Charlie Johnson in the Flames by Michael Ignatieff

Under fire
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Charlie Johnson is an American war correspondent who has been round the block countless times, beginning with Vietnam, but comes unstuck in Kosovo. Still hungry enough to bigfoot his increasingly much younger colleagues, he inserts himself into a Muslim village under Serbian control along with a local guide and his Polish cameraman, Jacek. Their aim: to demonstrate that Kosovan "rebels" are still active in the district.

They get their story, but in Michael Ignatieff's new novel, the story also gets Charlie. Even while he watches it, the village is torched by murderous Serb specials. A young woman, beseeching the unit commander to spare her house, is doused with petrol and set alight. Aflame, she runs into the nearby woods, and into Charlie's arms. Somehow he manages to get her airlifted to an American navy hospital, but she dies anyway, and Charlie cracks up. As can happen, it's what takes place on the edge of the cyclone that belies the true force and brutality of the cyclone itself.

Charlie is wounded physically as well as mentally. His hands have been burned attempting to put out the fire on the woman's back. Instead of returning to his wife and daughter in London he first makes love to Etta, his bureau manager, then hives off to Poland to recuperate in Jacek's house. When he does get back to England he walks out of his family home.

To redeem his own inadequacies he decides he'll get even with the Serb commander. But confronting him in Belgrade he rediscovers what he has known all along - that the perpetrators of evil simply have no conscience.

It would be caddish to reveal how Ignatieff's plot plays out. Short as it is, Charlie Johnson in the Flames is that good, belonging to the same order of thrillers by writers like Graham Greene, Len Deighton and Lionel Davidson.

It has its own articulate ambiguities, however. As Charlie tries piecing his life together, his memories are those of a drowning man: "The whole point of a family was encapsulated in 'Do you remember that time when?'" But that kind of fix, which is both profoundly insightful and exactly the sort of glib reduction a hardened journo does come up with, won't work any more. From the beginning the reader knows, and Charlie knows, that his time is fast approaching.

Shades of the Pinter-scripted movie, The Quiller Memorandum? Maybe, albeit Charlie is what he says he is, not a spook. Ignatieff applies the same narrow lenses though, making no attempt to explain or describe the Balkan conflict at large, depriving moral principle of any certain anchorage.

This, in a way, is odd. In his other incarnation Ignatieff is Carr Professor of human rights practice at Harvard University. Behind him is a string of publications that have established him as one of the keenest dissectors of the fetid underbelly of global affairs. But Ignatieff instinctively understands what a novel can and cannot do. By sticking to the constraints of fiction, and by adopting a style that deliberately mimics the thought processes of his protagonist, he imparts more, not less.