Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Promised Virgins – A Novel of Jihad by Jeffrey Fleishman

Sometimes the fractals of my life lead to some interesting and unanticipated connections. One of my favorite haunts is the bar at Legal Seafood in Copley Place. If the folks at Legal relied on my consumption of alcohol to remain a profitable concern, they would have gone out of business long ago. I come for the clam chowder, the bottomless glass of Diet Coke and the world-class service from the great staff of men and women who make this bar a destination for many of us regulars. It beats Cheers for being a place where everybody truly knows your name. A few weeks ago, I took my usual place at the bar and quickly became aware that I was sitting next to two distinguished journalists: Kevin Cullen, columnist for the Boston Globe and Jeffrey Fleishman, Cairo Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. Fleishman was in town to as a recipient of a Harvard Nieman Fellowship. He has also been a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

As Cullen and Fleishman allowed me to hitchhike on their conversation, I learned that Fleishman had just published a novel, based on his experiences covering the conflict in Kosovo. I was intrigued enough to order a copy of the book. I am glad that I did.

Promised Virgins - A Novel of Jihad, looks at the war in Kosovo - and the larger global terror campaign - through the eyes of veteran war correspondent, Jay Morgan. A Bin Laden-like figure lurks in the background of the narrative that plays itself out with suspense and artistry. Morgan’s beautiful, but war-ravaged translator, Alijah, provides a link to the terrorists as she searches for her younger brother who has gone missing and may have joined the insurgents. One reviewer likened Fleishman’s writing style to that of Hemingway, but I find Fleishman’s literary voice to be more lyrical and less terse than Hemingway’s. I love his commentary on the art of writing, as limned through this conversation between Morgan and Alijah:

“You’re a fast writer. What’s the problem?


You’re not even forty, are you?

Not that kind of age. It’s details, you know. A lot of older hacks have lost the sense for detail, the precision of a simple thing. You can read it in their copy. There’s stuff missing. They go for big sweeping paragraphs because they don’t take the time anymore to collect the miniature. They think they already know it. But the grain changes. You have to see it. I never want to lose the details.” (Page 63)

It is clear to me that Fleishman, with his many years of covering conflicts, has become both world-weary and word-wise. So, too, has his alter ego protagonist, Jay Morgan. In this passage, Morgan reflects on the death of another journalist, who had looked forward to leaving the theater of war for a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government:

“By now, Vijay’s passed through the check-points and is in Pristina. They’ll cut off his clothes and wash him. Women will gather, and men will go out at first light and break the frost line to the soft earth. The grave will widen. Vijay will be carried through the snow and lowered into the dirt. People will whisper that war is insatiable, unfolding through mountains and creeping across valleys, taking the best and the worst, indiscriminately. They will hate the Serbs, as if they could hate them any more, for a death committed by another. Vijay, the new martyr, his picture photocopied and hung, his black eyes peering through streets and alleys, blowing in the wind, ripping and fading until he is diminished and all that’s left are staples and faded strips of paper. Then a new face will be hung. And another. And another. This is what I think, but what do I know about anything?” (Pages 180-1)

Fleishman’s philosophical reflection about war, as experienced by one charged with reporting the violence and death, reminds me a great deal of the brilliant novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Painter of Battles.

Review of The Painter of Battles

Let me share one final excerpt, a hauntingly poignant and poetic meditation on war, distilled in the microcosm of Alijah’s story and tragedy:

“Alijah’s silhouette is sharp. She says nothing more. In all the time we’ve been together, our conversations have mostly been with, and through, others, with Alijah the conduit, the alchemist turning two languages into one. She is my screen, my sieve, my word collector. I want her to whisper her secret to me again. I want to know more. I want her story to never end. It lies out there in remnants on a field of lightning and a galloping horse. She will never tell me all. I have been given images I can understand and process: rape, a dead boy soldier, escape. A tragedy in three acts. Language, this smattering of ink and sound, cannot explain all; there is a layer, an invisible space between syntax that cannot be bridged. You can write poems on the pain of fire, but you know nothing of fire until you place your hand on the stove. I live in that vocabulary between poem and stove.” (Page 220)

Fleishman has a keen eye, a well-tuned ear for the nuance of dialogue and an impressive grasp of the complexities of human relationships with a war zone. This novel sheds helpful light on those Byzantine dynamics. While offering illumination, Promised Virgins also provides entertainment. I look forward to reading more from the mind and pen of Fleishman.



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