I must confess: as far as I can recall, Our Man in Iraq was the first book I’ve read that is set in Croatia. And what an introduction to the country it is.
Robert Perisic’s Our Man in Iraq is about Toni, a journalist who grew up in a rural village and now lives in Zagreb, the capital city, with his girlfriend, an actress whose fame is steadily growing. Besides dealing with his feelings of insecurity due both to being a country mouse as well as to having a partner who is suddenly more successful than he is, Toni makes the mistake of sneakily getting his boss to hire his Arabic-speaking cousin to be their newspaper’s reporter in Iraq. Unfortunately, Toni’s cousin Boris doesn’t seem terribly mentally stable, so Toni ends up ghost-writing Boris’s articles for him. Understandably, this eventually leads to Toni getting in trouble, especially when Boris stops communicating with his family and they fear that he’s been lost and go to the media about it. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq rages and reminds the former Yugoslavians of the terrible war that they lived through, and the current war between the generations that they seem to be experiencing as well. Apparently Perisic is known as an anti-war writer in Croatia, and that comes through very clearly in this novel.
While this plot might sound like a strange combination of seriousness and slapstick, it actually works quite well. The subjects and styles shift, and you just have to give yourself over to the story. Our Man in Iraq explores topics ranging from journalism to good versus evil, from relationships to the effects of war. And in Firth’s translation, Perisic’s prose is often lovely and thought-provoking.
When Toni and his friend have returned to university after serving in the war, he finds that people’s attitudes towards them have changed, and their own attitudes have changed as well.
‘During this period the world fell apart. Nothing was permanent, authorities faded and people flinched before us. We realized that we belonged to a generation that had a moral advantage because it was defending all those old folks accustomed to the moulds and models of socialism. Lost as they were, they patted us on the shoulder as if they were thanking us for something. We vocally despised socialism and they agreed with us on that. We despised their life’s experiences and they agreed with us on that too. We disdained all they’d done and stood for, and again they agreed with us. To leave no doubt that the future belonged to us, we rejected everything that until yesterday had been of any worth. They agreed with us on all that.’
As one might expect, Toni too is later forced to confront the things he thought he stood for, and the choices he made, or thought he had.
As he puts it,
‘I’d fled to Zagreb and become a city boy; here I went to a thousand concerts, lived with an actress who played avant-garde dramas, I acted cool, and did everything right. 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. I was terrified of everything superficial and populist. If something became too popular, I rejected it. Even in moments of major inebriation when I felt like singing a popular peasant song I stopped myself. I maintained discipline. But in vain. All at once they were breathing down my neck again. I thought I’d given them the slip, but now they’d encircled me, having used Boris as bait, and were closing in for the kill.’
You’ll have to read Our Man in Iraq to see if Toni breaks free or if he ends up trapped, or both.
I’m so pleased that more publishers are publishing literary translations, and that more of these translations are from languages other than French or German. It’s essential that we learn about other people, other cultures, and other ‘life’s experiences’, and fiction is one of the best ways to do this. Think of each translation as an Our Man in… book, so Our Man in Iraq serves as an Our Man in Croatia, letting us know a little bit about what is going on in Croatia. But of course we must remember that each translated text is only one story. We need many more translations so that we can get access to more stories. One can only hope that publishers such as Black Balloon will continue this important work.
Our Man in Iraq is in a sense about trying to control what is actually uncontrollable. ‘We try to make sure things don’t get out of control. There’s always that danger here on the slippery edge of the Balkans. Here we always squabble about what we’re allowed to enjoy and what not.’ Whether those in the Balkans are allowed to enjoy Our Man in Iraq or not I can’t say, but those of us in English-speaking countries certainly can, and should.