Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perisic
Will Firth, tr. New York. Black Balloon. 2013. ISBN 978936787050
This postmodern, postcommunist picaresque hilariously skewers Croatian, Western, and global culture as it follows the rapid descent of quasi-journalist Toni, a country kid striving to make it in the big city. Desperate to secure his position, Toni hires his “crazy” cousin Boris to cover the Iraq War. As personal disaster looms, Toni ponders Croatia’s emerging capitalist democracy, Yugoslavia’s demise, the madness of war, the power of capitalism, and the American Dream.
The text unfolds through Boris’s emails to Toni and Toni’s first-person narration. Having suffered PTSD while soldiering in Bosnia, Boris lacks journalistic training. Yet his ramblings, which Toni secretly rewrites for publication, capture war’s essential surreality, as when he notes that Baghdad is awash in Coca-Cola, “as if Coke is sponsoring the whole rally.” Toni, meanwhile, anatomizes the new Croatia, shaped by “the shock troops of happiness,” whose youth embrace slow food, Nick Cave, and cocaine.
Throughout, words linked to “acting” and “game” underscore the fluid identities conferred by global high capitalism. Toni’s girlfriend, Sanja, stars in Daughter Courage, an erotic bastardization of Brecht’s seminal work, the novel’s subtext. According to Toni, acting is “the paradigm of our age,” and socialism collapsed because it offered fewer “masks, subcultures, or . . . films” than democracy. In westernized Zagreb, Toni plays the “suave European intellectual” among Croats who, “new at the game” of democracy and capitalism, yearn “the Eastern European post-communist version of the American dream.”
When Milka, Boris’s mother, sparks a media frenzy by trumpeting her son’s disappearance, Toni’s boss makes him invent emails and impersonate his cousin: forced to acquire a salon-generated tan, he is mistaken for both a gypsy and Boris. Later, Sanja and his job now lost, Toni hopes “to assume my old face . . . and ride into a new film,” but finally wishes to “exit that game.” For he understands at last that Boris, his alter ego, never falsified his existence: “a remnant of something real, he came from down south and knocked me off my chair and out of my world—a world I thought was mine.”
Indeed, Toni perceives the world as “globally mediatized,” its distorted realities randomly granting maskers some time on the stage. Yugoslavia’s recent wars thus prove “our contribution to global media. . . . The world took note of us.” Once Western reporters exit Iraq, the missing Boris (later discovered working for British television in Baghdad) becomes a cause célèbre, forcing Toni to face his aunt on a popular television show: “the final showdown between me and Milka, on the TV battlefield, like an epic folk song.” His mother and aunt at war over inheritance issues, Toni sees how “a local conflict escalates.” This split between urbanite-manqué Toni and proud bumpkin Milka, both Dalmatian, highlights the greater divisions the novel explores: subaltern/bourgeois-bohemian; “civilized”/“tribal”; Croat/Serb; West/East; local/global.
Depicting a generation raised in “strange Eastern European systems” who “placed too much hope in rock ’n’ roll,” this provocative satire explores both modern Croatia and its discontents and also, like Mother Courage, the human lust for power and money that still spawns war and suffering.
North Carolina A&T University