A journalist decides to avenge one of the many atrocities he’s witnessed, in a third novel (Scar Tissue, 1994, etc.) by political commentator-historian Ignatieff (Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, 2001, etc.).
There are few more clichéd characters than the seasoned war journalist—but few more compelling. Witness Charlie Johnson, the rough soul here. Charlie, who’s covered wars since Vietnam, has been based out of London of late, where he has a family that he never sees because he’s globetrotting to flashpoints with his rock-solid Polish cameraman Jacek. But Charlie gets set off when he and Jacek are trying to cover a story in Kosovo, circa 1998, and a Serb patrol comes through the village, setting fires. As Charlie and Jacek hide in a dugout, the woman who sheltered them is doused in gasoline and set on fire by the soldiers: “As she ran, her arms were like wings of flame, and she blundered into you in an embrace of fire.” Horribly burned himself, Charlie recuperates first under US Navy care, then at Jacek’s remote farmhouse—his wife’s phone calls going unanswered. Deeply scarred once too often by the memories of war, Charlie begins to harbor fantasies of revenge on the officer responsible for the woman’s death. When Charlie goes back to London, he acts out like a petulant teenager, playing the seasoned pro who has to explain nothing to anybody because he’s looked evil in the face and been marked forever. Ignatieff’s prose, which can tend toward the stiff, is best when describing Charlie in this self-righteous but resolutely unwise state of mind, formed by decades of violence: “It seemed obvious to him now that he had been left almost completely untouched by his life. Tired of it, perhaps, but untouched, as if it had all been just a very long action movie and no curtain.” Charlie’s return to the Balkans seems less a mission of justice than an acting-out of something he once saw in a movie.
Bold, slashing view of the tiresome banality of evil.