„The Trigger“ is the story of British author’s (Tim Butcher) re-enactment of Gavrilo Princip‘s, the assassin of Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, walk and trainride from his home village Obljaj in Western Bosnia on the Hercegovina border to Sarajevo in 1907, aged 13 years. Princip undertook this walk on his parents‘ insistence to enable him more education than would have been possible in his backcountry home village. The slightly sensationalist sub-title oft he book is „Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War“, London 2014). This is to be understood as hunting fort he soul and the motives of Princip. This is not just a geographic and landscape description, but attempts to give insights into Princip’s emotional and intellectual development by the author talking to Princip’s family and other people along the paths, including their memories and myths. Initially, the author who had been a war correspondent during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, hiked together with an ethnic Bosnian whom he knew from those year. This enabled him to gain confidence and hear many stories about Princip. Later he walked alone, his memories from the Bosnian war giving the backdrop to his experiences.
Butcher undertakes the hike in order to understand the mindset oft he young Princip, his evolution from a goatherd in one of the remotest subsistence-farming areas of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy into the multi-ethnic and multi-religious city of Sarajevo, and further to Belgrade, his encounters with nationalist freedom fighters, his development from a star pupil to a nationalist literature devouring revolutionary. While sometimes tedious in its description, this proves an insightful way to decipher Princip and his motives. Gavro’s rootlessness, away from his family (though he visits them during school vacations), his ever-changing accomodation, his need to travel and study in Belgrade, t h e capital of Slav anti-Austrian self-determination, all this is described with sympathy and understanding. Contrary to popular opinion (at least in Austria), Princip was (relative for his time and social status) highly educated, well-read in Slav myths and history and in nationalist-revolutionary literature.
Two observationsstruck me most: The first is that on his trips, the author finds that nobody in Bosnia today knows of Princip (apart from his wider family who upholds the proud and horrible legacy), let alone celebrates him as a freedom fighter. This is vividly described in a foto on the first page which shows a small stone chapel in Sarajevo, flanked by high-rise apartment buildings, which turns out to be Princip’s tomb, but today it is used as an open-air toilet next to a street market. The second is that Princip, the Bosnian Serb, was not fighting for his ethnicity, but for the freedom of all Southern Slavs, of whatever religion or ethnicity. One must remember that Princip’s age marked the recent liberation of South Slavs from the Ottoman oppression (which had been relatively tolerant vis-a-vis religions), when in the Berlin Congress of 1878 Bosnia was given into Austria’s custod – which then proceeded to annex it in 1908. It was especially this annexation which brought forth several attempts of assassinations and freedom activities, which culminated in the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, where the idea of a large South Slav state under Serbia’s leadership was defeated. This experience also proved decisive for Princip and his eventual co-assassins, who hailed from all three (dominant) ethnicities of Bosnia.
Much of what Butcher describes is rooted in his interest in this horrible World War I which was triggered by Princip’s successful assassination, which changed the political European landscape and swept away most oft he empires spanning continental Europe. He finds, after scouring the literature that little is known about Princip’s motives, but uncovers the notes of a psychologist, Dr. Pappenheim, who interviewed Princip after the assassination in jail and took copious notes. They show the development of somebody who saw and fought oppression and poverty from early in his life and was in the end consumed by his desire to end this unjust world, resulting in the assassination of the Archduke. It should be mentioned here that all over Austria-Hungary similar nationalistic freedom activities emerged among the 13 nations of the empire. While none oft hem led to similar results as the Mlada Bosnia, Young Bosnia, movement, they led to the braeak-up of the Monarchy after the lost war in 1918. In this way, Butcher convincingly dispels the Western description Princip’s action and of the 1992-95 Bosnian war as driven by „ancient hatreds“ (John Major), but rather joining it up with other freedom movements in Western Europe: self-determination, anti-repression, anti-poverty.
T.C. Boyle, in „The Harder they Come“ (2015), interestingly enough published first in German and only later in English, describes the development of an emotionally and psychologically disturbed young American of today, who fantasizes about the Freedoms of Mountain Man, and their enactment in todays „slave world“, by reminiscing in the times when trappers and mountain men roamed Indian territory to hunt and gather beaver skins (does this not remind us of the ideology of Tea Party people like Sarah Palin?). Boyle suscribes this novel with D.H. Lawrence’s quote „The essential American sould is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted“. His protagonist, Adam, a 23 year old young man, living with his grandmother close tot he California coast, away from his detested parents, evolves from a single-minded aficionado of Colter, his fictional hero mountain man, with incredible feats, into a bunker dweller who grows opium for sale at state land, deep in the woods, and fantasizes oft he recreation of a free America. Adam obviously has trance situations where he does not react to other persons, but also lucid phases where he plans his further activities. The book starts with his parents on a pleasure cruise tot he Caribbean, where the cruise group on a nature hike is attacked by a group of three armed men who rob their valuables, at which point Adam’s father, a retired 70 year old school principal and former Vietnam hero, single-handedly kills one oft he attackers, in a frenzy where he does not really know what he is doing. This is the background before wich Adam’s decline into killer and sniper evolves. By chance Adam makes the acquaintance of a similarly „freedom“-loving woman, Sara, who has been indoctrinated by litteral adherence to the Constitution, does not recognize any government authority, thus has no driver’s licence, does not pay taxes and, when held up by the police for not wearing a seatbelt, states that „I have no contract with the state of California“, quoting the Constitution as giving her independence of oppression. She gets into trouble when during this episode her beloved dog bites the police and is staken to the shelter, from which she frees it with Adam’s help. They carry on off and on sexual relationships, but Adam keeps disappearing into the woods, completely unable to adjust himself to anybody’s wishes and rules – apart from his own. All attempts by his well-meaning parents to bring him back into society fail, and eventually Adam, when tending to his secret opium fields, shoots and kills a neighbor. This is blamed by the city on Mexicans who also seem to use the state forests to grow marihuana, and vigilante groups are starting to roam the forests, until Adam shoots and kills two more citizens while escaping a large police and national guard contingent. In the end he is killed by a police sniper. His father falls into a deep depression, having failed in his mind to bring up his son properly, being responsible for ostracizing his wife from her community and having nothing left to live for.
This is very typical T.C.Boyle style, very minute descriptions of persons‘ state of mind and daily thoughts and actions, managing extremely well to immerse the reader into the atmosphere and mindsets of the persons involved. The best parts are not the action-intensive activities of Adam and Sara, but the description of the impossibility of people really connecting: Adam’s father’s inability to make any inroads with his son – and his guiltfeelings, but also relief when Adam is gone and out of his responsibility; his deep attachment to his wife, but still the reader gets left with the feeling that they do not really confide in each other; Sara’s long talks with her girlfriend, but then their disconnects; Sara’s infatuation with Adam as a sex partner, but her inability to approach him – and so on. Most oft he persons seem to be „outside themselves“ most of the time: they register and observe their own feelings, but are aloof and never grounded: all in all, a frightful description of a disintegrating society.
Both books describe self-styled freedom fighters, but that is where the similarities end. Sympathy for Adam and Sara, who has a credo of non-violent rejection oft he state and is shocked when she finds out that Adam has killed, remains limited. For a European, this is a study in a not so rare part of the American psyche, which would like to roll back time to before the country was formed (a favorite topic of Boyle’s). The idealization of personal freedom, the rejection of all societal norms as oppression, the fascination with arms and the „shoot to kill“-mentality (instead of „just“ disabling perpetrators), all this goes, as Lawrence says, beyond the very small circle of psychologically ill persons. There is a direct line between Adam’s father’s killing oft he Guatemalan attacker (in a lighning flasch) to Adam’s cold-blooded murders. Princip, for all we know about him, was also cold-blooded, but had an „ulterior“ objective, i.e. freeing his country from oppression. That he triggered the greatest upheaval in the known world, was beyond his aspiration.