review

Tim Judah on Our Man in Iraq

TIM JUDAH
Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišić

In general terms, there are only a few tests of a good book. The first and really big one, however, is whether you want to know what happens next. The second, which obviously does not apply if you are reading science fiction or a historical romance, say, is whether you think, “Yes, exactly!” about descriptions of people and places. I am not Croatian, but I am a journalist and I know lots of the people in this book – not literally, of course, but I recognise their characters. All the way through, not only did want to know what happened next, but I kept thinking, “Yes, exactly!”

Tim Judah is Balkans correspondent of The Economist



 

In 2003, when this book is set, I was Croatia’s man in Iraq. During the war years in Croatia and the rest of former Yugoslavia, I had covered the region for The Economist and other publications. I had crept through cornfields to the besieged city of Vukovar and witnessed Montenegrin soldiers shelling Dubrovnik and sacking the surrounding villages. Then, after the Kosovo war in 1999, the international media circus wound down and moved on, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq.

The first thing that happened to me on 12 March 2003 – the day after I had arrived in Saddam’s Baghdad – was a call from CNN. “Where are you?” shrilled the producer. “Baghdad,” I replied, proud that I should be in the right place at the right time when so many other journalists had failed to get visas. “You are in the wrong place,” he said. Panic. Why? Well, barely an hour or so earlier, Zoran Djindjić, the Serbian prime minister, had been assassinated. Within an hour I was on a roof, with that blue-domed mosque in the background, on CNN, talking about Serbia and former Yugoslavia. However, I am not sure that many viewers noticed that I was in Baghdad, not Belgrade.

In general terms, there are only a few tests of a good book. The first and really big one, however, is whether you want to know what happens next. The second, which obviously does not apply if you are reading science fiction or a historical romance, say, is whether you think, “Yes, exactly!” about descriptions of people and places. I am not Croatian, but I am a journalist and I know lots of the people in this book – not literally, of course, but I recognise their characters. All the way through, not only did want to know what happened next, but I kept thinking, “Yes, exactly!”

One of the television producers for a big American television network in Baghdad was another Zoran. Sometimes he was Croatian, sometimes Serb; anyway, that is not the point. Zoran, like the hapless Boris in Our Man in Iraq, spoke fluent Arabic. The difference was that Zoran had been sent to Baghdad because his familiarity with the Yugoslav wars had made him a highly experienced producer, whereas Boris’s Balkan war experience made him a highly volatile and untrustworthy journalist. 

Towards the middle of the book, Boris goes missing in Iraq, precipitating the complete and utter implosion of Toni’s life. In the meantime, back home, the conspiracy theorists - who are always busy in the Balkans - have been working overtime. One explains how Boris’ disappearance was all part of a plot, designed by one of Croatia’s two big media empires, to take down the other. “Yes, exactly!”

After I left Baghdad and went to Zagreb, I was told that a rumour had spread – or perhaps been spread – while I was there. As I had been an “our man in Croatia and Bosnia” during the wars, and my articles had often been quoted in the Croatian press, I had what is called “name recognition”. As my name was known, the story circulating was that I was not filing for the paper at all; instead, my name had been pinched and, as with Toni in Our Man in Iraq, articles would be concocted to run underneath it.

The difference, then, between fiction and real life is somewhat blurred! Unlike Boris, filing hopeless and unusable gibberish from Iraq, I was filing normal, everyday copy that was used. Yet just as in the Boris case, I became part of a real-life conspiracy theory.

Robert Perišić was born in 1969 in Split. In the late 1980s he came, like Toni, to study in Zagreb and never returned down south. In 1994 he began to write for Feral Tribune, the legendary and now defunct Split satirical weekly. However, he wrote about books and culture , not economics as is Toni’s speciality. In 2000 he began work with Globus, Croatia’s most well-known weekly magazine. His first book was a collection of poetry; next came two collections of short stories followed by Our Man in Iraq, which became Croatia’s best-selling book in 2008. He is currently the vice president of the Croatian Writers Society.

From beginning to end, this book took four years to write. Perišić says he wanted to catch “something of the chaos” of war, but he also wanted to focus upon a subject unfamiliar to most people. That is how the idea came of linking the Croatian experience with the Iraq war came about: “one thing led to another.” But above all, he emphasises that he wanted to avoid some of the pomposity characteristic of much war writing and pen “a good read.” In that, he has no doubt succeeded.

“Some people thought the book was autobiographical,” he says. In fact, it is not, but borrows of course from his experiences. As I say, many of the characters in the book are recognisable, but in the sense of characters rather than actual people. Aside from the journalists and editors, one character sticks out a mile – at least for me. Toni goes to see an elderly economist called Olenić. Such elderly economists rattle about from one end of former Yugoslavia to the other; they usually wear the same cardigans, and could come from central casting, but they often have pithy things to say. Perišić captures their very essence perfectly. 

Olenić begins with his assessment of Yugoslavia. “Listen,” he says, “Yugoslavia was the sum total of small nationalisms which united to fight the big ones. That is how we got rid of the Italians on the coast and the Germans on the continent. We couldn’t have done that by ourselves. Once we had done that, we got rid of Yugoslavia too, i.e. the Serbs. Now we are going our own way, independently, but we’re pitched against the big players again – the Italians and the Germans. That’s the whole story.” Toni thinks: “Wow, talk about succinct!”

Olenić then recounts a story that Perišić once heard from his cousin. Yugoslavia’s death sentence came when the Slovenes and Croats walked out of what was to be, in January 1990, the final party congress of the country’s communists. Kiro Gligorov, the president of Macedonia, was there with Vasil Tupurkovski, a then prominent, famously tubby, jumper-wearing Macedonian politician. Tupurkovski was desperately hungry, but Gligorov would not let him go to get food.

“’Come on, Kiro, I’m starving,’ Vasil pleaded. But Kiro put his foot down: ‘Be patient. You can see the country’s falling apart, oh hell…I don’t want people to say that we let Yugoslavia collapse because you were hungry. Wait for the break, or else history will judge you!’”

The book rolls on, in a hilarious and rambunctious fashion, to the complete collapse of Toni’s world. He has done well, escaping provincial Dalmatia. He has a good job in Zagreb and a girlfriend ogled by other men with whom he has an exciting and imaginative sex life and with whom he is planning, somewhat reluctantly perhaps, to settle down. Then, when Arabic-speaking Boris shows up, he is the right person in the right place at the right time.

Boris’ subsequent disappearance rapidly becomes a scandal, as does the revelation that Toni has had to cover for him by writing his copy. Everything closes in on Toni, but in a way which everyone who has experienced some form of rolling catastrophe in their life can easily identify with. Did this happen to Perišić? No, he says, but he did draw on his experiences from the period of his divorce.

Of course, this is a Croatian novel drawing on Croatian experiences, but it is also a novel about journalists and journalism. In that sense, it has echoes of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop; that too is a book about journalism, which tells you much about the Britain of the late 1930s and also through the conceit of a foreign war.

Much of Our Man in Iraq rings true to modern life, whether you live in Croatia, in Britain or in Australia. Best of all, perhaps, is the way Perišić skewers the world of literary criticism, which, being a critic himself, is the field he knows best. In the wake of the catastrophe Toni recounts, one literary columnist discovers that Boris’s reports “were actually very original works of literary worth, which I’d interfered with and disfigured; publishers later came along and expressed an interest in issuing them as a book.” Sigh! Poor Toni is just an everyman after all.

 

 

 Tim Judah, Balkans correspondent of The Economist, is known for his coverage of the Yugoslav wars. In 2010, he coined the expression "Yugosphere", which is now widely used to describe relations between the former Yugoslav republics.

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