Book Review: Media Madness in New Croatia

TVR Books | Christian Cummins | September 2013

"What’s up?"

"A blockhead is driving me nuts. I recommended him as a correspondent in Iraq. He’s gone there, and now he’s not reporting."

"Oo, sounds unpleasant!" Markatovic said.

Sitting in the newsroom in Zagreb, Toni is beside himself: He should have known better than to hire his misfit cousin as a fledgling correspondent to cover the Iraq War for his Croatian newspaper. Later, he admits his tale was "full of idiocy and madness from the beginning – or even before that." So why had he gone along with it?

Robert Perisic’s Our Man in Iraq was a Croatian best seller when originally published in 2007, but we had to wait until 2012 for Will Firth’s English translation. He has conveyed the rural Croatian dialect of the original text in a Scottish slang, which might make Irvine Welsh fans believe that Toni’s rural relatives have stepped out of the pages of Trainspotting. But Firth deserves praise: The text flows and characters come alive. Usually a slow reader, I lapped up the novel in just two hot summer days in Zagreb.


Love, self-delusion and the trauma of war

Our Man in Iraq is a multi-faceted novel: a clear-eyed dissection of life in post-Communist Croatia, a satire of the media, an exploration of the trauma of war and, most of all, a tragi-comedy about identity, self-delusion and the end of a love affair.

These are meaty themes packed into the novels’ 319 pages, but the story is told with pace and wit. It made me smile knowingly and then it broke my heart.

I can’t recommend it enough.

The narrator is Toni, a thirty-something journalist who writes the economics pages for a struggling Zagreb newspaper called PEG. Having grown up in a rural village, he’s wracked with insecurity about being unsophisticated but has apparently successfully reinvented himself as a designer-drug taking, philosophising urbanite.

In a passage that made me snort with self-recognition, Toni writes "The fear of someone thinking I was a redneck made me read totally unintelligible post-modernist books, watch unbearable avant-garde films, and listen to progressive music, even when I wasn’t in the mood."

But when we first meet Toni, his plan seems to have worked. As well as his respected job, a position that leads his mum to fatefully advertise him as "Mr Big in the capital" among their rural relatives, Toni has a beautiful and sexually adventurous girlfriend called Sanja, who is trying to make headway in the acting world. With their commitment to the avant-garde, they like to think they float above the new consumerist, vulgar society of noughties Croatia.

He also enjoys a warm friendship with an eccentric entrepreneur called Markatovic, a beer-swilling partner-in-crime from his old university days when they both dreamed of dedicating their lives to art. Toni hopes to angle a creative column at the paper and Sanja hopes to impress theatre critics with her bare-bosomed role in a Brechtian play. All they need for perfect happiness is a decent shared apartment.

Yet this apparently stable world unravels at giddy speed when, under pressure from a battle-axe aunt from the countryside, Toni agrees to find a job at his newspaper for his cousin Boris who has been loafing around in Dalmatia. Boris has no experience in journalism, but he says he speaks Arabic, likes to write and has experience of warfare from Croatia in the 1990s. It just so happens that the paper needs a new correspondent to cover the recently launched US-led war in Iraq. What could possibly go wrong?

In short, everything.


"Peace has become a problem"

Boris, who had told Toni at his "interview" that "Peace has become a problem for me", is evidently traumatised from his own conflict experiences and instead of sending fact-based dispatches from Iraq, he sends long stream-of-conscious emails to poor Toni commenting on the absurdity of conflict.

"I forgot to tell you about the state of the war, cannons roar, turn heroes to gore, flash of steel in hand, crimson stains the sand, the dusky Arab is cast down, resistance is removed like a wart with a laser based on plans and scenarios…"

Toni, a would-be modernist who realises he is guilty of the ancient crime of clan-based nepotism, rewrites these ramblings for publication. However, Boris then disappears without trace and Toni soon has an irate aunt vocally hounding him about her son’s whereabouts and wellbeing. The truth becomes impossible to conceal with predictably disastrous consequences.

If the English title seems to be a knowing wink to Our Man In Havana, Graham Greene’s tale of the chaos caused by an absurdly ill-equipped spy, the media satire is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the travails of a war correspondent with no interest in journalism causing havoc in the fictional African state of Ishmaelia. As Boris sends rants from Iraq, the newspaper’s editor Pero invokes the rest of the team to "search for new hysteria."


Hard-drinking urban Zagreb

In many details Perisic’s book is specific to Croatia. The hard drinking urban scene of Zagreb is vividly brought alive and Toni is a insightful guide to the newly independent Croatia – a fresh nation where shopping malls are springing up like mushrooms and where glorious military battles are celebrated endlessly on TV.

"We were a new society, a society with constantly changing backdrops and new illusions," he writes. Some of the most delightful passages are from the now disillusioned Toni, drinking and smoking on his sofa while staring the TV and pontificating on love, loss and politics, much to his girlfriend’s exasperation.

Poor Toni! He can see with admirable clarity how the population is being duped by the false pride of nationalism, but he can’t see his own self-delusion about his career and the macho jealously that is destroying his love. He makes maddeningly poor choices, led firstly by panic, then wounded pride and then a surfeit of consoling alcohol and drugs.

So Toni is an idiot-savant – understanding too much and too little at the same time. And that’s the triumph of this deeply touching novel. The setting may be resolutely and fascinatingly Croatian, but Toni’s conflicts are universal. ÷


Our Man in Iraq

by Robert Perisic

Black Balloon Publishing (2013), pp. 208   

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