A Week In Books: Reports from the front line

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The Independent Culture

When, in 1899, Rudyard Kipling exhorted the United States to "take up the white man's burden", he warned the baby superpower about "the savage wars of speace". Those bloody, messy wars - now post-colonial or neo-colonial - again disturb our sleep in a "unipolar" world. One creative response to this deregulated global mayhem, visible this autumn, is to look to ancient Rome for a distant mirror of empire and its discontents. Another takes the form of sceptical fiction about today's liberal, PC version of the "white man's burden": the self-imposed duty to report on or assist at scenes of exotic slaughter and suffering, with bleeding hearts worn prominently on sleeves.

New fiction generated by the mixed motives of conscience-plagued journalists and aid workers include novels by Pat Barker and Gil Courtemanche (see page 24). Variations on the theme are due from Michael Ignatieff, with his novella Charlie Johnson in the Flames, and in the Balkan stories of Courtney Angela Brkic's Stillness. Even Frederick Forsyth - nobody's idea of a self-lacerating pinko - takes up this tune in his latest thriller, Avenger.

I suspect that this motif appeals to fiction writers for reasons beyond the taste for a newsy, gory backcloth to their plots. Partly involved with the subject, partly the no-strings witness or fixer, the reporter or agency expert mimics the stance of the novelist in front of her material. The tragic setting may be shaped, or beautified, but the outsider who wields this power can always find an exit.

Another newly published novel stakes out this ground with rare perception and finesse. Sarah May's The Internationals (Chatto & Windus, £10) emerged from visits the author made to Macedonia in 1999. At the time, the tiny, frail Balkan republic absorbed a wave of refugees pushed over the border by Serbian-led ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and by the Nato bombing campaign that ensued.

Half wide-angle documentary, half bleak tragi-comedy, The Internationals switches crisply between its cast of drifters, chancers and plain weirdos working for NGOs and media outfits in Macedonia - and the quizzical locals who endure, or exploit, their presence. David the sensitive magazine writer; Guy the former estate agent in search of redemption; Ellen the thwarted diplomatic wife; Donatella the primadonna of "Women against War": if May sometimes yields to caricature, her sharp eye for divided loyalties means that the novel never wants for light and shade. As this mixed-up crew goes "digging around for history in some ex-Commie shithole", farce (the bridge-building performance of Little Red Riding Hood in a rackety frontier-town) and pathos (the fate of the Kosovar refugee, Aida) often coincide. Finding a tone that lets cynicism co-exist with compassion is no mean peace-keeping feat. The Internationals achieves it with admirable poise.

May does have to strain to keep every plate spinning in her multi-stranded plot, which jumps from one pivotal day to another over the three months of the Kosovo crisis. Unusually, the reader may wish that this laconic, elliptical novel were a little longer than it is. Something about its mix of low deeds and high spirits in perilous places recalled for me the Olivia Manning of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy: that intimate epic of south-east Europe and north Africa before and during the Second World War. (If you haven't read them, then you must soon.) Perhaps Sarah May should consider a fresh Balkan trilogy, this time for the post- (rather than pre-) Communist age.