While lacking real character development and sometimes reading like the skeletal outline of a screenplay, Jeffrey Fleishman’s debut novel presents the wreckage of war and death, told through the voices of Jay Morgan, an American war correspondent on assignment in Kosovo, and his beautiful translator Alija.
She is fanatically searching for Ardian, her missing brother, while also assisting Jay in his mission root out the truth behind the sensational myth of a fanatical Moslem man called the “Dateman”
living high in the mountains.
Rumored to have a beard and bandoliers crisscrossing his chest and new to the war, The Dateman is planning increasing numbers of suicide attacks on Western targets by recruiting impressionable young men. These are the boys who want to be him and who believe the evil myth that lies in the mountains: “The young guerrilla recruits, those waiters and office boys, those gathered from across the continent and who linger in the mountains with knapsacks, guns and fear.”
Filled with random violence, this bleak landscape is awash with the greed of opportunists, ramshackle guerilla groups, and the feared Serb interior police, the MUP.
In their blue and gray jumpsuits, they will stop at nothing to carry out their fanatical mission of ethnic cleansing. For Jay, Alija, and Jay’s colleague Brian Conrad, the region is as frightening and chaotic as anyone could possibly imagine, their steady stream of news reports filtering out to the West through email and satellite phone.
The MUP act as the ultimate gatekeepers to battles and rumored atrocities. They are the ones calling the shots, deciding who lives and who dies: “they can either shoot you or wave you on.” As Jay gets ever closer to The Dateman, the land literally explodes with burning houses where women are sliced and raped, where dirt paths vanish into thickets and road blocks suddenly appear out of nowhere armed with the drunken MUP, their black-barreled Kalashnikovs and high-caliber machine guns always pointed as they hunt for jittery guerrillas.
“A man of paper and ink in a land of blood and war,” Jay feels torn in this place. Haunted by the death of Linda, his photographer wife, in Beirut, he sometimes doubts whether he has the temperament to survive it. Meanwhile, Alija is haunted by the destruction of her family. Gang-raped and beaten, her village destroyed and her parents now in a refugee camp, Alija still holds out hope of finding Ardian alive, “a young man, a boy really, a student who is lost.”
Jay finds comfort with Alija, speaking the language of compassion, the nights of weariness and liquor quietly nudging them both together. Fleishman intersperses number of characters into their journey, including a guerrilla-style freedom fighter and a spy who works for American intelligence, steadily building the myth of the Dateman into a frightening and brutal reality. Before they can even recognize it, a new and far more brutal kind of danger has closed around Jay, Brian and Alija.
The author’s own experiences in Kosovo give the tale added heft. The descriptions of the hypnotic terrain
- big mountains, wide streams, and air that hangs from the smelter and coal plants
- stay with the reader long after the book is finished. With the “man of jihad” as its centerpiece, Promised Virgins remains a shattering account of how war drains and preoccupies, rampant evil an inventive and daily occurrence. Ultimately a fortuitous statement of a world on the cusp of chaos, Promised Virgins explores the seeds of religious fanaticism and an ideological struggle only a few years before those big planes sliced through the steel blue sky and into those silver towers, spoiling the skyline of New York forever.