Charlie Johnson in the Flames: A Novelby Michael Ignatieff
In his critically acclaimed New York Times Notable Book, Michael Ignatieff 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… See more details below
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In his critically acclaimed New York Times Notable Book, Michael Ignatieff 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 by a retreating Serbian colonel. As she stumbles, burning, down the road, Charlie dashes from hiding, throws her down rolling her over and over to extinguish the flames, burning his hands in the process. Believing the woman's life to have been saved, Charlie is traumatized by her death. Something snaps. He now realizes he has just one ambition left in life: to find the colonel and kill him.
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Charlie Johnson in the Flames
By Michael Ignatieff
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
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
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.
They - or rather Jacek - had done what they could:
the IV drip, the bandages from the first aid kit, tied on
to her back with strips torn from Jacek's T-shirt. They
called in the helicopter with the satellite phone and then
they sat by the Jeep all night and waited. In the stupor
of pain, Charlie held her hand because he didn't know
what else to do. There was an agonising wait for the
daylight to come and the weather to clear. We're air-ready,
flight control kept saying over the sat phone, but
we don't have the ceiling. Fuck air-ready. Fuck ceiling.
Get it here! he shouted and slammed the sat phone
down. Charlie's penchant for righteous rage normally
left him feeling exalted, like George C. Scott playing
Patton, but this time whacking down the receiver hurt
his hands so much that he had cried out. After that, Jacek
took the phone away and whether it was Jacek's Polish
patience or his prayers, they got lift-off clearance pretty
soon. Deliverance was only an hour away, and it was
the real deal, top of the line American trauma medicine,
all in tents at the airfield. Charlie knew the place: a
month before he'd interviewed some Jordanian peacekeepers
who'd walked into a minefield and were being
stitched back together there. The ones who could talk,
the ones who were more than bandaged stumps of meat
held in this life by a breathing pump and a heart machine,
had all told him that the doctors were the best.
So she would have the best too.
When they got to safety, and she was better, he would
tell her how fine she had been, burned and tattered as
she was, clambering and stumbling up the track in the
dark from the valley where her house had been, to the
woods on the other side of the border, at the edge of
the refugee camp. She gave out only once, just slipped
back without a sound and fell down on the path like a
dropped shawl. Charlie couldn't do anything because
of his hands but Jacek and Benny linked wrists and carried
her, chair-lift, for more than a mile till they got to
the level. Jacek had been beyond compare, wordless,
teeth clenched, bearing her weight. As for Benny, well
Benny could carry a body uphill in the dark for all eternity.
When they put her down, she stayed standing, and
she just kept on walking straight ahead, along the path,
as if she knew safety lay in only one direction.
She would have known the track well. It started right
across the road from her house, in the woods at the end
of her village. Before the war, there wouldn't have been
dogs, snipers and patrols. This was just a trail, one of the
dozens that the herders used. When the war came, she
would have heard the fighters - her fighters - taking the
path at night, down from the plateau on the other side
of the border filing past her house to take on the blue
half-track and the militia squads in the valley. So now,
in her extremity, she must have thought: my knowledge
will save me. I will lead these foreigners and keep
them to the path and, at the top, someone will stop this
pain. So, after Jacek and Benny had put her down she
walked ahead of them all, a woman in tatters leading
them to safety in the dark.
She had been too shocked, too possessed by pain to
look back. Her house was burning to the ground, her
village was in flames. Charlie knew what it was that she
should be spared, what she should never have to see:
the way the hands would clutch the face, and the body
would cower and tuck its legs in upon itself in vain search
for protection from the flames. If she had seen him like
this, her own father, she might have lain down and
given up. Instead she kept walking upwards with the
foreigners. They kept giving her water and she just kept
walking. They hadn't thought she could make it, but
She had run from the house towards the woods where
Charlie, Jacek and Benny were hiding, running with her
arms outstretched, with the fire on her back flaring like
a cloak. Hair on fire, back on fire, dress on fire, flames
clinging to her while she ran. He jumped into the road
to stop her because he knew - with lunatic clarity - that
running was a mistake. Running fans the flames. You
never run when you're on fire, every book tells you that,
you flatten out, roll in the dust. So he stepped into her
path to stop her and she ran right into him, so that they
rolled together in the red dirt of the road until they were
one crumpled roll of melded flesh, Charlie beating on
her back with his hands to douse the flames. As if he,
Charlie Johnson, had been chosen by her embrace and
anointed like her with the flames. He knew he was crying
out, and when he next opened his eyes, she was lying
on top of him, stinking of gasoline and burned skin. She
was shaking, and he was too, and they kept still, knowing
that the squad might still be at the end of the road.
He thought that if they did not move someone might
take them for dead. He was aware enough to feel that
their bodies were transmitting identical intimations of
fear. He could hear the flames from the burning roofs
and shouts and the pop-pop of small arms. They were
so tightly entwined that he could not see her face, but
he could hear her moaning next to his ear.
And then Jacek crossed his line of sight, running low
with the camera skimming the ground. He flung himself
down ten feet away and began to turn over: the
house burning, the blue half-track reversing and disappearing
out of sight around the bend, all filmed
through the wobbly alembic of fear. When Jacek had
the shot, he pulled the cassette, jammed it into his pocket
and ran over to get them to their feet and into the woods
before the patrol returned. Only the patrol didn't return.
Darkness swung the advantage their way. The
squad would not risk an ambush. Charlie knew they
could now move out and take the woman with them,
back the way they came. Only later, when they were
on the plateau waiting for the helicopter, Charlie realised
that Jacek had done something he had never done in
their many years of working together: he'd left a camera
All the way up the track, Charlie had thought that
she might die. But now it seemed just as obvious that
she would survive. People did. There was no reason this
had to spin out of control. Looking down, he could see
the lights of the airfield and he could feel the chopper
coming down fast.
Soon there would be clear water and clean sheets.
Surgical scissors would cut the singed garments off her
body. Nurses would apply salves and ointments, ice
packs to bring down the temperature of the skin. Fluids
and plasma would perfuse her veins and she would sleep.
She would awake and he would be there to make sure
that she was all right. She would get grafts and have
months of treatment, courtesy of the US Navy. She
couldn't go back, because her village had been torched
and her father was gone. But she would be alive, and
she was young, and that was something.
As for Charlie, he knew he was finished. For thirty
years he had been fucked around by rogues and chancers
and drugged-up hoods at checkpoints from Kabul to
Kigali, but none of them had ever laid a glove on him,
not really. He had heard the bullets whine over his head
but in all that time he had never believed any of them
were meant for him. He had seen the flames and always
believed they would not touch him. Until that afternoon.
When he pulled his hands away to see that they
were covered with the carbonised remnants of her flesh
and his own. Afterwards, waiting for the helicopter, he
had sat in the dark, shaking from head to foot, so fully
given over to fear that there seemed nothing left of him
but terror. Yes, he was finished.
He had left Jacek behind and he was too tired to
care. You weren't ever supposed to leave crew behind,
and the bureau wouldn't let him forget that, even if it
hadn't been his fault. He had not been a hero, and the
thought did not bother him in the slightest. If you
didn't know what fear was, you were in no position
to say a thing.
The patrol of blue half-tracks had come in the quiet,
with such stealth that Charlie didn't realise they were
there until the roof-tops at the far end of the village
began to smoulder and burn. It was unbelievable to
watch from the safety of the trees while the squad went
from house to house, pulling people out, half-dressed,
and leading the men away. He had no idea, and probably
she wouldn't know how to explain it either, why
she had been the one of all the village women who resisted,
rushing up to the squad leader, pleading on behalf
of her house, her possessions, her father still inside.
She had been so vehement she did not even see the green
jerry-can arcing behind her until the gasoline slopped
over her back.
Charlie saw it all from his hiding place at the clearing's
edge. The others in the squad had their balaclavas on,
but not the commander. He had taken the cowl off, as
if to say: I am the one who makes the fire come. I am
the one you will fear. The lighter flicked open in his
hand and he touched her back.
He watched her run, even stayed the hand of one of
his men who drew a bead to fire at the back of her head.
He let her run. He had all the time in the world. He
watched her dance and tear at herself, until he lost sight
of her round the bend of the road. Then he got into the
half-track and reversed out of the village.
Her hand was limp as he held it and he wondered
whether they would ever be so intimate again. It was
clear that the scene they had lived through would remain
unmastered as long as he lived and that this race
to save her would never undo the fact that he had watched
it happen and had been unable to stop it.
The helicopter felt for the pad and settled down. The
doors were pulled open and they had a gurney right up
under the rotors. They lifted her on and a team raced
her away along the tarmac, and two medics were holding
him by the elbows, until he shook them away.
Everyone left him alone after that. He said he would
walk, and they left him to follow the team that was running
the gurney into emergency. He could see the low
caterpillar shape of the mobile naval hospital, the brown
network of tents where they worked on mine victims
and emergency medical evacuations from the zone. The
air was cold and scented with jet fuel. The interdiction
flights were running twenty-four hours a day.
Excerpted from Charlie Johnson in the Flames
by Michael Ignatieff
Copyright © 2003 by Michael Ignatieff.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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