Maggie Helwig, 'Between Mountains'

IssueDecember 2004 - February 2005
Review by Howard Clark

Few novels are reviewed in Peace News, but then few novelists have the anti-war commitment of Maggie Helwig, a PN contributor, Woman in Black and former member of the WRI Council. This novel, however, is not an anti-war tract but an enthralling work of imagination that gains much of its power from Maggie's serious and multi-angled approach to the reality of war.

The story is set at the false turn of the millennium (remember the panic about y2k chaos?) when the journalistic circus has moved on from Bosnia leaving behind Daniel, a Canadian stringer who feels he somehow owes it to Bosnians to see the story through. It moves through the Balkans to Paris and the Hague where Lili, French of mixed Serbian/Albanian parents, works as a simultaneous interpreter. And also to south London where a traumatised refugee seeks salvation for his infant son.

Daniel is an ethical journalist, telling what truth he can even if little will get published, protecting his sources, and just about managing his own post-traumatic symptoms. Lili is a highly professional interpreter, seeking how to truthfully render what is said in one language (and therefore from one cultural context) into another, but obliged to maintain secrecy - above all when she works at the Rambouillet talks, at the NATO HQ during the 1999 bombings, and finally at the war crimes trials in the Hague. Their long-distance relationship eventually turns to a passionate love, perpetually baulked by their conflicting professional codes.

And then there is Nikola Markovic - on trial as a war criminal. A Serb lecturing in English literature at a US university, he returned to Bosnia to do his duty as a local administrator in Republika Srpska. After the Adolf Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt wrote of the “banality” of evil; with Markovic we are looking more at veniality. He preferred to stay away from the camps and torture centres under his purview, and dismisses a former friend, a fat ineffectual human rights lawyer, as a cranky loser who couldn't see which way the wind was blowing. What realistic choice did he have?

This is much more than a love story against the backdrop of war in the Balkans, and never reduces its setting to mere “local colour”. Rather, it peels away at layers of memory, delves into the agonising dilemmas faced by anyone trying to uphold values in time of war and, as an exploration of the many sides of truth in war, it succeeds in reminding us of the horrors without dehumanising either the victims or the violators.

Topics: Balkans, Culture
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