review

After the war

Prospect Magazine / by J A Hopkin / January 24, 2013

Our Man in Iraq, by Robert Perišic

Robert Perišic’s wry novel Our Man in Iraq was a bestseller in his native Croatia, and its US edition has been endorsed recently by Jonathan Franzen. It’s easy to see why. With a nod to the great Ranko Marinkovic’s novel, Cyclops, in which a theatre critic and his boho-intelligentsia friends try to make sense of Zagreb during the second world war, Perišic maps and mocks the rapid changes happening to his city following the end of the Domovinski Rat—the brutal Homelands War of 1991-95 in which Croatia fought for independence from Serbia.



With formidable insight, élan and a noir-ish relish of backstreet manoeuvres, Perišic asks how a nation can move on after conflict, how citizens can overcome the feeling that “Whoever survived all that Balkan shit, whoever breathed the fumes of that hell, had to feel defeat.”

The narrator, Toni, is a newspaper hack torn between relishing the freedoms of independence and resisting the confusion and consumerism generated by a shock-doctrine capitalist democracy. What’s more, he’s just employed his cousin, Boris—the only person he knows who can understand Arabic—as his newspaper’s man in Iraq.

It’s a successful ruse. Boris’s ticker-tape dispatches from Iraq, naïve yet unnerving, counterbalance Toni’s journalistic musings on the state of his own nation. Remembering how it was to be a student during the Homelands War, Toni writes: “We no longer went to lectures at all: we felt we’d lose part of our libertine integrity if we sat there like good little sons of our parents and listened to those crusty lecturers while war profiteers and politicians privatised state firms, the poor butchered the poor, concentration camps sprang up all over Bosnia, and reports came in about mass rape.”

If that sounds a little like a sociological report, fear not. Perišic’s urgent wit and the many bruising set-pieces scattered around Zagreb’s smoky cafés and bars keep the novel lively. What’s more, Toni’s girlfriend is an actress, which allows the author to play with the performative aspect of identities caught in a hiatus between regimes, codes of behaviour and dress, and the changing targets of intellectual resistance. Of the newspaper’s chief editor, Pero, the narrator notes, “He couldn’t behave like the old Pero now and the new one hadn’t yet gelled,” while another employee, Silva, “instinctively reflected the corporation’s relations of power in her coquetry.”

The uncertain political situation is never far from the narrative. When Boris is asked why he fancies leaving Zagreb for Iraq, he answers, “Peace has become a problem for me.” And matters are spelled out clearly by a former government secretary: “Listen, Yugoslavia was a sum total of small nationalisms which united to fight the big ones. That’s 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’d done that, we got rid of Yugoslavia, too, i.e. the Serbs. Now we’re going our own way, independently, but we’re pitched against the big players again—the Italians and the Germans. That’s the whole story.’’

Perišic looks at how “the whole story” (both in Croatia and in Iraq) is misrepresented or lost in spin because of the rapidly declining standards and values of journalism, thus adding another layer of ironic despair to the book. Yet he is careful to keep a winning balance between meaningful apercus and buoyant satire.

When the writing does occasionally jack-knife into journalese—“What we needed now was harmony, security, consumers and free individuals who paid off their loans”—there’s always Toni’s hangover humour to save the page: “Damn, she walked into it like an Eastern European woman into capitalism!”

Like Dorota Maslowska writing in Poland, Perišic has found rich resources of inspiration and irritation in the transition period endured by his country. Torn between nostalgia and good-riddance, Toni navigates his (and our) way through volatile times, though one shudders to think what he’d make of Croatia’s EU accession scheduled for July this year.

James Hopkin is the author of the novel, Winter Under Water (Picador) and the short story collection Even the Crows Say Krakow (Picador). His Dalmatian trilogy of short stories will be re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 10,17, 24 February, 2013. He will be the Kamov writer-in-residence in Rijeka, Croatia, in April.

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