To be a foreign correspondent is to lead a double life. The work, which tends to take place in war-torn locales amidst violence and mayhem, demands an unnatural level of detachment and dispassion about human misery. The life, including mates and children and friendships and engagement, is supposed to go on outside office hours, and the journalist is expected to toggle from one mode to another without trouble. Many manage it successfully – many do not. Michael Ignatieff’s tough little novel is about one who does not.
Charlie Johnson is an American-born reporter who works for British television. He’s been in the game for a quarter of a century and is probably getting too old for it. He’s worked in Gdansk and Sarajevo, Mostar and Mogadishu, Luanda and Kabul, with his gloomy Polish cameraman Jacek at his side, “two old dogs who had done all their hunting together.” They have seen everything but increasingly they realize that they have learned nothing from it. “We suffer from too much experience,” as Jacek puts it.
One night in the Balkans (Ignatieff is irritatingly vague about where – Bosnia? Kosovo?) they sneak over Serbian lines for a story and find themselves in the middle of a Muslim village that is being terrorized. The young woman whose basement they had been hiding in is doused with gasoline and set afire. She tries to escape the pain by running and Charlie stops her, embraces her, and quenches the flames with his hands. They get away together to a field hospital but it is too late; the woman dies.
It is the seminal event in Charlie’s life. He has crossed the boundary between detached witnessing and taking an active role in stopping, or at least alleviating, a criminal act, and he cannot go back. The rest of the novel details Charlie’s quest for retribution: he must find the man with the lighter who turned the nameless woman into a human torch.
Along the way, he seeks refuge from these new and disturbing feelings, first by bedding Etta, his all-too-understanding unit manager from London, next by holing up for a few days at Jacek and his wife Magda’s farm in rural Poland, then by going home to a wife and daughter whom he seems to view through the wrong end of a telescope. Finally, having put his job in jeopardy by insulting his boss, he heads for Belgrade to begin his last hunt.
We know the story will end badly, and of course it does. When he eventually confronts the killer, Charlie does not achieve the reckoning he is seeking. The thug manages to turn Charlie’s accusation back on him, saying the woman got torched because she was hiding foreign journalists. Although this is outrageous, there is just enough of a kernel of truth to it to bleed Charlie’s final act of nobility and redemption.
There are two problems with this novel. Ignatieff takes great pains to convince his readers that it is the unceasing brutality Charlie has been “forced” to witness that has corrupted him as a human being, but readers aren’t likely to see Charlie in as charitable a light as his author does. Charlie comes across as a selfish, egotistical skirt-chaser who has never been prepared to invest the time and effort into his private life that he does into his glamorous, risk-taking job. It appears more likely that Charlie gravitated toward the disaffected life of the foreign correspondent because of his personality type, rather than the other way around.
The second problem is an extension of the first. Ignatieff clearly views Charlie as a modern martyr who has sacrificed himself for the sake of being a truthful witness to our evil times. The book’s oddly worded title, Charlie Johnson in the Flames, carries an implicit parallel with iconographic figures like St. Peter in Chains, the Madonna in Glory, or Susanna Among the Elders. Charlie has visions of the burning woman after her death, visions that spur him on to action like a modern Joan of Arc.
The novel is full of the vocabulary of purification and redemption. Charlie shows his Belgrade assistant the scar tissue on his burned hands, “as if to prove that the event had really occurred,” just as Jesus displayed his crucified hands to doubting Thomas. At the end of the novel, Etta, Jacek, and Magda keep a vigil for three days, just like the three Marys.
What are we to make of all this heavy-handed religious imagery? If Ignatieff believes he can convince readers that journalists like Charlie deserve this kind of sanctification, I think he has a very tough sell on his hands. No one forces journalists to do what they do, and if they are truthful about it they will admit that getting as close as possible to danger and death without getting hit themselves is a badge of honour in the profession.
In spite of these caveats, the book is a gripping short read, largely due to Ignatieff’s sharp eye for detail and his sinewy, journalistic prose. Novels don’t necessarily have to be completely convincing to be entertaining.