"A gripping thriller. It's easy to be swept along by the fast action, and to be sucked into Charlie's roguish world of sleazy hotels, battle-scarred hacks and shady fixers. The questions the novel raises . . . are both serious and fascinating." --The Economist
Michael Ignatieff is internationally celebrated both as a commentator on moral, ethical, and political issues and as a novelist; his novel Scar Tissue was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In this, his most powerful work, he again turns to fiction, this time to explore the nature of love, loyalty, war, and guilt. His critically acclaimed New York Times Notable Book tells a story of striking contemporary relevance that has drawn comparisons to the novels of Graham Greene and Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers.
Charlie Johnson is an American journalist working for a British news agency somewhere in the Balkans. He believes that over the course of a long career he has seen everything, but suddenly he finds himself more than simply a witness. A woman who has been sheltering Charlie and his crew is doused in gasoline and set on fire. As she stumbles, burning, down the road, Charlie dashes from hiding and throws her down, rolling her over and over to extinguish the flames, and burning his hands in the process. Believing the woman's life to have been saved, Charlie is traumatized by her subsequent death. Something in him snaps. He now realizes he has just one ambition left in life: to find the colonel responsible for her death and confront him.
Charlie Johnson in the Flames is a major novel by one of the leading political thinkers of our age. A profound meditation on war and guilt, it moves with the pace of a thriller. Indeed, the image of Charlie wrestling with the burning woman might stand as a metaphor for the entire relationship between the West and the rest of the world.
Ignatieff possesses one of the most impressive resumes in contemporary letters. A Harvard-based scholar, he writes for an array of high-profile outlets, including the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and has produced well-regarded works of history (Blood and Belonging, etc.), memoir (The Russian Album, etc.) and fiction (Asya and Scar Tissue, shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize). Thus readers may be disappointed by this slight novel, which doesn't make full use of the author's literary powers. Charlie Johnson is a familiar type, a world-weary war correspondent who neglects his family and only feels at home in ravaged countrysides and in the seedy hotel bars that are "someone's idea of an oasis." He's covering yet another armed conflict, somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, when something truly shocking occurs: a woman is set on fire before his eyes. Charlie, feeling responsible for her death, sinks into a depression, leaves his wife and daughter, and hides out on the Polish farm of his cameraman, Jacek. Only one thing is able to rouse Charlie from his convalescence the idea of inflicting serious physical harm on the brutal commander who supervised the burning. He returns to Belgrade and joins up with a "fixer" named Buddy, determined to find the commander no matter what the personal cost. Ignatieff, who has covered his share of nasty conflicts, doesn't glamorize the war journalist's trade but neither does he move beyond the standard cliches (the neglected wife, the nagging boss, the loyal sidekick). This is a readable but standard tale of redemption and revenge, one that would have benefited from the layers of psychological and political insight that Ignatieff brings to the rest of his work.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 30, 2004
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Excerpt from Charlie Johnson in the Flames by Michael Ignatieff
When Charlie saw the helicopter, he was sure everything was going to be all right. It settled down in the stubble-bare, garbage-strewn field by the edge of the refugee tents, and it came down so close he had to shield her face with his hands from the cloud of dust and refuse thrown up by the blades. It made Charlie feel young again, like Danang in '71, to see the pair of medics in the open door unsnap their belts, sling out the stretcher and break into a low crouching run beneath the rotors. They had their helmets on, two young American faces behind flip-down glasses, and the 6th Navy flashes on their shoulders. It was ridiculous, Charlie knew, but there he was, tears in his eyes, at the thought that they were safe in the arms of the empire.
They knelt beside her and one checked the drip that Jacek had been holding above her, giving him the thumbs-up for his work, while the other assessed her vital signs, fingers on the vein in the throat, eyes on the watch, followed by a quick glance, unreadable behind the shades, to his buddy. Then he pulled back the dressing across the top of her back and gave the wound a look of expressionless assessment. They didn't bother with Charlie's hands, bandaged up so that he felt like a kid in mittens four sizes too big. It was great how fast they were, how they concentrated on the essentials, how they lifted her on to the stretcher with that practised combination of moves, one two three, which turned care into procedure. Then they were running low for the chopper, with Charlie flapping behind, his hands held out in front of him and Jacek half holding Charlie so he wouldn't lose his balance.
They fixed a radio helmet on Charlie's head because he couldn't do it himself, and they strapped him in, next to the stretcher, and the medic made a 'No' sign to Jacek who looked desolate but stood back, crouched low and turned away. As they lifted off, the stretcher locked in place by the door and Charlie in the jump-seat beside it, all he could do was wave his panda hands at Jacek below, diminishing and turning, as the helicopter gained height, his lanky blond hair flying about in the rotor chop, alone in the field.
All through the long night, she had moaned and moved her head from side to side, but now she was silent and her eyes were shut. He supposed that she was no longer in pain, that her capacity for pain had been seared away. One medic had pulled back the singed cotton material of her dress from an undamaged section of her left arm and was giving her an injection. Another pulled out Jacek's drip and fitted a new one. The clear fluid rose, delivering salts and glucose into her veins.
Out on the field he hadn't noticed, but inside the helicopter it became apparent that she didn't smell good. It was a complex aroma of womanhood, sweat, urine and the sweetness of singed meat. They couldn't clean her up en route, and there was nothing to say that they weren't already saying on the radio back to base. Over the headphones he could hear the chatter and drew comfort from their military voices: female, twenty to twenty-five, civilian, third degree on twenty-five per cent, no further estimate of injury until examination, then the vital signs, a bunch of numbers for pulse rate and blood pressure that didn't mean anything to Charlie, and some more traffic about preparations for her arrival. It all felt good: they were waiting for her, Navy trauma specialists in a gleaming white theatre.
Charlie wanted to tell her all this, but they shared no language and the chopper noise made communication impossible. They were scudding and shuddering in and out of the cloud banks, and when her eyes opened again they were shiny glimmers in the changing light. She gazed up at the grey-green insulation jacket covering the inside of the chopper, took in the flexes of the radio lines that went into their helmets and jounced as the machine buffeted its way northwards. Then she looked at him and held his gaze, expressionless. He hoped she knew her salvation was now only minutes away. He reached down to her uncharred hand and held it again between his bandaged hands.
All they had in common was the knowledge of what they had been through. But that was enough. Even if they could have spoken, they didn't need to. Now at the end of her ordeal, with deliverance finally at hand, the shock was causing her gaze to blur. Her eyes closed and Charlie removed his hand to edge away, because the smell was beginning to make him gag. He took gulps of air through his mouth and turned his face to the window.