Awesome symbols, the Crescent and the Cross;Such is the tragic history of the Balkans that this century-old Serbian poem continues to be relevant and hold true today. While most of us remember the more recent tragic events of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the massacre at Srebrenica, time has perhaps dulled the pain from equally horrific realities during the World War II. Camp Jasenovac relates to every Bosnian on the same scale as Auschwitz does to every German. The “great majority of the victims at Jasenovac had been Serbs killed by the ultranationalist Ustasha, a faction of Croats.” The Ustasha, who soon linked hands with the Nazis, were so brutal in their killings that it “shocked even the Nazis who had huffily written to Berlin to complain about the barbarity.”
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 or the other.
Dan Fesperman’s novel The Small Boat of Great Sorrows links these two “stains” on the Balkan conscience through war crimes perpetrators in each: a Serb perpetrator of war crimes at Srebrenica, Marko Andric, and an old Bosnian general responsible for genocide at Jasenovac, Pero Matek. The French have decided to help arrest the former if the War Crimes Tribunal can take care of the latter. Fesperman’s detective, Vlado Petric, is back after his appearance in Lie in the Dark, Fesperman’s critically acclaimed debut.
At the beginning of the novel, we find Petric trying to make a new life in the West by working on a construction site in (newly undivided) Berlin. While he is not entirely comfortable in his new home away from Bosnia, it is where his wife and daughter are happy. His daughter is a “Berliner", his wife reminds Vlado, “she likes bratwurst and döner kebap and those little chocolate eggs with toys in the middle.” Perhaps symbolically, during one of his construction gigs, Vlado unearths a Nazi wartime bunker, only to have the authorities direct Vlado to hastily bury their shameful past. His own past comes chasing after him when American Calvin Pine, an official with the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, knocks at his door and requests Vlado’s help in tracking down Pero Matek. Vlado will be used as lure to bring Matek out; his police officer background will only help matters. Vlado shakily accepts. It is a chance to revisit his homeland, all while contributing to a good cause.
Of course, within a matter of days, Vlado finds that he has been chosen because he has a more personal relationship to the case—the nature of the revelation is one that shatters him deeply and ultimately keeps him moving in the face of overwhelming odds. Vlado and his colleague Pine travel to Bosnia, and their assignment takes them to Italy. There Vlado eventually confronts his own past and, in the process, finds that for most Bosnians history is often irrevocably tied to one’s own.
Fesperman moves his novel along at different levels that will delight many readers. At its most basic, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows is a good, fast-paced thriller. Early on in Berlin, Vlado helps some friends hide a murder they have committed inadvertently. This dark skeleton in his closet haunts Vlado through the book, and Fesperman paints both the botched job in Berlin and its subsequent nagging repercussions very well. The dark characters sometimes come across as caricatures of the good cop-bad cop variety, but they fit the bill and move the plot along smoothly. At another level, Fesperman forces his novel to be a bit of a moral fable. He sneaks in the ironies of modern-day governing into the narrative and chides America for its “meddling” often where least needed: “We Americans like to personalize our conflicts,” says a character in the book. “Makes it easier to sell them to the vox populi. Stalin. Saddam. Slobodan. They all have a certain ring to them, don’t you think?” “Perhaps this was Bosnia’s future,” Vlado complains once, “a conflict that would mature from a bludgeoning match to a sneaky and surgical meddling.”
Fesperman has skillfully crafted a fast-paced detective story, a fable with a moral, and a history lesson all molded into one packet. After some delightfully tense moments, all ends well, and Vlado discovers some new dimensions to his family’s past. In tracking down a war criminal and in confronting his own past, Vlado learns an age-old lesson: The truth in a telling depends entirely on the teller.
The problem with history is that versions can be changed, rewritten, and “twisted” around to one’s own personal devices. It is easy to get caught in its complicated tentacles, in its vast “wilderness of mirrors.” Luckily for us, we have Vlado Petric to show us the way out and to expertly separate fact from fiction.