Book Review: Scott Turow disappoints and affronts in Testimony

Few can match Scott Turow’s writing and storytelling abilities. Very few. Over the years he spoiled us with his prose, his canny insight, his attention to detail. His freshman work, One L, was a must-read for a generation of law students. Some of the courtroom scenes in Presumed Innocent are as riveting as they are authentic. And Identical, his last novel before his recently released Testimony, was a true masterpiece, capturing all the nuances of Greek and Greek-American culture.

So, with deep regret, I suggest that if you were looking to escape (or vacate as I put it) from the daily pressures with a good novel – especially one that may hit close to home – Turow’s Testimony is not one of them.  If you have yet to set off for the beach, pull it from your bag and grab something else (perhaps the new John Grisham novel, Camino Island) desist from buying it at the airport while waiting for your flight, and refrain from gifting it to a friend or colleague. Harsh warnings, but I think justifiable.

Testimony disappoints because the plot is absurd and unrealistic. Without going into detail (some may rush out to read this book in spite or because of this review), the plot of the novel is that something happens (a situation) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which for some incomprehensible reason cannot be handled by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) or the Mechanism for International Tribunals (MICT), and therefore ends up at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Since the alleged events have the potential of implicating the United States (US) military stationed in BiH as part of the Dayton Accord peacekeeping force, a former US prosecutor who has just abandoned a very lucrative private practice to navel-gaze (as one would do having had enough of raking in the spoils from working in a large firm that generally represents eco-polluters, stock-market manipulators, wealthy land developers prone to illicit business activities, etc), is coaxed into taking a position with the ICC Office of the Prosecutor (OTP). Our protagonist/hero parachutes into the ICC and in a matter of 3-4 days he finds himself in court before the Pre-Trial Chamber, questioning the key (and only witness) to the situation, and while waiting for the Pre-Trial Chamber to decide whether a formal investigation can be conducted, traipses into BiH a few times to investigate and suss out this situation.

In the mix we have Roma, Americans, a Belgian investigator who constantly speaks in Aussie (Australian) slang, a self-deprecating US military contractor who describes herself as “bull dyke cross-dressing half-breed” and is incapable of uttering a sentence that is not laced with superfluous profane parentheticals and clichés, a supposed United Kingdom (UK) Roma barrister with spell-binding seductive powers, an Indonesian-Dutch defense lawyer (after all, much of the story takes place in The Netherlands so why not throw a former colonial subject into the mix), and, of course, Serbs, or shall we say, Chetniks.

What would a story that takes place in BiH be without the demonic and genocidal Serbs doing a bit of mayhem or being in the center of some humanitarian drama or illicit activity?

This is what affronts. But first, a few more words on what disappoints.

Turow provides a disclaimer at the end of the novel where he tells us he has taken some artistic liberties, though he supposedly consulted with some folks at the ICC and even some defense counsel. And in the story he does try to find a way – albeit unconvincingly – to explain why the situation, which by all credible accounts should be before the ICTY or MICT, can only be before the ICC – an institution that cannot be trusted to give American soldiers a fair shake.

Fair enough. Facts, as does the truth, sometimes get in the way of a good story. We all expect to be entertained, which is why we often are all too willing to suspend reality – even when we are reading a novel or watching a film about international justice or a courtroom drama.

But good storytelling should not be so ludicrous and so twisting that when pitched to the unsophisticated listener or reader, it risks creating a false historical or legal narrative, an illusion masquerading as authenticity. Not when the storyteller is of Turow’s caliber and reputation. A story that takes place in BiH after all the tragedy that has unfolded, after all the efforts to find peace and co-existence, after all that we know from the trials at the ICTY, which, I might add, has not been even-handed with all sides to the conflict, should, at the very least, have a semblance of realism. It should also be sensitive, so as not to unfairly offend or demonize any particular group of people or ethnicity. This is how misinformation unwittingly – and often wittingly – fosters prejudice, intolerance, and false historical narratives. Turow’s treatment of the Serbs is all the more ironic when juxtaposed against his appropriate sensitivity and attempt at even-handedness regarding the Roma.

Maybe I am being excessively “PC,” as we say in the US – politically correct. Maybe I find too much fault with Turow’s simplifications and generalizations because I lived and worked in BiH and have spent the better part of 16 years at the ICTY and other tribunals. Maybe I expect art to imitate life and for narratives of events that have the potential to mischaracterize and misdirect the truth to be carefully nuanced. Maybe I am being overly judgmental, unreasonably sensitive, excessively grouchy. As a reader, my entertainment should not come at the expense of plausibility and correctness.

Obviously, Turow wanted to find a hook for using the ICC and perhaps draw attention to the fact that the US is not a member of the ICC, but is willing to play along when it suits them. He obviously wanted to bring attention to the plight of the Roma, though his descriptions of them are often less than flattering, sometimes inaccurate, and heavily stereotypical. And who knows what he may have read or been advised about the war in the former Yugoslavia and in particular in BiH. He seemed keen to touch on various players ranging from Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić (wrapped in one), Željko Ražnatović (better known as Arkan) and his infamous Tigers, and, of course, the Chetniks – a pejorative for Serbs (referring to the Serbian nationalist guerrilla force during World War II that resisted the Axis invaders and Croatian collaborators but also fought a civil war against the Yugoslav communist guerrillas, the Partisans, headed by Tito).

Now if Turow wanted his protagonist to be from the mythical Kindle County, then why not invent a mythical country for this incident? Or, if BiH is to be used, at least make the setting plausible. Why not spend more time figuring out the ICC and ICTY/MICT?  Why portray the ICC Prosecutor, the OTP investigators, and what have you, so unrealistically, so as to make a mockery of them? He obviously should have spent more time researching the details because many of his errors detract from his story.

Making things up is good storytelling. But where I draw the line is his description of events in BiH. Turow would have us believe that, as late as 2015, there were Serbian paramilitaries, thugs, police officers, and civilians – all of whom he conveniently though rather outrageously, lumps together as Chetniks. Of course, on the receiving end are the Roma, which is strange and unrealistic since the situation in BiH from 2004-2015 was safe and quiet. There are also more than subtle hints that the Chetniks were at it with the Muslims, whom he sometimes calls Bosnians and sometimes gets it right and properly refers to them as Bosniaks. Also, there is no such thing as a Bosnian Serb (there are Serbs from BiH).

This is the affront: the gratuitous Serb-bashing, primarily resulting from ignorance and insensitivity; using them as a punching bag, stereotyping them, and generalizing about their character or activities.

Turow crafts a mythical story as a vehicle to highlight some injustices but in the process demonizes the Serbs. He engages in soft propaganda: weaving into his story a version of the Standard Total View of the deplorable nature of the Serbs (or, the Chetniks, as his characters so fondly refer to the bad and the ugly Serbs who are most likely behind anything nefarious in BiH).

Turow, I am convinced, chose his subjects very carefully. Regrettably, what he writes about his chosen period in BiH (2004-2015) is so out-of-character that it insults, denigrates, and perpetuates the reprehensible demonization of Serbs. It fits a narrative that no doubt will be well received by some in BiH and elsewhere; a narrative we have been told in the past in films such as Behind Enemy Lines, Killing Season, or The Expendables ( Mickey Rourke in an emotional scene reminiscing how “we took down the Serbian bad boys“). This is a narrative, however, that is far from accurate, but that lends itself to artistic license even if it inflicts pain and casts aspersions on the Serbian population at large.

I struggled to finish Testimony.  In fact, after reading the prologue, which I found farcical (the events, that is) I had a mind to put it down. Soldiering through, however, was no picnic. I found the plot absurd, the dialogue forced and at times over-the-top, many of the descriptions of places and events to be inaccurate, and, as I noted, the book was insulting in its generalizations, descriptions, and treatment of the Serbs.

I could go on, but what’s the point? As much as it pains me, this is the one Turow novel I cannot recommend.    

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

1 thought on “Book Review: Scott Turow disappoints and affronts in Testimony”

  1. Thoughtful, thorough and excellent review from someone who knows what he’s talking about. No way am I going to buy or read this book, much as I generally like Turow’s novels. Thank you for the heads up, Michael!

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