Charlie Johnson in the Flames

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Michael Ignatieff’s Charlie Johnson in the Flames is a novel about the twentieth century’s cynical familiarity with horror and violence, and about the ability most people have to dismiss war and terror so long as the remote reality of such evils does not impinge upon their day-to-day lives. It is also about the dangers of obsession, and the all-consuming nature of revenge.

The novel begins with the titular character literally burning his arms in a futile attempt to save a woman’s life. Broadcast journalist Charlie Johnson has covered many wars, revolutions, and atrocities with his Polish comrade and cameraman, Jacek. Traveling the globe together, the two have always managed to somehow report from the brutal front lines of civil wars and genocidal conflicts, yet still maintain their professional detachment and objectivity. It all ends, however, when the two see a military patrol demolishing and burning down an unnamed Balkan village, killing any villagers in their way. Before Charlie’s eyes, a woman begging for mercy is doused in gasoline and set on fire. Although Charlie and Jacek work to save her, they fail, and she dies.

Charlie finds that he is no longer able to shrug off the evils of the world. Although he has a wife, Elizabeth, and a daughter, Anna, waiting for him at home, he cannot initially return to take comfort with them. And when finally he does visit his family, he realizes he cannot stay until he has exorcised the demon of guilt that has worked in him since witnessing the death of the woman whose name he never learns. Charlie is also loved and supported by his supervisor, Etta, and by Jacek, but even they cannot deter him from his new quest to find the anonymous colonel who murdered the woman, no matter the cost.