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Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Unquiet Dead: Bosnian Atrocities Are At The Heart Of A Canadian Mystery

I read the second book in Ausma Zehanat Kahn's mystery series first.   There is a mystery group on Goodreads where I am known as an Unrepentant Out of Order Reader (UOOOR).  This doesn't mean that I always read out of order, but I allow myself to exercise that option when I feel more drawn to a later book in a series.   I am unrepentant because this almost never causes problems for me in reading a series.  On the rare occasions when I do experience difficulties, I feel that the author has been inadequate.  I believe that books should stand on their own.  If there is information that I need to understand events or characters in a book, it should have been included in that book.  I am happy to say that The Language of Secrets, the first book I read by Khan, did stand on its own.  I found it to be a very interesting and somewhat unusual mystery/thriller dealing with terrorism.

I decided to read this book because I noticed that Khan has continued to write about the legacy of atrocities in Bosnia in A Death in Sarajevo and Among the Ruins.  What happened in Bosnia in the 20th century evidently had significant impact on protagonist Esa Khattak.  The Unquiet Dead is also going to be discussed at the March meeting of the F2F mystery group that I attend.  This gave me additional impetus to find out more about Khattak's background.


Let me say that sometimes I feel that the horrors of  20th century genocide are too much for me.  It also has much more subjective immediacy when it's happened within my lifetime.  Perhaps that's why I've avoided reading about what was done to the Muslims of Bosnia even though I knew it was important for me to know about what happened there.  I also feel a certain amount of shame that I feel the need to protect myself from fourth hand exposure to traumatic events.  After all, I am not a survivor of such experiences, I am not a witness to them, nor am I the author of this book who had to live with the suffering of Bosnian Moslems the entire time that she was researching and writing it.  She cites testimony from the International Criminal Court and other witness accounts in her endnotes.  Ausma Zehanat Khan has far more inner strength than I do.

A museum commemorating Moorish Spain plays a role in The Unquiet Dead.   My uncle kept a collection of "Little Blue Books" which were independently published by freethinking press E. Haldeman-Julius and written by de-frocked priest Joseph McCabe.  It was from one of these pamphlets that I first learned about Moorish Spain when I was a pre-teen.  I was entranced by what I read. McCabe portrayed it as a utopian community where people from three different faiths got along. Some current historians such as Maria Menocal (author of The Ornament of the World) also portray Moorish Spain as utopian.  I have since learned that there was some dis-satisfaction in Moorish Spain, and it wasn't exactly a perfect society.   There's a reason why the title of Samuel Butler's utopia was Erehwon which is nowhere backwards. There are characters in The Unquiet Dead who revere both Moorish Spain and their memories of a multi-ethnic Bosnia that was free of strife.  I tend to suspect that Bosnia was also never a utopia.  Yet the strong likelihood that neither Spain under Islamic rule nor Bosnia were ever perfect doesn't justify the Spanish Inquisition or the genocidal activities of the Serbian militia groups in 20th century Bosnia.

I consider The Unquiet Dead a compelling novel dealing with history that shouldn't be forgotten.   I've read criticisms of the characterization in reviews. I admit that there were female characters who were stereotypical or not well-developed, but there are few first novels that have blown me away with their power as this one has.    I will be thinking about The Unquiet Dead for some time to come.


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