The Sarajevo Roses are monuments in pavement. Each time a Serbian artillery shell took a life, perhaps the life of a soldier, or perhaps the life of a craftsman, a housewife, or a child going to school, the crater left by the explosion was filled in with red resin. These red blooms now lie underfoot, strewn throughout the city as a monument to the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. David Arnault’s book mentions the roses on its back cover, and it spends its length erecting a monument of its own, trying to make sense of the Balkan conflicts in a story of detachment and belonging, love, trust, and family.
I have reviewed Arnault’s work before, and I keep returning to it for the author’s refreshingly blunt politics and keen analyses of social tropes. Crimes Neither Seen Nor Heard is a story set in the present that deals with the aftermath of the Bosnian War and its surrounding conflicts, and like the best works of historic fiction (for not all history need be ancient) the story of greater things is set against the personal struggles of individuals. More than anything, this is a book about a man trying to reconcile himself with a culture that he has long since separated himself from.
The protagonist, Dragan Kovic, is an Australian with roots in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and he spends the book trying to understand the savagery that came from his people during the wars, specifically from his father and his brother. Kovic is a repeat character in Arnault’s books, and Crimes is slated as the final instalment of his adventures. The book is easily understood even if the reader isn’t familiar with Kovic’s past escapades though. In fact, in several of the Kovic Novels, Kovic himself is barely present, merely acting as an observer to larger events. This background role compliments the design of Arnault’s books. Dealing with political failings and the pitfalls of society, often with a slant towards environmentalism and the futility of the bureaucratic method, the books are often more parable than fiction.
Crimes Neither Seen nor Heard, a story that could have been a simple tale of a man looking for his lost brother, regularly sneaks into the field of philosophy as the characters routinely engage in conversations that almost seem larger than themselves, as if they are just catalysts that progress the plot between meaningful lectures on the nature of society and humanity. The characters themselves are equally loaded with symbolic meaning; the activist daughter, the libertarian lover, the frowning woman with her arms crossed, the bitter, remorseless old woman, and Kovic, the observer. They are all allegorical totems of the greater issues that bubble beneath the book, and become avatars of their nations as the story unfolds. It’s this commitment to allegory that makes Arnault’s book so enjoyable to read, knowing that it strives for something deeper with its plot. There’s a reason why Kovic’s character evolves from being a police investigator in the early novels to a history teacher. To cast a detective would be too trite, too telling. It would define the book as a mystery, when in fact it’s a cross between documentary and Socratic dialogue.
The book divides its time between Bosnia, Australia, and England. And it doesn’t have much good to say about any of them. In fact, Arnault should be credited alongside the Huxleys and Vonneguts in his skill for building dystopian worlds. Or perhaps not, since he hardly builds the worlds at all. He merely identifies them. Arnault’s depiction of England, with its self-indulgent politicians, its staggeringly rampant child poverty, its nationalistic tendencies and frighteningly inherent racial violence, and most importantly its love affair with prisons, is every bit as poignant and frightening as an Orwell novel. The simple difference is that Arnault doesn’t try to mask his metaphors. He openly confronts them, showing us that the frightful world of tomorrow is here today, and in fact has been here for decades. There is never a crack in the British facade throughout the book, though. It does not conclude with a crooked official being brought to his knees. No plucky young reporter brings the big story to light. Arnault is satisfied simply to watch, and comment, and not to indulge in useless fantasies of resolution. By simply snapping back and forth between the masked composure of England and the gang-riddled suffering of post-war Bosnia, there is a clear suggestion that a nation need not be under fire to be at war.
Now before I conclude, I should point out that Crimes Neither Seen nor Heard is not entirely bleak and hopeless. There are some lovely points of comfort as the hero comes to terms with his family and with his relationships. There are moments of tenderness, and of warmth, and of shelter, all of which are punctuated by Arnault’s smooth but quirky writing. One notable eccentricity is an obsession with age that permeates the book. Having just finished reading, I can tell you the exact age of each character, even if I may be unsure about their hair colour, last name, figure, or ethnicity. Arnault also takes an amusing sidestep for a few pages to make fun of a ‘vegan collective’ of disenfranchised youths who are trying to stick it to the man. In a book with so many poignant arguments, it’s entertaining to see the plot itself grab a half-baked, self-styled poet by the dreadlocks and growl, “weaving a shirt out of hemp is not going to save the world. Try harder.” Finally, there is also just enough eroticism in the book to keep things rolling through the rocky patches, although Arnault takes a rather different approach than in his previous works. Namely, this book takes a rather favourable view of celibacy. Both of Kovic’s daughters wind up in celibate lifestyles, and Kovic himself enters into a relationship where his endings are maybe not happy, but are instead just deeply contenting. It’s an interesting side note in a novel where everything has meaning.
Halfway through reading Crimes Neither Seen nor Heard, I found myself taking notes about the conflict in the Balkans. I would flip back and forth to the map at the front and test myself to see if I could remember dates and facts about how the wars escalated. It was fascinating, and horrifying. Over 100,000 dead. The systematic persecution of a religious group comprising almost half a country. A siege that lasted four years. It’s almost unfathomable. I put this book down far more aware than I was when I picked it up, and in a story where even the hero seeks only to understand his history, that really is the highest praise to be given.
David Arnault self-publishes his work from a cottage in Australia. To read his work in print or by e-book, visit his website at http://davidarnault.com