Date of Publication: December 7, 2010 (first published April 1, 2008)
Date of Review: April 2014
Rating: 3 Stars
This book should be called “The Hangman” – forget about the daughter. She’s not an exceptionally important character in the particular book, the first installment of a series of books entitled “The Hangman’s Daughter…”. In book 1 (this book), her story fails to captivate me. In fact, the daughter’s love interest is more seminal to the book. Perhaps the author should have titled this book (and perhaps the entire series) “The Hangman and His Daughter’s Boyfriend.”
Jakob, the main character, is the only well developed character in the novel. I genuinely care about his struggles with his job and his pursuit of justice and truth. What Potzsch does right with the development of Jakob, he fails to do with the other characters, most notably the daughter and villains. Upon finishing the book, I couldn’t really tell you much about the villains except that they were bad because they did bad things to good people.
As other reviewers have stated, the time in-between actions seems to plod along. Historical thriller? I wasn’t thrilled with all the walking in the woods. There is only so much walking from place to place one can write about before it feels redundant and tedious. I don’t want to read about someone’s slow journey to the other end of the village, I want to read about what happens after they make that journey.
As to the actual prose, perhaps something was lost in translation because the language throughout the book is uninspired and unoriginal. I highlighted no sentences, which is a rarity for me. Like the characters and the plot, the language in The Hangman’s Daughter lumbers along. Though this translation gets the story across, it certainly isn’t colorful or creative.
Overall, I am giving The Hangman’s Daughter (book 1) 3 out of 5 stars, which I feel is actually a generous rating. I did finish the book, though I’m not quite certain why I bothered. It is possible that future books develop this foundational work into a more compelling story, one where the characters and plots are more thoroughly developed; however, I am putting this series to bed, or perhaps to death, swinging from a tree.
Note: The series is as follows: 1) The Hangman’s Daughter; 2) The Dark Monk; 3) The Beggar King; 4) The Poisoned Pilgrim.
I should note, “Walking Corpses” is extremely well researched, and has a spectacular bibliography/reference list. For academics studying disability studies, Byzantium, the Medieval West, classical/medieval medical practices, quarantine, ghettoization, religious perspectives/practices on disease, and of course leprosy itself, this book will provide a wealth of information and resources. Bravo to Miller and Nesbitt for compiling an astounding amount of sources, including ancient texts.
I appreciated how clearly the authors showed that Byzantium and the Medieval West overlapped in some of their thinking and approaches to medicine, disease, religion, and leprosy; while also highlighting the disparity between Byzantium and the Medieval West. I found their discussion of the medical approaches to understanding, treating, and preventing leprosy to be lacking in depth and discussion – I wish there was more analysis on medical anthropology and actual medical practices.
I was less interested in the religiosity of leprosy, and again found these discussions to be redundant, often hitting home the religious points repeatedly as if I may have missed them the first few times. I wish Miller and Nesbitt had provided more comparative examples to other stigmatizing illnesses and disabilities, for example blindness, “lameness,” seizures, disfigurement, and so forth. In fact, a more frank discussion on disability would have been appreciated by this reader, but that may be because I am interested in disability studies.
For readers unfamiliar with the particularities of leprosy, including modern developments and understandings, this book does provide a sufficient amount of information to acquaint the reader with the disease more generally; however, if you are really interested in leprosy more generally, and aren’t particularly drawn to Byzantium or the Medieval West, I would look for a different book.
In closing, I found most interesting the discussion on the Knights of Lazarus (Order of Saint Lazarus connected with Knights of the Templar and the Crusaders). These knights were afflicted with Leprosy, often during their campaigns, yet they still chose to continue to pick up arms. These particular Knights warrant a book unto themselves. (Check out this article titled “After 700 years, the Knights of St. Lazarus Return to Jerusalem…Riding Electric Buggies” which is about the Order of Saint Lazarus in present day Jerusalem.
Eliott Behar, a Canadian prosecutor at the Hague, states that his book sets out to help answer three questions: how the 1999 genocide in Kosovo came to be, how humans can be exceedingly violent, and where international criminal justice fits within the context of the Kosovo crisis. Behar’s lucid, compelling, and concise prose attempts to guide the reader to these answers through the narratives from both victims and victimizers as documented in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Though I found Behar’s “Tell It to the World” to be extremely well-written, and of great value; Behar does not answers the first two questions satisfactorily, and I think he would agree with that assessment given some of the comments he makes later in the text; however, his answer to international criminal justice’s place is well stated and of critical importance to the field of international criminal law, in particular the role of the Hague, and more specifically the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia investigating the Kosovo crisis and war crimes.
As to answering how the crisis came to be, Behar mostly focuses on the most immediate history of the Balkans, and when he does examine the rich and complicated history of the area, he does so with broad strokes that too narrowly focus on advancing his narrative. For example, Behar doesn’t really explain adequately the Balkan Wars, World War I and the establishment of Yugoslavia, and especially post-World War II with the rise and takeover of the communists – all moments in time that are directly relevant to the events in the 1990’s. At one point he mentions the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, however he doesn’t explain the aftereffects and reorganization of the Balkans after the fall (I and II Balkan Wars…later sparking WWI!) He also glosses over the establishment of the former Yugoslavia, which is exactly what ultimately led to the crisis in the Balkans of the 1990s –Yugoslavia was and did break up compelling Serbian leadership to assert its dominance and power over the region and ethnic groups.
I don’t fault Behar for this narrowed approach because this relative small, digestible book would have become a 700-page tome had he really answered how the Kosovo crisis came to pass. Further, later in the book Behar calls out the narrowing of his focus, noting the limits of his inquiry and the reasoning behind them. What Behar does do with great skill, is write about the most immediate causes for the violence and genocide in Kosovo. He also documents the systematic cover-up of genocide and atrocities in Kosovo, cover-ups which in and of themselves help establish the guilt and self-awareness amongst the Serbian leadership that they were committing crimes beyond the “call of justice.”
Behar’s second question is an inquiry into how humans can be so violent, and is much too broad of a question for the context with which he is focused. Having said that, Behar is exceedingly good at pointing out that there are two sides to this story, and that violence – particularly in this case – was often the result of groups feeling “unjustly” treated. Behar then attempts to define “justice” for the reader, and link the pursuit of justice to the commission of violent acts. (More on Behar’s use and definition of “justice” below).
Behar’s final question sets out to answer how international criminal justice, more specifically the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, fits into the Kosovo crisis. Behar excels in answering this extremely important question. His answers go beyond the most obvious questions about how the international judicial process works. The author actually considers the psychological toll testimony can take on the witnesses though his first-hand experience. He considers the usefulness of particular types of evidence, and even suggests how the Hague’s tribunals should consider chains of evidence to establish facts to make better use of witness testimony and court time. Behar also explains the challenges with sentencing war criminals. I found most interesting his explanations on why “18 years” of detention is considered by some to be an adequate sentence for a criminal found guilty of committing crimes leading to the deaths of hundreds or thousands of innocent people. He also explains why the court focuses on seemingly unimportant facts from witness testimony, while appearing to ignore the human-tragedy elements of witnesses’ stories. For example, a witness might be providing testimony about the systematic extermination of women and children, yet the prosecution and defense might focus on the color of a vehicle present at the scene. Behar doesn’t stop there, his analysis on the invalidation felt by witnesses after such inquiry is something all prosecutors (and defense attorneys) should consider. Behar also offers suggestions in how witnesses’ alienation can be curtailed though proper witness preparation and explanation.
If you are concerned that this book may be too hard to understand because of the legal inquiries, do not be alarmed. Behar deftly explains complicated legal procedures and rules of evidence, including explaining the particularities and uniqueness of the Hague and this particular tribunal. This book is detailed enough, and has sufficient legal depth to be useful to attorneys, while at the same time being clear enough to be understood by laypersons. Furthermore, if you are not interested in the legal aspects after the war, but are instead interested in the details of the war crimes, this book will also suit you because Behar spends the majority of the text detailing many atrocities, while inserting long passages (often testimony) from both sides.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed “Tell it to the World,” I take one main issue with the author’s opinion. At the outset Behar states that he is motivated to explain “justice,” stating, “It became equally apparent that notions of justice, and the pursuit of justice, had also been used to motivate and perpetuate these atrocities in the first place.” (from the galley edition). Henceforth Behar interlaces his text with an ever-evolving, self-acquired definition of “justice.” It’s not that I disagree with some of Behar’s conclusions, so much as I disagree with the method he used to arrive at them. At no point does Behar define “justice” using authoritative sources such as dictionary definitions, laws and rules, and religious concepts about justice according to all sides of the war. Considering a major endeavor of Behar’s is to show the incongruities, conflations, and fluidity of what justice means, a much more thorough inquiry into “justice” as it is understood by the participants in the war and the readers of his book is needed to accurately ground his arguments. His arrival at a definition of “justice” where there are two sides to every coin is weak because he fails to define what the coin looks like to begin with. Had Behar laid out his argument and summation of “justice” more thoroughly, I may not have taken issue with this topic within “Tell It to the World” – even if I still disagreed with Behar’s conclusion.
Personally, I believe that Behar confuses “justice” with “retribution.” It could be (is likely) “just” to convict a criminal of a crime and hold him accountable for his actions, but it may not be “just” to kill his family. That said, a conviction of a crime might not fulfill man’s desire for retribution; however, killing his family might, which isn’t to say that killing his family was also “just.” More directly, though a Serbian militant might have claimed he was murdering Albanian children in the name of justice because of an atrocity committed by an Albanian against a Serbian, the listener/reader does not have to accept the Serbian’s use of the word “justice” as accurate. Furthermore, the actions of the Hague which are derived at to reach some form of “justice” is not the same “justice” sought by the Serbian militant who rationalizes killing innocent young children in the name of justice.
In conclusion: “Tell It to the World” is an important and great read, and should be read because of the events it documents and the international judicial response that followed; however, the reader should read this book, as every book, with a critical eye keen not to blanket-accept every principle that is written.