Skip to main content

War Crimes Tribunals Help Bring Criminals to Justice Around the World

Aryeh Neier is the President of the Soros Foundation. He has written the new book "War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror, and the Struggle for Justice." (Times Books) Neier has also served for 12-years as executive director of Human Rights Watch and eight-years as the national director of the ACLU. He is considered one of the premiere human rights advocates and has conducted investigations of human rights abuses in more than 40 countries.


Other segments from the episode on August 27, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 27, 1998: Interview with Aryeh Neier; Review of Nicole Mones's novel "Lost in Translation."


Date: AUGUST 27, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082701np.217
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Around the world, people are wrestling with how to deal with war criminals and those who have violated human rights in their own countries. War crimes tribunals are investigating misdeeds in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Post-apartheid South Africa has its Truth Commission, and many former communist countries and former dictatorships are still struggling with how to hold accountable those who tortured or killed dissidents.

One of the world's leading human rights activists, my guest Aryeh Neier, is the author of the new book "War Crimes," about the international laws of war and bringing to justice those who are responsible for atrocities.

Neier is the president of the Soros Foundation, a philanthropic group which funds programs promoting democracy in emerging democracies. He's the former head of Human Rights Watch and of the ACLU.

He says that the war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are bringing new innovations to human rights work. I asked him about the most groundbreaking aspects of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

ARYEH NEIER, PRESIDENT, SOROS FOUNDATION; AUTHOR, "WAR CRIMES: BRUTALITY, GENOCIDE, TERROR, AND THE STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE": Well, I think that the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, along with the tribunal for Rwanda, has made it clear that the laws of war involve criminal sanctions that can be applied in the case of internal wars, as well as international conflicts. And that's enormously important because in the era since World War II, there have been a great number of internal armed conflicts, and most of the war crimes that have been committed during this half-century, or more than a half-century, have been in the context of internal armed conflicts. And therefore the idea that the international community ought to be able to sit in judgment of these crimes and punish those who are responsible is tremendously significant.

I would say that another significant contribution of the tribunals is that they have enhanced the notion of universal jurisdiction. And that means that courts anywhere in the world can sit in judgment of those who have committed these crimes in international and internal armed conflicts. It means that for the people who commit those crimes, it's very difficult for them to ensure their safety for the long-term. They may not be called to account very quickly, but many years after the fact, they may be held accountable.

GROSS: Apparently, the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is stepping up its investigations of war crimes underway now in Kosovo. In Kosovo now, Serbs are torching and shelling villages. Civilians are being driven out. Many civilians are being killed. What is considered an legitimate act of war and what's considered a war crime in a scenario like that?

NEIER: Well, it's a difficult question to answer because there are endless variations. But in general, military forces can attack opposing military forces. And sometimes civilians are in the way of such attacks, and they become casualties of such attacks. And sometimes they're referred to as "collateral casualties."

On the other hand, if military forces attack civilians, either intentionally or indiscriminately, they are engaged in crimes of war. They may not engage in deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians. They can engage in attacks on their military opponents when civilians happen to be in the way.

GROSS: Aid workers are being killed in Kosovo. This week, Serb cannonfire killed three relief workers working for Mother Teresa's organization. They were pulling wagons loaded with supplies to refugees. There's apparently around 300,000 refugees as a result of the shelling of villages in Kosovo. What does -- what does international law have to say about killing relief workers?

NEIER: Well, the -- the protocols to the Geneva Conventions discuss specifically the effort to prevent relief from getting to the civilian population, and international law does make it a war crime to deliberately prevent them from receiving relief. And so attacks on relief workers would be a war crime, in that sense. In addition, because they are non-combatants, simply attacking them as relief workers would be a war crime.

GROSS: You were one of the people who strongly advocated that a war tribunal for the former Yugoslavia should be created.


GROSS: What do you think have been its greatest successes and failures so far?

NEIER: Well, the very -- its greatest success is that it came into existence, because it had been a half-century since Nuremberg and Tokyo without an international tribunal to judge war crimes. The fact that it was created was tremendously significant. It indicated for the first time in a half-century that the world community took its laws about war and what may be done in war seriously enough to create a war crimes tribunal.

I would say beyond that, it has indicated to people in the former Yugoslavia that some of those who committed crimes against them will be held accountable. And for people who have been victims of terrible crimes, who have seen members of their families killed, there isn't a great deal you can do. But punishing or attempting to punish those who were responsible for those crimes is one of the things that I believe we owe to the victims of those crimes.

I can't say yet that the tribunals are deterring the commission of other crimes. I think it will be a while before we know that, but I hope that will be one of the consequences of the establishment of the tribunal.

GROSS: You say that one of the reasons why you think the Rwanda war crimes tribunal is so important is it's going to try to discover the line that divides freedom of expression from incitement to mass murder. Would you explain that a little bit?

NEIER: Yes. One of the -- the terrible things that took place in Rwanda was that a radio station played a central role in the genocide, inciting the genocide and even in organizing the genocide. That is, saying that there were a particular group of people who were hiding at a certain place and you could go and get them and kill them.

And this, I think, does suggest that the kind of protection which one ordinarily wants to give to expression has reached a limit. And I think the limit is one which doesn't, in fact, undercut the idea of free expression.

On the contrary, I think it shows why freedom of expression is so important because this radio station had such unique power because it had virtually an exclusive capacity to reach the people of Rwanda. Contrary views were not being broadcast. And I think that when a variety of points of view are being heard, it's not possible for a radio station to play a role of that sort. I think it indicates why there half to be many points of view that are heard, and why free expression is so important. It gives government propaganda a much harder time having that kind of impact when many voices can be heard.

GROSS: So this is why you, the former president of the ACLU, believes that these broadcasts were incitement to genocide and not just expression of free speech.

NEIER: Yes. And in my period at the ACLU, I was directly involved in the defense of free speech for Nazis at Skokie, Illinois. That case was 20 years ago, but it's still remembered today. And it's considered to be an extreme example of defending free speech in the United States.

But I believe that in the context in the United States in which a great many points of view could be heard, it was much more dangerous to suppress speech by the Nazis than to allow them to go forward. I think it would have provided a precedent which would have been used to suppress the speech of other groups.

However, in the Rwanda context, where effectively only the hateful speech could be heard, it was quite a different circumstance.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is human rights activist Aryeh Neier. He's the author of the new book "War Crimes." Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


Back with Aryeh Neier. He's the president of the Soros Foundation and its Open Society Institute. He's the former president of Human Rights Watch and former president of the ACLU. His new book is called "War Crimes."

A lot of people are mystified by the idea that there are laws governing war. War is such bloody mayhem and there's so much killing, it strikes some people as odd that there's a discernible moral equation of what's OK and what isn't OK in time of war. Why do you think international law is so important?

NEIER: Well, I think that there have been efforts throughout the centuries to civilize society. And one of the fundamental ideas of civilization is that even in the most horrendous circumstance -- that is, the circumstance of war -- that there are certain things that may not be done. And this is a very old idea. The ancient Greeks, for example, had certain ideas about what was permissible in times of war. And the great religious philosophers of the Middle Ages also talked about what was legitimate and what was impermissible in times of war. And there were in the Middle Ages also chivalric codes, and those codes are very important in helping to determine the laws of war that exist today.

Effectively, the laws of war rest on two principles. One is the principle of military necessity, and it says that what you have to do to prevail militarily you can do. But the other principle is the principle of humanity, which says that you shouldn't do things in the course of war that cause suffering that is not related to military necessity.

Essentially, the laws of war try to work out the conflict between the principle of military necessity, on the one hand, and the principle of humanity on the other hand.

GROSS: Well, I guess the standard question to ask is: where does our atom bombing of Japan fit in? We would, you know, the American military would say this was a military necessity to win the war, but there were so many civilians who were killed.

NEIER: Well, my own view on that is that it was indiscriminate bombing. That is, that there was no effort to protect civilians from being the victims of the atomic bomb; and therefore it was impermissible as an act of war. Certainly, the military was entitled to try to use the atomic bomb to hasten an end to the war, but since we had more than one atomic bomb, as the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in quick succession demonstrated, I would think that there was a responsibility in the first instance to demonstrate the power of the atom bomb, either by bombing a site where no one was there simply to show the power and try to bring about an end to the war in that way; or by bombing some military installation or some military target, rather than a civilian city.

I think even from the argument of those who say there was military necessity, a predominantly civilian city should have been the last target, not the first target.

GROSS: You say that law governing the waging of war was first codified by the Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, the father of international law ...


GROSS: ... in 1625. What did he do?

NEIER: Well, Grotius compiled the laws that were recognized, or that existed, and he discussed, for example, the question of rape in times of war. And there were practices that have existed from time immemorial in which combatants have seen the women of the opposing side as among the bounties of war and have raped them. And certainly there's a lot of classical literature that demonstrates that that was practiced. If you look at, let's say, Homer's "The Iliad," there is repeated reference to rape as part of the bounties of war.

But Grotius drew upon various codes, including the chivalric codes of the late Middle Ages to say that rape was not permissible as one of the bounties of war. And there is a lot of what we regard as international law against war today that is reflected in the codification by Grotius.

GROSS: World War II and its aftermath helped codify the rules governing war. What do you see as one of the most important outcomes in that area after World War II?

NEIER: Well, I would say the most significant outcome from the standpoint of the laws of war and human rights is that prior to World War II, people primarily looked to the state as the protector of human rights. And World War II indicated that the state by itself could not be the only guarantor; that the question of human rights was something that was important to the entire world community and that there was an intertwining of persecution of people -- that is, violation of human rights -- and aggressive war. And the conduct of the Nazis, in particular, exemplified the ways in which those were intertwined.

And therefore, the aftermath of World War II involved the creation of the United Nations, which has among its purposes the protection of human rights, and the adoption not long thereafter of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Previously, rights were guaranteed by, let's say, the Bill of Rights in the United States, which is a national document. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says the entire world community has a stake in the protection of human rights.

GROSS: You say that the World War II war crimes trials helped to individualize guilt.


GROSS: Want to explain that?

NEIER: Well, the Nazis and the Japanese had committed crimes on a scale that was previously unimaginable. And it would have been possible to attribute to all Germans and all Japanese responsibility for those crimes. What Nuremberg did and what the Tokyo tribunal did were to take particular individuals and to say: these individuals have to stand trial because these individuals committed or were responsible for these particular crimes.

And I think that that's tremendously important. I think the former Yugoslavia helps to indicate how important it is, because in the former Yugoslavia there has been a tendency by the different ethnic groups in the country to attribute to the other group collective responsibility for crimes that were committed in Yugoslavia in World War II, for example.

GROSS: A lot of the civil wars that we're seeing now are being carried out in part by militias who don't answer to any government. So is it possible to hold these people up to international law when they really don't recognize the law and they're not -- they're not accountable to a government that does?

NEIER: That's a very important issue. And it is something that the laws of war try to deal with. In the Geneva Conventions there is a provision that is referred to as Common Article Three, because the same provision is repeated in all four of the Geneva Conventions. And it applies to internal-armed conflicts. And one of the significant elements is that it applies equally to both sides in an internal-armed conflict.

And one of the ways we determine what is an internal-armed conflict is whether there is a leadership of the group that is opposing the government that can be held accountable. That is, it's different from a situation of, let's say, riots in the streets when there may be no leadership that you can really hold accountable. But if there's an organized guerrilla force, then it has to be held as accountable as a government for the crimes that are committed by its forces.

GROSS: Aryeh Neier is the author of the new book "War Crimes." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with human rights advocate Aryeh Neier.

He's the president of the Soros Foundation, which funds projects that promote an open society in emerging democracies. He's the former head of the ACLU and Human Rights Watch.

Aryeh Neier's new book is about international laws governing conduct during war and ways of bringing war criminals to justice.

During the war in the former Yugoslavia, the question of how rape should be treated was very much debated, and how it ...


GROSS: ... should be codified as a war crime, or should it be codified as a war crime. What was your role in that debate?

NEIER: Well, on the one hand, to say that the laws of war already make rape a war crime. On the other hand, I think that some of those who said the laws of war were deficient had a point in this respect: that the word itself was not used in the Geneva Conventions in those sections dealing with war crimes. There are terms like "grave bodily harm" that are used in the Geneva Conventions. And rape can certainly be prosecuted under that provision. But I do think that rape is common enough in war so that it deserves to be cited specifically, and the UN did cite it specifically in the statutes establishing the war crimes tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and it's also in the statute for the proposed international criminal court.

I have to say, though, that in the case of ex-Yugoslavia, I was somewhat disturbed by the way in which numbers were used in the discussion of rape. There were many times when people use very large, round numbers about the rapes that were committed, without really the evidence to support those kinds of claims. And people who are involved in the documentation of human rights abuses tend to be quite sensitive about bandying around very large numbers, because, for one thing, sometimes a reaction sets in in which it's demonstrated that those were false, and it tends to undercut the effort to promote human rights.

GROSS: You would like to see a permanent international criminal court.


GROSS: What would you like to see such a court do?

NEIER: I would like to see it prosecute and punish the most serious war crimes and crimes against humanity and certainly genocide when those crimes are committed anywhere in the world.

GROSS: How do you expect it would function?

NEIER: I think it'll be very difficult to establish such a court. A big step in that direction was taken in Rome in July when a large number of countries agreed on the formation of a court. But it'll still take a long time to bring that court into existence.

I would say that given the experience of the tribunals for ex-Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, once it comes into existence, I expect it would have a slow start. But I also expect that it would gain in significance over a period of time. And it might be decades before it is really an effective body, but it should have been established a long time ago; and I'm glad that the effort to establish it is now well underway.

GROSS: You mentioned that you'd like to see this international criminal tribunal deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity.


GROSS: What's the difference between a war crime and a crime against humanity?

NEIER: A war crime can be a crime involving a single victim. It can be, let's say, the murder of a civilian. And it has to take place in the context of an armed-conflict or in the context of a military occupation.

A crime against humanity is a concept that comes out of the Nuremberg trials, and the definition of it has always been crimes committed on a very grand scale, when there are an enormous number of victims; when there is an attempt to persecute people by reason of their race or their ethnicity or their religion or their political affiliation. And the crime that is committed is part of a pattern of such crimes.

And it isn't necessary that crimes against humanity should be committed in times of armed-conflict. To use an example: when the Cultural Revolution took place in China in the period from 1966 to 1976, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, but there was no armed-conflict. I would say that the crimes that took place during the Cultural Revolution fit the definition of crimes against humanity, but they don't fit the definition of a war crime. So there is that difference.

On the other hand, some crimes can be both war crimes and crimes against humanity.

GROSS: My guest is human rights activist Aryeh Neier. His new book is called "War Crimes." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


My guest is human rights activist Aryeh Neier. His new book is called "War Crimes."

You grew up in Nazi Germany, and your family...

NEIER: Well, grew up is a bit of an overstatement. I was an infant when I left. I was born in ...


NEIER: ... Nazi Germany, but I left, and obviously I wasn't in charge of my leaving because I was two-and-a-half years old.

GROSS: And this was in what year that your family fled?

NEIER: Well, I went to England August 16, 1939, two weeks before the start of World War II.

GROSS: On a later trip to Germany ...


GROSS: ... long after your family fled, you found out that your block was actually a very significant one. What was the significance of your block?

NEIER: Well, I hadn't known this until I went many years later, and I had avoided going to Berlin for a long time. But after staying away for so long, I finally went to Berlin in 1994 and sought out the house where I was born, and discovered that nearby was a large synagogue. It no longer exists, but at the site of that synagogue there was a memorial indicating that it had been the place to which the Jews of Berlin were required to report for the various deportations to the East, to the death camps. It was literally a stone's throw away from the house where I was born.

GROSS: Do you think that your family's having to flee Nazi Germany affected your interest in human rights?

NEIER: I'm certain it did. I don't suppose that I can be more successful than anyone else can in disentangling the various influences that shape you. But I'm sure this was a significant factor in my own life.

GROSS: I imagine that human rights work on an international scale can be very discouraging sometimes because you don't always have the impact that you want to have. But what is the case in which you feel that your efforts made the biggest difference?

NEIER: Well, it's a very difficult question to answer. It's difficult because you can never or almost never say that the result that was achieved was attributable to a single cause. All you can really say is that you played a part in making something happen.

I happen to believe that the human rights movement had a very significant role in the collapse of the Soviet Empire; that people who aspired to exercise their rights and received assistance internationally in efforts to exercise their rights had a great deal to do with removing the legitimacy, or such legitimacy as the Soviet Empire had.

I also think that the human rights movement and the organization with which I was associated had a significant role in Latin America, in dealing with the military dictatorships there. The end to military dictatorship, or virtual end to military dictatorship in Latin America, began in Argentina in 1983. And the Argentine human rights movement, supported by groups outside Argentina, and the group that became Human Rights Watch in the forefront, I think had a great deal to do with the transition to democracy that took place in Argentina and subsequently in other countries of Latin America.

GROSS: My guest is human rights activist Aryeh Neier. His new book is called "War Crimes."

Is terrorism dealt with in existing international law governing war?

NEIER: No. There was a proposal that the international criminal court that is being established should be able to deal with terrorism. But part of the difficulty is that there isn't an agreed-upon international definition of terrorism. I think it's possible that over time, the jurisdiction of that court will be expanded so that it might deal with terrorism.

GROSS: No definition in the sense that what's a terrorist to you could be a freedom fighter to me. Is that the problem?

NEIER: You have to specify the elements of the crime in quite a lot of detail in order to be able to have some prosecution. And there are an awful lot of things that would have to be considered in defining what is terrorism.

GROSS: What are some of the other issues ahead for international law governing war?

NEIER: Well, I suppose that the most significant will be the actual establishment of this international criminal court, because at the moment, we only have a resolution to create it; then 60 countries have to both sign and ratify a treaty to establishment -- to establish it. And then judges and a prosecutor are going to have to be chosen. And then it's going to have to make choices as to the crimes that it deals with. And there are a lot of restrictions that are built into the treaty that was adopted in Rome.

And so I think that the international community is going to have to find a way to overcome those restrictions. Under the treaty that was adopted in Rome, if a government doesn't become a party to the treaty; that is, if it doesn't sign and ratify the treaty, and the crimes it commits take place on its own territory, it is not subject to the jurisdiction of this court. And I think that has to be dealt with, because if Saddam Hussein commits crimes against the Kurds and doesn't sign and ratify this treaty, it's going to be necessary, nevertheless, to be able to prosecute and punish Saddam Hussein.

GROSS: How is that dealt with in current conventions?

NEIER: Well, there isn't any current convention that provides a mechanism for getting at Saddam Hussein. There were some -- there was some discussion after the Gulf War of creating a tribunal for Iraq, like the one that was created for ex-Yugoslavia and like the one created for Rwanda. But unfortunately, nothing was done about it at the time. There was talk of creating somebody to deal with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Nothing was done about that.

So I do think there has to be a court in existence which is capable of reaching the Khmer Rouge, reaching Saddam Hussein, and reaching anybody anywhere in the world who commits crimes of the sort they committed.

GROSS: Aryeh Neier is the author of the new book "War Crimes." He's the former head of Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and is now president of the Soros Foundation, a philanthropic organization which funds groups that promote democracy in emerging democracies.

Our interview was recorded yesterday.

Today, we called back Neier with a postscript about George Soros, the investor and philanthropist who funds the foundation. A couple of weeks ago, George Soros had a letter published in "The Financial Times" of London urging that immediate action be taken to reverse the Russian economy's downward spiral by creating a currency board to stabilize the ruble. Some say his letter helped set off the crash of the Russian economy.

I asked Aryeh Neier if this controversy is affecting the philanthropic human rights work of the Soros Foundation.

NEIER: Well, I suppose it does affect it in this respect, that the public perception is that the George Soros the investor and George Soros the philanthropist are the same person; and therefore, it's very difficult for us to disentangle the activities of the foundation from his financial activities, in terms of perception. But in terms of actuality, there isn't any connection between the two.

Nevertheless, perception is a factor in influencing what we're able to do. If there is hostility to George Soros because of his financial activities, it impedes the activities that the foundation can engage in.

GROSS: Are there complications that you continue to face as a human rights group connected to a controversial investor?

NEIER: We -- we have a living donor. From the standpoint of foundations, I supposed it's always much easier if the donor is dead and his financial activities are in the past. On the other hand, I personally like the idea of having a living donor. I think that living donors tend to be much more adventurous in their philanthropy than foundations which are run by trustees that feel a fiduciary responsibility to manage the endowment in some conservative manner.

So I suppose that there are advantages and disadvantages in having a living donor, but our situation is very much one where the donor is alive, where he is a public personality, and where his ways of making money are a significant part of the public reputation that he has, and therefore the public reputation that the foundations have.

GROSS: Now is your foundation running any operations in Russia now?

NEIER: We have very large-scale operations in Russia. We have a very large public health program in Russia. For example, one of the things that we are trying to do is deal with the epidemic of tuberculosis in the prisons in Russia. And we are the largest donor internationally to efforts to eradicate tuberculosis. We are engaged in maternal and child health programs in Russia. We have large-scale education programs in Russia. We have law reform programs in Russia. We have Internet programs, programs to strengthen the provincial universities. We spend as a foundation upwards of $100 million a year in Russia.

GROSS: What are you hearing from your people in those programs now about the financial crisis and also about George Soros' possible role in that crisis?

NEIER: Well, I suppose what I'm hearing is, first of all, the personal concerns of staff members of our foundation in Russia; that is, their bank accounts are frozen and a number of them have personal financial difficulties as a consequence of that.

I think it's a little early to find out what the impact of the financial crisis will be on the foundation's activities, as such. I do know that the -- the ousting of the economic reformers from the Russian government and the renewed influence of Russian business figures like Boris Barizovsky (ph) is certainly not going to be helpful in terms of the governmental reform programs that we are associated with in Russia.

But I think it's going to take a little longer for this to shake out in terms of the larger impact on our programs in Russia.

GROSS: Aryeh Neier is the president of the Soros Foundation.

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington DC
Guest: Aryeh Neier
High: Aryeh Neier is the president of the Soros Foundation. He has written the new book "War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror, and the Struggle for Justice" (Times Books). Neier also served for 12 years as executive director of Human Rights Watch and eight years as the national director of the ACLU. He is considered one of the premiere human rights advocates and has conducted investigations of human rights abuses in more than 40 countries. He lives in New York City.
Spec: Aryeh Neier; Human Rights; "War Crimes"; Soros Foundation; Violence

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.

Date: AUGUST 27, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082702NP.217
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: As the summer winds down, book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends one more book that qualifies as beach reading.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: A good man is hard to find, even when a woman isn't picky about physical condition. In Nicole Mones' entertaining first novel "Lost in Translation," a young single woman living in China miraculously becomes acquainted with two hot prospects. One is a brooding virile and very much alive paleontologist. The other is a legendary bundle of bones called "Peking Man."

To secure these two very different specimens, Alice Mannegan will tramp across the deserts of Mongolia and bluster her way into a secret missile base. Besides her pluck, Alice also exudes intelligence and sex appeal.

So how do the guys she's pursuing respond? Naturally. Until the very last pages of the novel, both the modern-day hunk and the old fossil play hard to get.

"Lost in Translation" is an inventive hybrid of Indiana Jones-like adventure tale, historical mystery and bodice ripper. What bumps it up on the literary values scale are the passages it quotes from the writings of the 20th century Catholic theologian and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. And because Mones, like her heroin Alice, worked for many years as a translator in China, her novel boasts an insider's knowledge of regional slang, politics, street smells and prejudices.

The non-Chinese are treated by their hosts here with a courteous condescension that alternates with contempt. For Alice, who longs not just to know China, but in some elemental way to become Chinese, this bias is a particular torment.

Alice's chief strategy for affecting her own personal cultural revolution is sexual. She indulges in frequent Beijing flings with strange Chinese men; a practice she embarrassingly admits that makes her feel like she's having sex with China.

But aimless Alice's life is transformed when her new American client arrives. At their first meeting, archaeologist Adam Spencer tells Alice a tale involving Teilhard de Chardin, who was exiled to China in the 1920s by the Catholic Church in retaliation for his blasphemous views on evolution.

While working with an archaeological team in the far Northwest, Teilhard helped uncover Peking Man: bones from some of humankind's hominid predecessors. The find was enormously important, but World War II broke out before Teilhard could ship the fossils to the Museum of Natural History in New York. In the ensuing chaos, the crate containing Peking Man vanished.

So far, Mones has based Spencer's story on fact. Teilhard really did excavate Peking Man and the bones really did disappear. Enter novelistic invention. Spencer tells Alice that his grandfather knew Teilhard and learned from him that Peking Man survived the war, hidden in Mongolia. Spencer longs to make his reputation by recovering Peking Man and Alice agrees to help.

The fact that a sexy Chinese paleontologist named Dr. Lin will also be coming along adds to the expedition's appeal. In one memorable scene, Dr. Lin does for chopsticks what generations of "Playboy" models have done for the ice cream cone and lollipop.

Mones deftly plants cliffhangers in the expedition's path as it wends its way through Mongolia. But while the search is absorbing, the burgeoning romance between Alice and Dr. Lin generates even greater suspense. Dr. Lin is a dark, Mr. Rochester-like figure plagued with guilt about his wife, presumed dead, who was banished years before to a work camp. His personal demons clash with Alice's own neuroses, even as their eyes blink out "I want you" signals in international Morse Code.

To Mones' credit, she doesn't glide over the lovestruck couple's serious cultural differences. In "Lost in Translation," Mones suggests that finding a box of old bones in the desert is a cinch compared to negotiating the niceties of sexual etiquette and the looming in-law problem in a Sino-American romance.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Lost in Translation."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington DC
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Lost in Translation," a new romance set in China by writer Nicole Mones.
Spec: Nicole Mones; Literature; "Lost in Translation"; Asia
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue