There is a war in Gunnar Kopperud's meditative novel Longing (Bloomsbury; 256 pages), and it takes place in the memories of his unnamed protagonists: a European reporter who's a veteran of the human-misery beat, and a conflicted North African freedom fighter. Lovers during her bloody war, peacetime erodes their relationship. She recovers a sense of normalcy, however fragile, while he is unable to break his obsession with covering Third World suffering. He is a witness and death is his subject, and as time passes he seems to long for his favorite métier. A concerned editor sends him on the reporting junket of a lifetime, traveling to mythical lairs—Babylon, Tibet, Shangri-la and more—to study man's dreams instead of man's misery. Man has forever sought power, immortality and peace, the journalist discovers, and they will forever elude his grasp.
Kopperud spins some memorable scenes: a desert girl in a white T shirt dancing to Bob Marley, a boy monk in a burnished temple dispensing wisdom with a marble. The best of these freight the tale with visual and emotional meaning. Longing needs the ballast. Kopperud has a philosophy student's weakness for spiraling, unanswerable rhetorical queries.
But sometimes the matter at hand lends itself only to those sorts of questions. Longing is concerned with these essential contradictions of existence, the difference between the witness and the subject, the gulf between two human beings. We spin myths of Mandalay and Shangri-la to transcend, if only in fan-tasy, the conditions that bind us. Even as we come together, find love, dare to dream, we suspect that love, like life itself, will eventually be broken. Kopperud's war-weary, war-loving journalist seeks refuge in the perfect consummation of dreams. He finds mirages.