Charlie Johnson in the Flames by Michael Ignatieff, Grove Press, 179 pp., $22.00.
January 25, 2004        

Michael Ignatieff is a respected historian of ideas, a distinguished human rights activist and scholar, and an accomplished novelist. He currently directs the Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, and his novel “Scar Tissue” was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1993. (An earlier novel, “Asya,” was even better.) “Charlie Johnson in the Flames” is the story of a veteran war correspondent, transformed from a jaded observer to an inflamed participant by one experience too many of grotesque brutality.

Charlie, an award-winning British television correspondent, is in Kosovo in 1998, covering the fighting between Serb militias and Kosovar guerrillas. (Ignatieff himself was there in the 1990s as an adviser to the United Nations.) A rumor circulates that some villages the government claims to control are actually held by the rebels. Charlie and Jacek, his photographer, decide to confirm it. It is a matter of no importance, Charlie acknowledges – presumably the border is constantly shifting – but it is a “good story.” (No one ever says why. We are left to infer that for contemporary journalists, a good story is anything, however unimportant, that no one else has reported yet.)

En route, the guide carelessly endangers a couple of civilians, attracting the militia to their house. One of the civilians, a woman, is drenched with gasoline and set on fire while Charlie and his crew watch from hiding, aghast. When the militia leave, the journalists struggle futilely to get her to a hospital in time.

Their footage of all this is sensational. But the murder haunts Charlie more than all the other violence he has witnessed, perhaps because his own crew’s foolishness contributed, perhaps because he tried so hard to save the victim. Horrified to the point of obsession, Charlie wrecks his marriage, exasperates his colleagues, and walks away from his job.

At last Charlie decides to track down the militia commander who set the woman afire. This is a very dangerous proposition, so he broods a great deal about his motives. “He had witnessed so much in a life of reporting and had done so little … he had never saved anyone, and he needed to now.” But no, “saving wasn’t the right word”; he had already tried that and failed. Justice and vengeance were equally beside the point. He simply wanted to confront the murderer, to make him conscious of what he had done heedlessly, so that a sacramental “flame of recognition and shame would jump the gap between one soul and another” – as the flame of the Colonel’s cigarette lighter had leaped across to his victim’s gasoline-soaked body.

Eventually Charlie meets the Colonel, who turns out to be, in some ways, much more impressive than Charlie: forceful, articulate, and self-possessed. Perhaps (I’m guessing; we are not told nearly enough about the Colonel) this is because, unlike Charlie, he is devoted to something – however indefensible – larger than merely “getting the story” or some other variety of careerism. In fact, it is as much the Colonel’s scorn for Charlie’s unthinking pursuit of the “good story” as his indifference to murder that goads Charlie into a final, self-destructive spasm of rage.

Post mortem, Charlie’s friends decide that he was an “innocent.” That is, “he never lost his surprise at this fact about the world [177]” – the fact that people do evil. “Why they do it is not an interesting question. What matters is that they do it.” [177] Predictably, these are East Europeans speaking. The superiority of melancholy East European disillusion to idealistic Western innocence seems to me a tired notion, and dubious to begin with. Still, a good novel can breathe life into any idea.

“Charlie Johnson” is not, however, a good novel. It is hurried and formulaic. Often it reads as though Ignatieff had hastily decked out a failed screenplay. Charlie is not exactly a cipher, but he is far from a fully realized character. Without some sense of what his marriage and career were like before, it’s impossible to understand or sympathize when he goes to pieces. The other characters, partly excepting the photographer Jacek, are even thinner. Only the Colonel comes, too briefly, to life. Moreover, the writing is routine, some of it not even of workshop quality:

He lay watching her. The scent of her body was on his skin and in the sheets. With men, like Jacek, you knew what they were thinking. But with women, you never knew.

She lit the candles and then she sat down on the rickety chair and he did too and they watched the two candles, taller than the rest, flicker and burn.

There’s plenty of evidence that Michael Ignatieff can write a compelling, perhaps even a brilliant, book in any genre whenever he really sets his mind to it. But it’s clear he never really set his mind to “Charlie Johnson in the Flames.”