review

FROM ZAGREB WITH ANOMIE

Steven Wingate
From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013


Perišić neither sentimentalizes or demonizes the worship of global capital, making his novel that much more tough-minded.



Three quarters of the way through Robert Perišić’s Our Man in Iraq, when its ersatz journalist protagonist Toni is getting into petty (though vicious) fights with seemingly everyone he knows in Zagreb, Croatia, I wanted to get into fights, too. With my wife, with my mother, with the jerk who parked so close to my driver’s side door that I had crawl in from the passenger side, with the punk kid at my oldest son’s hockey practice who kept ringing unnecessary slapshots off the glass. Everybody crowded my space. Everybody challenged my right to existence, and I got so surly that I had to sequester myself and finish the book just to regain some sense of personal peace.

In retrospect, this desire to fight is a visceral endorsement of Perišić’s novel; he pushed me into a fight-or-flight response mode that primed my psyche to receive his story. Though the presence of the word “Iraq” in the novel’s title will no doubt lead some to assume it’s a war novel, it really doesn’t count as one. It contains ramblingly incoherent reports from Toni’s unhinged cousin Boris—an Arabic-speaking Croatian whom Toni has dispatched to Iraq to cover the American “Shock and Awe” invasion of 2003— but no scenes actually take place in the country, and Iraq functions mostly as a metaphor and a pawn in Zagreb’s inbred journalistic war.

Our Man in Iraq is ultimately about the psychic experience of Balkanization and capitalization, which Toni, like the rest of the former Yugoslavia, has undergone. The dissolution of the communist stronghold into a tangle of struggling and (particularly from 1991–1999) warring states has been narrativized in the West as a victory of capitalism and democracy: communism fell, people fought over territory awhile, but they eventually got with the program of global capital and market-driven thinking. The novel shows the working through of this national history in Toni’s mind and life; he not only endures all phases of this transformation but is keenly aware of them, and in fact discusses them openly. “We’d grown up in strange European systems and placed too much hope in rock ‘n’ roll,” he says of himself and a friend.

Toni is the anti-rube, the anti-innocent, fully invested in and responsible for the changes he embraces. He arrives in Zagreb from his home village as a young economics student, joins the Croatian’s Army, returns to “study” at university (seemingly majoring in drunken antagonism), picks up an actress girlfriend, and somehow works his way to the editorship of a newspaper. The turn of the millennium was a very opportunistic time in Croatia, apparently, and when we meet him, Toni is nothing if not an opportunist. Perišić neither sentimentalizes the old ways—what I can only describe as tribal crony Communism—nor demonizes the new worship of global capital, which makes his novel that much more tough-minded. He doesn’t get polemical and drag Toni through the mud to demonstrate the difficulties of any social or economic system. Instead, he shows us the mud that Toni, whatever personal identity he once had now lost among the choices he’s made, drags himself through in search of things he does not understand and has never asked himself if he truly wants.

It is the way he handles his cousin Boris—the titular “Our Man in Iraq”—that most reveals Toni’s specific species of lostness. We first meet Boris through his email reports from Iraq, cascading and looping works of stream-of-consciousness prose poetry that reflect an intensely immediate life. Boris, a fellow Croatian war veteran generally considered mad by all concerned, sees events in Iraq quite nakedly, partly to his environment and partly to his own buffer-free nature. Meeting Boris solely through his voice gives him an almost oracular authority within the book. He seems, in his unfiltered worldview and expression, to grasp the chaos of human life more essentially than Toni, who largely spends his life in Zagreb pursuing other people’s lines of bullshit thinking.

While Toni rides along the waves of bullshit from possibility to possibility—whether ton move into a bigger flat with his actress fiancée Sanja, whether to assist a friend in “re-inventing" the public image of a provincial thug- his cousin Boris gats on his hands and knees and grapples with the mess of life. "You have to grasp for every scrap of sence, you just have to, for every propaganda of sence, for every lie of sence" he writes from lraq. "Days go by before I finish a sentence. There's no full stop. I finish cigarette after cigarette. Baghdad is burning, part of the Old Town, parts of the best-known old street Rashid are in flames, the old buiIdings are made of wood, there‘s no fire brigade, as we know they died in the World Trade Center, the fire spreads unchecked."

Back in Zagreb, Toni rewrites these chaotic missives for his newspaper. But he himself, as narrator of his own tale, doesn't quite reach such flights of language until his own life begins to unravel. Boris stays behind in Iraq while other journalists depart once the “shock and awe“ grows too great, and this leads to an extended personal train wreck that undoes Toni completely. Here, Perišić pulls off the deft move of making us worry about Boris‘s physical safety while, in the city, we worry increasingly about Toni's psychic safety. Sanja becomes an overnight sensation for baring her breasts in an avant-garde play; his best friend Markatović buys shares in a failed bank; Boris‘s mother castigates him publicly for sending the "boy" to Iraq in the first place, and this becomes a weapon in the internecine warfare of Croatian journalism.

Toni's life ultimately breaks like a raw egg dropped from several stories up. But then, after it splatters and he loses everything he has clung to, he learns that he's not allowed to break but has to pick up and keep moving on. Whether he learns this with any degree of finality or not—whether the lesson of freedom that he glimpses in the dissolution of his own expectations will truly stick, or whether it will be replaced with a new set of fascinations, opportunities, and bullshit lines of thinking—is a question Perišić leaves open. I‘m not sure that Toni himself knows where he lands, which is one reason why the book stuck with me after it stopped making me want to fight everyone in my immediate orbit. His irresolvability is ultimately at the core of his identity, and the dramatic realization of this fact may simply be enough for him. I suspect I'll have to read this book again, a little older and without the need to make sense of it for a review, to figure it out.

Sometimes we get too caught up in the Eastern European-ness of writers from that part of the world, putting undue energy into keeping on the lookout for the absurd, for the darkly humorous, for the shadow of a not-quite-forsaken communism. With luck, Perišić's novel will dig beneath perceptions of regionalism and come to readers as what it is: a tale of one man‘s confrontation with the limitations and crossed wirings of his own desires, the likes of which take place every day on every square foot of this modern earth we tread.

 

 

 

Stevenen Wingate's debu short story collection Wifeshopping won the Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers‘ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2008. His prose poem collection Thirty-One Octets: Incantations and Meditations is forthcoming from WorldTech Communications/CW Books. He is contributing editor for Fiction Writers Review and assistant professor at  Soth Dakota State University where he directs the Great Plains Writers‘ Conference.

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