded, saying nothing. The second man unrolled a blueprint in the beam of the foreman's flashlight, everyone's breath misting in the ancient air. The man needed merely a glance before he found what he was looking for. He poked at an upper corner of the map while shaking his head slowly as if disappointed in them all.

"Ja," the construction boss said. "Hier." And from their expressions Vlado gathered this was a well-known place.

"Der Fahrerbunker," the man in the suit mumbled.

"Fuhrerbunker?" said the foreman, eyebrows raised in panic. He looked ready to flee.

"Nein, du bloder Idiot! Fahrer."

Drivers, in other words. Chauffeurs. This had been the home for the SS men who drove around the generals and the chiefs of staff. But with nowhere left to drive in the springtime rubble of 1945 they had mostly stayed here, awaiting the end. Vlado had heard of the place. It had been unearthed a few years ago and resealed, lest it become a shrine for neo-Nazis. This was not the sort of tourist attraction the locals wanted in the heart of the new Berlin.

"Bury it," the man announced in German, rolling up his blueprint with a disdainful flourish. "And next time," he said, eyes aimed straight at Vlado, "come to me before you go this far. We already knew of this place. There was no need for all this."

They plodded back to the surface in single file, Vlado reluctantly. He had wanted to stay a while longer, not just to poke among the relics but to get a handle on the climate, the atmosphere. Such readings seemed important when you had recently lived through two years of a siege, with death dropping from the sky like cinders from a chimney. He and his neighbors had somehow made it through, subsisting on the world's handouts of bread and beans—two winters without heat, two years without electricity or running water or glass for your windows, coffee for your breakfast, salt for your food, soap for your bath, candles for your darkness. Two years without a wife and child to keep you company. And down there in the bunker he had suddenly seemed very close again to the feel of those lonely nights, to the mood of a city where even a funeral became an invitation to gunfire from snipers who might have once called to you by name.

Surviving that qualified him as something of an expert on manmade disaster, he felt, and what better place to take comparative readings than in that damp hidey-hole. Check the barometric pressure, the relative humidity. Collect the motes of dust. How could you possibly draw such air into your lungs and not be changed in some small way, and who knew where that might lead?

Or maybe this was just the wishful thinking of a man who, for all his joy and relief in escaping a war and rejoining his family, ached to return home, or, at the very least, ached for change. Four years, ten months, and counting in this land of flat horizons, doing work that numbed him to the bone. The mountains of home had begun to seem like something out of a dusty old atlas, a fairy tale of a place, with all its crabbed problems snagged in the creases of the hills.

But as the foreman departed, Vlado felt a giddy sense that perhaps change was in the works at last, that a day already so different from all the others would only become more so.

Within an hour they had regraded the mud into a neat, level surface above the bunker. Then other workers poured a layer of new concrete, the foundation of yet another high-rise. Vlado and Tomas watched in chastened silence as they belatedly ate their sandwiches, marking the location by other points of reference, mapping it in their heads for posterity. No matter what rose here, they'd always know what lay underneath, like a dormant cell of some once virulent plague.

So this is what becomes of the ruins of war, Vlado mused, staring at the wet concrete, and he wondered if his home in Sarajevo had already been torn down and rebuilt in his absence. Or his favorite cafe. The house where he'd grown up. His office? That would be fine, considering the way so many people in it had ultimately betrayed him. Then he thought of friends, some of them dead, and of a woman he had barely met yet whom he felt he knew quite well. And as he sat on a curb to clean his boots in the gathering dusk, he took extra care in removing the day's mud. Then he brushed off his hands and walked a half mile to the long stone platform of the Unter den Linden S-Bahn station. He boarded a rattling commuter train for a forty-minute ride to the eastern reaches of the city, out to where, if you kept walking, the plains would take you all the way to the forests of Russia.

By the time he reached his stop it was dark, and it took a brisk twenty-minute stroll to reach a tall, gray high-rise where he rode an elevator to the eleventh floor. He opened a door at the end of the corridor to find an American in a suit waiting for him on the living room couch.

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Table of Contents

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Dan Fesperman

Q:Could you tell us a little about the title, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows? Where did it come from? Why did you choose it?
A:It's taken from a line in a Serbian epic poem from the 19th century, called The Mountain Wreath. It's a very nationalistic poem, full of blood and guts and a fair amount of intolerance, and in Belgrade it became a part of the cultural drumbeat leading up to war in 1991. So when I began trying to come up with a title I felt like it was the perfect place to go exploring, looking for some word or phrase to plunder. When I read it, one of the stanzas leaped out at me right away, because it seemed to sum up the heart and soul of not only the latest war but all its previous installments, going back 600 years. It's the stanza I used for the epigraph:

"Awesome symbols, the Crescent and the Cross;
Their kingdoms are the realms of graveyards.
Following them down the bloody river,
Sailing in the small boat of great sorrows,
We must honor the one of the other."

Basically the poet, Njegos, is declaring that no matter how violent or awful things get, that you still have to choose sides and stick with your own people against everyone else. Never mind all the "peace and brotherhood" propaganda. And in choosing sides, of course, you only insure further misery and sorrow. I also like the imagery of it, this idea of Bosnia as a tiny boat among the dreadnought of Europe, tiny yet freighted with an excess of pain and regret, all its passengers swept along in an irresistible current. Grim, yes, but apt.

Q:Calvin Pine left his job as a prosecutor in the Statesbecause he felt that he was not getting the real "bad guys." What does he mean by this? Does this not hold for his work for the War Crimes Tribunal? As a reporter who has covered several wars, is this a common problem? Did you feel the sense of helplessness Pine does?
A:
I think Calvin Pine says it best when he tells Vlado that he felt like he was locking up half the high schools of Baltimore. He was putting away the footsoldiers while the drug lords were staying open for business. And who were these footsoldiers, anyway, but a bunch of teenagers with no hope of a future other than what they could find on the streets. With the tribunal, at least, he was theoretically going after the guys at the top, and the crimes were genocide, torture, mass rape. You look at the indictments and you see the names of presidents, generals and commandants, so you know you're aiming high, which obviously would appeal to a disillusioned burnout like Pine. But he soon finds out, of course, that an indictment is worthless until you've actually rounded up the suspect. And he sees a bunch of NATO armies simply lolling around while these thugs zip past in their cars and scooters, drinking coffee under everyone's noses. So once again the guilty parties are escaping justice, but for a different reason.

War reporters suffer from different frustrations. If American soldiers are involved you don't have to worry about people reading your stuff, because everybody back home is paying attention. But in a place like Bosnia it was a constant struggle. The worst European slaughter since Hitler was unfolding, but Americans couldn't pronounce the names and couldn't identify with the motives, so their inclination was just to watch, not to act. People's attitude was, why risk our necks when they can't work out their own problems? You heard that a lot, so you felt like you were writing for an audience that was tuning you out.

Q:The novel addresses the question of the past and whether it is better to revive the past or let it rest. Several of your characters spend a lot of time attempting to reinvent themselves in order to escape the sins or mistakes of their past. Do you think that the people of the Balkans will ever be able to escape the sins of their history?
A:
The great tragedy of the last round of wars in the former Yugoslavia is that they very nearly did escape their past sins. If they'd lasted one more generation without war, they'd have probably made it through the next century unscathed. It has always been a point of collision for empires and faiths, of course. The Ottoman Turks versus the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs, which begot Muslim versus Christian, not to mention that on the Christian side you've always had the split between the Catholic Croats and the Eastern Orthodox Serbs. But the period that came back to haunt them in 1991 was World War II, when a lot of nationalist Catholic Croats took up arms alongside the invading Germans, killing Serbs by the hundreds of thousands. Even after Tito took over and told everyone to kiss and make up, you still had Serbian grandmas and uncles muttering over the dinner table about how you could never really trust those Croats, nor even those Bosnian Muslims, who in their eyes were no better than the Turks.
With each decade the grumbles of mistrust grew fainter, but unfortunately Tito couldn't outlive the rest of his generation, and once he died the doomsayers took over. Leaders like Milosevic were more than willing to capitalize on all the revived paranoia, and this time it was the Serbs who lashed out first, and once the killing started the whole nasty cycle was back in motion -- murder, retribution and murder, like a wheel rolling down a hill. As an outsider witnessing the mess you can't help but re-examine the old Santayana quote which has always been presented as such unassailable wisdom -- the one about those not remembering history being doomed to repeat it. Well, as Calvin Pine points out, in Yugoslavia they probably did a little too much remembering, stirring up old hatreds until a whole group of people felt it had to kill or be killed. So, sure, Santayana was right in the sense that you don't want to repeat past mistakes. But maybe he was wrong in singling out remembrance. It's no so much whether you remember your history, it's whether you're smart enough or tolerant enough to learn from it, instead of simply wanting to avenge it.

Q:One character describes America as a place where "history is pretty much, well, history. People are too worried about their jobs and their sports teams and whatever's on cable that night to be shooting each other over something that happened 50 years ago, much less 600." Do you think America has suffered in any way as a result of this attitude?
A:
I think we're suffering from it right now. There's a real myopia in America, a limited and insular point of view which says we only have to worry about our own affairs and look out for ourselves, and all that matters is the here and now. Part of this is understandable, simply because it's such a big country with so many diverse interests, and there's an ocean on either side of us. You see it in sports, for example -- who cares about the World Cup when we've got the Super Bowl and the World Series? Compare that to living in Europe, where you have to pay attention to other places simple because everybody is cheek to jowl, jammed into the same old and crowded bed. No country can even sneeze without its neighbor catching a cold. Here people in, say, Ohio, don't even care what's happening in Wyoming, much less in some place like Belgium or Burma, so no one pays attention. Then along comes 9-11, and suddenly everyone is screaming, "Why do they hate us?" If people had been keeping track of the world around them, or to the events of the recent past, they would have already known the answer. And now here we are again, having gone to war pretty much on our own, with an attitude that says if the rest of the world doesn't like it then that's their problem.
We've also chosen to ignore some pretty stern lessons of history -- our own history in Vietnam, plus the experience of the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya. All three of those conflicts would seem to caution against trying to forcefully remake an entire nation in your own image. And should we really be so shocked that thousands of Arab fighters are heeding the call for suicide duty in Iraq, after we helped finance the same sort of international call to arms two decades ago in Afghanistan? When a country spends most of its time looking inward, and isn't inclined to re-examine either its own past or anyone else's, then you've got to expect not only some blunders, but some resentment from outsiders.

Q:The role of the international community in Bosnia is viewed in this novel as very suspect. Can you talk a little about the competing interests and how they affect both the characters in the book and the people of Bosnia?
A:
The problem with international involvement anywhere, no matter how necessary and how well-intended, is that there is virtually no such thing as pure altruism. The 19th-century missionaries who spread so much aid and literacy through the undeveloped world were also trying to drum up converts -- not just to Christianity but to a certain way of life, right down to the way people dressed and the food they ate. In Bosnia you can overlay a lot of national agendas -- if you want to be our buddy you've got to kick out those guys -- and these competing interests can create problems the local population never dreamed of. In Bosnia, to give you one example, the Muslim-majority government was so desperate for military help during the war that they invited in a bunch of Islamic mujahedeen volunteers from Afghanistan, Morocco, you name it. They tended to be good fighters, but it wasn't long before they were wearing out their welcome, mostly by trying to impose their brand of Islam on a few towns and villages. Balkan-style Islam was and still is a very secularized brand, and no manner of scolding is going to convince most Bosnians to give up their chain-smoking, their dancing, their gambling or their plum brandy, and plenty of women like to wear short skirts. But these mujahedeen fellows would come into a town and smash up a bar, or slash a few mini-skirts. When peace came, you had 24,000 American troops arriving, and the officers worried that these holdover fighters would become a problem for them as well. They worried with good reason. There turned out to be a minor al-Qaeda cell in Sarajevo. In addition, with any huge aid bureaucracy, like the kind you've had in Bosnia, you're going to have elements of graft and corruption which will feed the local market for organized crime. That said, people in Bosnia tend to look at the overwhelming presence of the "internationals" in their midst with both relief and resentment. They resent that foreigners have so much control, not to mention the majority of good jobs. But many of them don't yet trust their own leaders to do the job, believing that another war would break out almost the minute the internationals departed. Vlado's gripe is mostly with the inherent condescension, the idea that all of these people from other countries are sure that they know what's best not just for his country but for him as well. They talk down to him, sometimes without realizing it. And they expect him to laugh along when they make little jokes about his people, as if, by having been accepted among the outsiders of the tribunal, he has elevated himself above the status of mere Bosnian. It rankles, although he'd be among the first to recognize the mess that his people have made of their country.

Q:Early on in the novel, Vlado learns some troubling facts about his father's past that lead him to re-evaluate everything he thought to be true about his father and childhood. How well do you think children can ever really know or understand their parents?
A:
Children see their parents through such a narrow lens, and from such a selfish point of view, that they're bound to misread them, and they'll rarely get to know them in the way that other people will. It's not wrong, or even a flaw in the relationship, it's just the nature of being a child. These are the people who provide for you, but also the ones who punish you and set your limits, so if the relationship gets rocky your parents could be Albert Schweitzer and Margaret Mead, yet to you they're going to be the most despotic dolts on the planet. On the other, if they're kind and loving and fair, for most of your life you'll regard them as beyond reproach, even if they happen to be charter members of the Ku Klux Klan, especially if you end up sharing their intolerance. It's only when you're older that you begin to discover your parents as human beings, as creatures that live in a wider world than your own, especially once you have children of your own. And this is where Vlado is in his life. He's got a daughter. He has just lived through a war. And he has also reached that point at which many children begin re-examining their parents lives through a fresh eye, that of a parent. They remember stories they've heard all their lives and start seeing them in a different light, with a more complex meaning. But even then they can never quite give up the child's point of view, and that's what Vlado runs up against when he's trying to reconcile his image of this quiet, caring man with that of a ruthless guy who, it would seem, was willing to kill people simply because those were his orders, or on behalf of a political cause.

Q:The truth gets thrown around a lot in this story; about history and people. No account it seems, even those with a government seal on it, is completely reliable. What then arewe meant to believe?
A:
I suppose we're meant to believe that we can only trust what we see with our own eyes, and even that isn't always what it seems. And that we should be especially wary when we're dealing with the historical record. So much of what is written as history depends on point of view, the biases of the writer. The winners of wars tend to dictate how the histories are written, so the accounts often lose their subtleties until a later generation takes a fresh assessment. When Vlado discovers that his vision of his father's past has been a lie, he delves into the historical record only to find that it, too, has been tweaked and doctored by various people with their own motives and their own secrets. That's one reason I had one of the dubious diplomats in the book, Paul Harkness, bring up the old "wilderness of mirrors" phrase coined by spymaster James Angleton, who plays a bit part himself. Angleton was referring to the baffling terrain of espionage, but the term might just as easily be applied to the nether regions of history. Vlado follows his father's trail into one of those regions -- the shadowland between World War II and the Cold War, when someone might be deemed a good guy one day and a bad guy the next, and when war criminals with the right anti-Red credentials could sometimes bargain their way to safety. When looking for truth in places like that one always has to dig through layers, just as Vlado does. You could compare it to taking a core sample from the sediment of a riverbed. If you choose to focus on one layer only, you'll misread the entire geology. You have to look at the whole, the patterns, the changes from one year to the next. It's what you do as a war reporter as well, drawing opinions and accounts from various people about the same event. All of them will likely be flawed, but the whole can provide a semblance of reality. The truth remains elusive, but with enough work you can generally close in on an approximation, and this is what Vlado manages to accomplish.

Q:What led you to write a story about war and its aftermath? And what, if any, lessons would you like readers today to take from it?
A:War brings out the absolute best and worst in people. They have to make choices that they'd otherwise never face, and the concept of sacrifice literally becomes a matter of life and death. A self-serving betrayal which in civilian life might cost a friend a job, might in wartime cost several thousand people their lives. As horrible and violent and even unnecessary as many wars are, all are wonderfully unbiased tools of identification. If someone is a scoundrel in disguise, a glad-hander who has been fooling his friends for years, the circumstances of war will tend to eventually expose him as a fraud. Obviously this offers a lot of opportunities for fiction. By offering your characters choices, little moments of truth, you can strip away their poses. I don't suppose there is any moral or lesson to all this, though. If I set out to teach a lesson I'd stray pretty quickly into polemics. Which isn't to say readers won't come away with some lesson. They're welcome to their conclusions, even ones which I might not agree with.

Q:This novel is set in the recent past. Do you think it reflects the Bosnia of the present? How do you see the future of Bosnia playing out?
A:
The Bosnia of the present still has a huge international presence running the show, with a lot of the tensions and hidden agendas mentioned in the book. But I think it is generally a much safer, more stable place, if only because of the conclusion of the war next door in Kosovo, and the subsequent removal and prosecution of Milosevic from Belgrade. Organized crime, alas, is still deeply rooted not only in Bosnia but in Serbia as well. The recent assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic clearly demonstrated this. But each year that passes without incident strengthens the chances that peace will last. The ethnic zealots are still very much a part of the politics on all sides, and the fresh memories and aggrieved widows of the massacres will keep mistrust and hatred alive for quite some time. It will be the challenge of the next generation to outlive and ignore the chatter of their elders, who will be urging them not to trust, not to mingle, just as the elders were doing through Tito's era.

Q:And what's next for you?
A:I'm writing my next book, set in Pakistan and Afghanistan in late October of 2001. I was over there for six weeks then, and in some ways the atmosphere was quite similar to the Balkans -- a rural culture done in by war, set in rugged mountains along another one of history's fault lines, this one being the Khyber Pass. This time my main characters are a young Pakistani translator and a jaded American correspondent who most certainly is not patterned after me. For the moment, I'm on leave from my newspaper job, so there will be no trips to Iraq anytime soon, thank goodness. Covering three previous wars was quite enough. I envy the chance to witness history in the making, but I'm glad to be away from the suffering and killing, as well as the danger. It's good to be sitting this one out.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2006

    a pleasure

    he develops characters the reader really cares about. One of those books that I was sorry it ended.

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