WAR TORN

John Marks, Author . Riverhead $25.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-57322-254-9

This complex, beautifully savage novel is well named, for every character in it is torn between past and present, between the promise of an adoptive country and the pull of a ruined homeland. Former U.S. News Berlin bureau chief Marks (The Wall ) posits that the collapse of communism ("the greatest hangover of the twentieth century") in 1989 was but a prelude to yet another European apocalypse ("There was always this bloody shadow, this Bosnia.... The entire world is waiting to turn inside out") and illustrates his thesis in harrowing fashion. Arthur Cape, a Texan journalist working for a flagging American news magazine, is at a Halloween party in Berlin in the mid-1990s when a ghost from his past makes an appearance. George Markovic, an ailing war profiteer who helped Arthur first settle into Berlin at unification, now comes bearing news of Arthur's lost Bosnian love, Marta Mehmedovic, whom Arthur tried to save three years earlier after she followed her husband and son home to Mostar, a bitterly divided city in Bosnia. Galvanized, Arthur immediately plunges into a Balkan free-fire zone full of demons under different flags ("Arthur asked them who they were, and a host of cries rang out. They were Yugoslavs. They had fought the Germans. They had loved Tito. They were Croats, Muslims, Serbs, Jews and Italians. Who cared?"), searching for Marta, who has been trying to salvage the remains of her family, despite her sister's dangerous dalliance with a local warlord. The language here is deliberately biblical, as Marks repeatedly intones the end of history and Augustine's vision ("The division of a city is a form of living death experienced by only a few places on this earth. Mostar and Berlin are such cities.... It is our endless Augustinian sickness, the City of God against the City of Flesh"). Marks's rendering of the period pulls no punches (paramilitaries reign supreme, the U.N. an impotent afterthought), and every principal is wrenched between flickering and insubstantial poles. (Nov. 10)

Forecast: Marks's subject is the war in the Balkans, but the general state of chaos he evokes also reflects and illuminates current world events. Like a latter-day Herman Wouk or Irwin Shaw, he writes with unabashed romanticism and passionate intensity, and should attract readers of popular as well as literary fiction.

Reviewed on: 10/27/2003
Release date: 11/01/2003
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