The Small Boat of Great Sorrows
by Dan Fesperman
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
352 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
When is murder ever trivial? Merely posing that question seems to violate one of the basic tenets of crime fiction. Usually, a death investigated has some sort of meaning to somebody -- the private detective, the cop, the victim's family. A sense of outrage is felt, a sense of justice is acted upon. Yet the murders depicted in crime novels -- at least those set in affluent regions such as North America and Britain -- occur in cities and towns otherwise unaffected by extreme acts of violence like sniper fire and landmines. The horrors of war are unknown to these folk. They haven't become desensitized to death.
The wartime crime novel is nothing new; leading authors such as John Le Carré and Graham Greene once made this subgenre their own, and there have been countless novels published since -- by J. Robert Janes (Beekeeper), Phillip Kerr (March Violets), John Katzenbach (Hart's War), Joseph Kanon (The Good German) and others -- that have plundered the conflicts and atrocities of the Second World War. Yet there is always room for a new voice and a fresh approach to crime in the midst of combat.
When Lie in the Dark, the first novel from Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent Dan Fesperman, appeared on the scene back in 1999, it was showered with accolades and awards, including the UK's John Creasey Dagger for Best Debut Novel. These commendations came with good reason: The book's gripping plot, involving police corruption and art smuggling, was set against the backdrop of Bosnia in the midst of war, and showed characters dealing with hostilities that had ripped the Balkan region into fragments, exposing ethnic conflicts that had simmered beneath the surface for hundreds of years. In the story, homicide detective Vlado Petric tried desperately to maintain a sense of dignity and routine as he investigated an "ordinary" murder, all the while battling the increasingly bleak outlook as his hometown of Sarajevo faced continual fighting -- even when those who fought barely understood the underlying reasons for their battles.
Lie in the Dark finished with Vlado in a precarious position: hidden on a cargo plane headed for Frankfurt, Germany. He had escaped the numbing familiarity of war, and seemed ready to face whatever came next. But the follow-up was a long time in coming. Only now has The Small Boat of Great Sorrows emerged; fortunately, it was well worth the extended wait.
As we learn in this new novel, Vlado made it to Western soil and has relocated to Berlin, firmly reunited there with his wife and daughter (who'd escaped Bosnia more than two years before he did.) The Balkan War has ended in cease-fire, and war criminals are now captured and tried on a regular basis. Still, more than four years after escaping, Vlado's investigative skills have been shunted aside in order to support his family. But one day, when he returns home from his current job on a Berlin construction site, a stranger awaits in his living room. Calvin Pine is an American lawyer working for the Hague-based War Crimes Tribunal, and he offers Vlado an intriguing opportunity: to go back undercover to Bosnia and lure out Pero Matek, a war criminal who's been at large for more than 50 years after committing atrocities at the Bosnian camp of Jasenovac. Once captured, Matek is to be traded for Marko Andric, a Serbian general wanted for his role in the more recent massacre at Srebrenica. This is by no means an easy or thankful task, but after nearly five years away, Vlado feels the tug of his homeland:
... Vlado wasn't sure that he wanted to be reclaimed, especially if it meant going back to police work in a country where the economy had gone to hell and half the population was still nursing a grudge. It was the sort of work that tended to turn honesty into a game, a series of bargaining sessions between integrity and expedience. If you weren't careful you found yourself slapping backs and buying rounds with all the wrong people.
When he returns to Sarajevo, Vlado undergoes a series of shocks, not all to do with the changes that city has undergone since he left. His old apartment is occupied by a family of refugees from a faraway town long torn apart by warfare. Some friends remain in town, but many have moved on or died. And it turns out that Pine and his cronies at the War Crimes Tribunal kept Vlado in the dark about the true, more personal reason for his involvement in this case. Apparently, Matek and Vlado's long-deceased father were old friends, a revelation that shakes the Bosnian former cop to his very core. As a simple trade becomes increasingly complex and dangerous, past sins from a long-ago war intertwine with long-held secrets, and in the process, Vlado learns some uncomfortable -- and potentially lethal -- truths about his family.
What makes The Small Boat of Great Sorrows such a remarkable novel is the way so many different subjects are linked in such a seamless manner. This would be a fine work had only the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia been examined, and a superior one if the current strife had simply been contrasted against the ripple effects of war more than a half-century old. But Fesperman doesn't stop there. This is no ordinary tale about a nation torn by warfare, nor simply a wonderfully plotted mystery. It's also a splendid study of character, of the strain and struggle underlying familial relationships, and of how history continues to inform the decisions made today, and in the future.
Much of this story's potency and power rests on Vlado Petric's thoughts and actions, and many a novel would collapse under the weight of such a burden on the main protagonist. But Vlado is no caricature, languishing only in black-and-white brushstrokes; he exists as a wide spectrum of gray. He can be heroic, yet he's also prone to bouts of melancholy. He shutters his emotions deeply inside, yet doesn't block them out entirely. He tries to be a good husband and loving father, but the years of separation between himself and his wife, Jasmina, have taken some toll. He has to get to know her all over again, and realize that while the war stagnated his life for two years, she had to go on in her own way. Above all, Vlado Petric is a survivor, and it's his sheer ability to take what comes and step back, assess the situation and go from there that keeps him afloat as he navigates a minefield of secrets and lies. He may not always be likable, but he is a man of honor and tries to do the right thing, even when that goal seems elusive.
Ultimately, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows is about how much things change over time, and yet how little they do, as well. The events of history always inform the present -- yet, the same mistakes are repeated again and again. Family ties stay strong even after years of estrangement and duplicity. The lessons of World War II may not have resonated as deeply as they ought to have, as ethnic conflicts played such a fundamental role in the deep chasms underlying the civil wars of Yugoslavia. But where there could be bleakness, instead there is hope. When Vlado returns to his homeland, he is faced with a rush of emotions. There is sadness and loss, but also joy and possibility:
Vlado was surprised at how soon he felt at home in the streets, although every corner brought a rush of powerful memories, some from well before the war but most of them from the siege. Places where he'd seen bodies crumpled in the streets. Alleys once piled with cars as a barrier against sniper fire. Some of the steel and glass towers that had been burned out and shelled still stood empty, but no-one paid them the slightest attention. New trees sprouted near the stumps of old ones that had been chopped down for firewood.
It remains to be seen whether Vlado's future includes a permanent return to Bosnia, but that country will remain a part of him and always linger in his memory. So, too, will this book linger in the memory of the reader long after its last page has been turned. The Small Boat of Great Sorrows is a rich, absorbing work; I just hope the wait won't be nearly as long for the next step in Dan Fesperman's novel-writing career. His is an assured, confident and compassionate voice, and one that is absolutely not to be missed. | October 2003
Sarah Weinman is a regular contributor to January Magazine.