Croatia joins the EU this July. To understand the nation, read this novelby J A Hopkin / January 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Our Man in Iraq, By Robert Perišic (Istros Books, £7.99)
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…