(Yes, Michael Ignatieff had a previous life as a novelist, an excellent one actually.)
This short, intense novel tells the story of Charlie Johnson, a war correspondent working in the Balkans during the recent war there. Charlie, hardened to the realities of war but not yet insensitive to the human beings experiencing daily trauma, is accompanied by his cameraman and best friend, Jacek, a melancholy, reliable Pole. The story focuses on a single event and its aftermath. While hiding in a contested village, Charlie sees a peasant woman set alight and tries to put her out with his bare hands. After his recovery, he grows obsessed with his memory of the woman, who was rescued by helicopter but eventually died. He returns to the Balkan danger zones to hunt down the high-ranked soldier who murdered her, not to kill him but to simply ask “Why?”
This is an extremely accomplished novel in which the author places the reader in burned out villages and tense, ugly towns with uncanny clarity. An old rundown hotel has “Third Reich corridors, curving, carpeted, high-ceilinged and dim”. The Balkans at war are a haunting and dangerous place so Charlie’s return is difficult to understand, even for him, but entirely believable. As Jacek says, “We suffer from too much experience”, and Charlie, whose life feels empty and undirected, hungers for answers. All the characters, including the locals, Charlie’s burdened wife, and Etta, his lover from the home office in London, leap off the page into reality. This is a highly filmic work, disturbing, engaged, utterly convincing.