Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Unquiet Dead: A Novel Everything about the concept of this debut novel intrigued me: a disgraced and demoted second-generation Canadian Muslim police investigator, Khattuck, finds himself investigating the suspicious death of a man who turns out to be the Bosnian Serb war criminal, Dražen Krstić. Krstić had changed his name to Christopher Drayton and had settled into a life of comfort in Toronto. The NYT had just such a story leading their (3.1.15) Sunday edition last week, so we know it is entirely plausible that Bosnian war criminals have settled into new, lucrative lives in the U.S. and Canada, lost in the shuffle of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

The author, Ausma Zehanat Khan, is a British-born Canadian with a Ph.D. in international human rights law, specializing in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. Khan has an undeniable street cred when detailing the conflict in Yugoslavia and its aftermath. Therefore it pains me to say that The Unquiet Dead does not really work as a novel (or at least a good novel). This will not stop anyone interested in the topic from having a look at this, but it may prepare you for a difficult fiction-reading experience.

All the ingredients for a long-lived policier are there: an interesting and troubled minority investigator and his unlikely sidekick, a twenty-something white woman called Rachel. Her background has the requisite complexities: childhood of poverty, abusive father, estranged brother, crazy mother. But somehow the whole doesn’t hang straight. Characters lack verisimilitude and dimension; conversation has an invented quality. For instance, what twenty-something police investigator earning a good wage would continue to live with mad parents on the off-chance a brother who had left seven years before could only contact her at her childhood home? I heard Khan’s explanation but it doesn’t work. If the boy had wits enough to survive seven years in the wilds of the world, he should be able to trace her whereabouts in her home town of Toronto.

Quotes of statements from reports, letters, tribunals, witnesses, the Qur’an head the chapters and are interspersed throughout the parallel story of the investigation and are given fuller explanation in her Notes at the back of the book. Some chapters feature long seemingly remembered but, I suspect, invented passages that bear witness to the events in the torn Yugoslavia. The horror of the events there are undeniable. I found it difficult to keep my skittering eyes on the page. Since we have heard something of these events, reference to them alone strikes one with terror and fear. Since fiction is suspect in what it reveals, perhaps this information would be better presented elsewhere.

Perhaps Khan thought we wouldn’t be interested if she published a separate book of nonfiction about the events at Srbrenica. She raises some very relevant and thought-provoking issues: was the international arms embargo to the Bosnian territorial units responsible for the horrific intensification of violence because one side had an inability to defend themselves against the side that had the former Yugoslav army matériel? One might make an opposite argument: that supplying weapons to one side or the other could intensify the violence of the fighting. Another issue she touches upon is the inability of Immigration departments in the West to locate and bring to justice known war criminals and fugitives from justice. These are worthy subjects of study and discussion. They can fit in a fiction, but everything else has to work as well.

The successful writing of fiction is a difficult enterprise. What surprised me was not that Khan did not succeed, but that she came so close to managing it. The ingredients for a brilliant policier are there, including an important and relevant subject of investigation. She just needed the example of a few more classics of the genre, to get help with conversation and depth of character development, and to trust her readers to have a sense of discomfiture when the word "Bosnia" is mentioned. We’ll get the real details of the events in Srbrenica elsewhere if she mentions them tangentially rather than head-on.

I have long mused on the difficulty of bringing real-life events by known scholars to the world of fiction. One wonders why the authors make the switch. If it is because they want to inform us mostly, I think they might run into difficulty. If it is because they really want to write fiction—important, relevant fiction—the endeavor will take all they have and more. I love important, relevant fiction, so I am going to encourage them. Brava, Khan!

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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