Books: Julio Iglesias as father confessor

Triage by Scott Anderson Macmillan pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Blown off a mountain by an Iraqi shell, war photographer Mark Walsh wakes in a makeshift hospital in Kurdistan. In the process of the novel's title, coloured plastic tags decide who is to be treated, who left to suffer and who to receive mercy-killing via revolver bullet. An impromptu patch-up and a masterful chapter of dialogue later, he is on his way back to New York to clean up and rest before the next assignment. But he returns without his travelling companion, and unaware that he carries an illness yet to show its full symptoms - a comprehensive nervous breakdown.

The emotional debilitation of the war correspondent is explored as effectively here as anywhere in the pantheon of its traditional medium, non-fiction. This would be achievement enough, but fiction's remit is wider. This is a study of love, death and redemption in the finest style, and it is so good it is difficult to avoid a stream of vacuous superlatives. The novel could clearly have come only from a rare experience and a unique talent, but reading it is itself an experience that could inspire novels. In short, this book is what writing is all about.

Mark's mental disintegration in the days after his return is expertly measured and observed. Anderson notes each fracture and fault line as they appear to Elena, his Spanish fiancee, while others are suspected and concealed by Mark himself. Together, coaxed out in set-piece social occasions and private moments, related in one partner's view of another, these episodes encrust the text like gems too small to see but for their shine.

If Mark and Elena are the heart of the novel, Elena's estranged grandfather Jaoquin is its brains. Jaoquin seizes the chance to restore their relationship by effecting a cure for Mark. An old Francoista from the wrong side of that war's romance, his credentials are the years he spent rehabilitating nationalist soldiers traumatised by their own crimes. For this Elena considers him a "war criminal". Where Mark's story shows the truth, Jaoquin's tells it. This wonderful character is a kind of impish Julio Iglesias cast as father confessor, and an inexhaustible supply of insights into human foibles and engrossing vignettes of Spanish history. Mark is someone who views his job as an attempt to second-guess the war "market" to find the most lucrative photo opportunities. Elena, for her part, has manoeuvred from fear to a dislike for the inconvenience his lifestyle causes. Against their world-weariness and denial is pitched the honesty and fighting talk of Jaoquin, unrepentant because he cannot be forgiven. His extreme hope and extreme realism tease out the plot - and the truth - during Mark's convalescence in the Alhambra.

All the best war reporting is lean, unadorned and most telling in the details. Anderson carries these virtues into the understated prose of Triage. Sentences carefully placed at the end of paragraphs or in otherwise innocuous passages detonate when you least expect. While pacing his living room, "A single sob escaped from his throat. It came without warning, as spontaneous as a hiccup, and then it was gone. It was so quick, so unconnected to any feeling, that afterward Mark could almost believe he had imagined it." Or there are more delicate touches, as when Elena hears the brush of Mark's eyelashes against his pillow in the night, or imagines blood "spraying inside him" as they make love.

These pointed moments between Mark and Elena arrive frequently enough to attain the philosopher's stone of the novelist - that unbroken note or hum of emotion hovering two inches above the page. They come like the small taps and nudges that eventually send a child's swing so high it screams with joy and fear. To be unmoved by this novel is to be dead. If Anderson had not already made $1 million selling the film option you would want to give him the money yourself.