In the bestselling Croatian novel Our Man in Iraq , the main character, a journalist named Toni, is struggling with his job, his girlfriend, and his very identity in post-war Zagreb. One day during this existential crisis, Toni comes across a biography of Jimi Hendrix. He’s fascinated to read that, in the early days, the rocker aspired to look like Bob Dylan — even to the point of using curlers to straighten his hair to achieve a Dylan hairdo. Then Hendrix went to London, where he was received as a marvelous exotic.
“So he chucked the curlers and tried to look as eccentric as possible,” Toni discovers about Hendrix. “He adopted an afro and began to buy stupid clothes in second hand shops…He got a bit carried away with the attention and became Jimi Hendrix. That was a revolution. When you come up with a new role, a new persona, you change the culture. If the pieces of your mosaic fit together right you can really take off like Hendrix.”
This is precisely the transformation that Toni wants to pull off as well. He’s a transplant from the countryside, like so many Croatians, and he’s in a nearly constant state of anxiety: “The fear of someone thinking I was a redneck made me read totally unintelligible postmodernist 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.”
Hendrix pulled off his self-reinvention, at least until the fame and falsity became too much and he died of an overdose. Toni the journalist, meanwhile, is not quite able to make all the pieces of the mosaic fit together.
The late 1960s, with the explosion of youth movements, the Vietnam War, and the transformation of popular culture, offered a grand opportunity for the reinvention of self. So, too, did the late 1980s, particularly in East-Central Europe. The fall of Communism enabled an entire generation to wipe the page clean and begin again.
For those living in Yugoslavia, however, there was a hitch: the war.
The wars that convulsed the Balkans in the 1990s put everything on hold. While the other countries the region pressed the fast forward button with their political and economic reforms, the rapidly shrinking Yugoslavia hit rewind – back to the atrocities of the 1940s, back even to the Balkan wars of the early 20 th century.
Our Man in Iraq, the novel by Robert Perisic recently translated into English, is set in Zagreb some years after the war is over. Croatia has, after this interval, found the fast-forward button and pushed it with a vengeance. Toni the journalist has just sent his cousin to Iraq to report on the second Gulf War. He thinks that the countryside he escaped and the war in Yugoslavia that he has survived are safely behind him. In this raucous and funny novel about an entire country’s post-traumatic stress syndrome, Toni discovers that you can’t entirely escape your past no matter how must you try to live your life in fast forward.
I caught up with Robert Perisic in New York during his book tour. We had coffee at a café in the East Village, and I asked him about the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on his life.
“The true effects of the Wall’s fall: that came for me and a lot of my generation only after 2000,” he told me. “Before that, we were thinking that everything happening in Croatia was the result of the war. We thought that after the war and all the postwar disturbances, we would continue from the moment right after the fall of the Wall. And we did, for instance with the coming of the WTO, shopping malls, and a flourishing consumer society after 2000. I placed my novel Our Man in Iraq in that period of long-expected consumerism and emerging capitalism driven by loans (not-very-cheap loans, as we can see today).”
We talked about his experiences during the war, his evaluation of Croatia’s economic and political developments, and the country’s enduring division between town and country.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
As a 20-year-old, I thought that it was exciting, that there would some kind of change, and my life would get better. But really, at that time, I wasn’t thinking so much about it. I was more into literature. I thought it was a positive event, but I can’t remember exactly where I was when it happened.
A lot of people that I interviewed from former Yugoslavia don’t remember where they were.
The Berlin Wall wasn’t really a wall for us. We weren’t attached at all to that political alliance connected to Russia. I remember, now that you remind me, that my friend, a publisher from Belgrade, once told me how easily he could go from east to west through the Berlin Wall. People with Yugoslav passports could do that. He was talking about it like it was a unique experience because no other people could do it. We had passports and open borders for a long time, since the 1960s. It wasn’t the same as with other East Europeans. Maybe at that moment we didn’t realize that everything would change completely in our lives too.
You said you thought it would be a positive experience for you. When you look back now, do you think it was?
It’s hard to know what things would be like if it hadn’t happened. It was something that should have happened, of course. That’s how I think about it today as well. But expectations were different then compared to later, expectations about some sort of progress in the sense of social life and standard of living. As you know, unlike the other countries in the region, we in Croatia didn’t have a chance to see that impact because very soon after we had the war, which started in 1991. But also before the war there were a lot of tensions. In Croatia, after the war came, we were in a very different atmosphere.
The true effects of the Wall’s fall: that came for me and a lot of my generation only after 2000. Before that, we were thinking that everything happening in Croatia was the result of the war. We thought that after the war and all the postwar disturbances, we would continue from the moment right after the fall of the Wall. And we did, for instance with the coming of the WTO, shopping malls, and a flourishing consumer society after 2000.
I placed my novel Our Man in Iraq in that period of long-expected consumerism and emerging capitalism driven by loans (not-very-cheap loans, as we can see today). After those long expectations, and especially after the world financial crisis, I had a feeling that everything was a little funny because I no longer believed in that kind of prosperity. To be clear, now I can see that the effects of the fall of the Wall were already there in the 1990s, in the time of war, in terms of the economy and the restoration of class differences. The processes were more or less the same as in the rest of Eastern Europe: shock therapy and privatization, and a lot of mess.
I’ve had some distance to look at that time, and I can say now that this mess was expected. When you announce the selling of almost everything, it will produce chaos — in every part of the world. Everyone talks about this mess like it’s a cultural thing, like it’s part of a corruption mentality or something like that. But it could happen anywhere. Once you announce that everything is for sale, the prices go down. In a shop, when you announce a final sale, everything is suddenly cheap. The people who were advising this process, they must have know that this would happen, unless they were totally naïve.
In your book, one of your characters says that the process in Slovenia was much more rational.
Yes, the process in Slovenia was different because some people were more aware of the possible consequences. In Slovenia, there was one person in particular, Joze Mencinger, who at the time was minister of economy, and he opposed the shock therapy recommended by people like Jeffrey Sachs. He said that he would resign at that time, and he did resign a year later. But in that year, Slovenians stopped the process at the beginning, had time to think a bit about the adjustment of law and institutions, and they didn’t accept a lot of advice. There also was a different attitude toward the legacy of socialism. They weren’t in complete denial about the legacy of socialism. There was also some continuity in a political sense. Milan Kucan, the first president, was a member of the ex-Communist party, though he was quite liberal in the 1980s. The Slovenian political elite was aware that destroying this legacy would not be good for the country. And they did quite well during the 1990s. They were quite stable, and the country was an exception in the region at that time (though now they are in crisis because of some processes connected to Europe).
All the instability in the economy also produces weird things in the political sphere. In Croatia, it was kind of crazy because all these processes of privatization happened in parallel with the war. People were thinking about other things: fighting, how to stay alive, how to win the war. They weren’t able to look at things the way we can now. Now they realize that they were cheated.
I read a well-researched article about privatization in Ukraine, and the process was quite similar to what happened in Croatia. Everything was an improvisation. But it wasn’t accidental. It was easy to predict that such a process would produce a lot of collateral damage and misdoings.
Were you in Zagreb during the war years?
Mostly in Zagreb. For a period I was also in Dalmatia.
I understand that, for the most part, Zagreb was shielded from most of the war, compared to Slavonia and parts of Dalmatia.
Zagreb, of course, was relatively safe. There was no real risk of direct war. There were only a few bombings.
What was your strongest interaction with the war?
The war was everywhere. Everyday life was totally changed. The war was not just at the frontlines. It’s hard to describe that experience. I was writing a lot about it. It was a different world, a completely different society. In Croatia there was a feeling of overwhelming threat and total insecurity. We didn’t know if the international community would formally recognize Croatia as a state. So there was that gap at the beginning. The ex-Yugoslav army, which became the Serbian army, had real weaponry. If Croatia nowadays waged a war somewhere, it wouldn’t be like that. Now there’s an army, some institutions. But at that time, we started from nothing. The army was a complete improvisation.
At that time, we didn’t think about the other uncertainty, the uncertainty in the economic sense. But that was also happening. People were in an economic transition as well. They were uncertain about their jobs. Because of the war, a lot of factories were unable to work. Some of them closed because of losing markets in other parts of Yugoslavia. Some were destroyed by this weird privatization. The year 1991 was a year of complete shock. It was the doctrine of shock therapy across the board.
You were a student in those days?
I was studying Croatian language and literature. At that time, I was a poet. Nowadays, I would say that I didn’t take things so seriously back then. But that was better for me because now I see how hot things were then. Everything was happening so quickly, day after day. There was the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was the change of system. There were elections. Everything was totally new. And then, very soon, we had a totally different atmosphere with the war and lots of casualties. It wasn’t a normal situation even for a country at war.
It was an important time for Croatian language. There was the division of Serbo-Croatian and the emphasis on indigenous Croatian words. Were you conscious of the influence of Croatian nationalism on all that?
Croatian and Serbian have always had two dictionaries. Even if officially there was a Serbo-Croatian language, there were two official versions of the language that Serbs called Serbian and Croatians called Croatian. In Yugoslavia, people didn’t think so much about which words they said in normal communication. But when the first tensions appeared between Croatian and Serbia, and then with the war, there was a tendency from some linguists to make those differences sharper. Some words became like signs, to indicate, for instance, whether you were Orthodox or Catholic. So, there was this pressure that came with nationalism and war. But language is alive. Nowadays, very little of this pressure has survived in the normal communication of people.
At that time, in my writing, I didn’t feel any censorship in my head. But there were some tendencies and some linguists on the Right side of the political spectrum who were stubborn about some things. There were also a lot of jokes about this. It was part of the political process. It wasn’t about language or literature. It was about putting pressure on cultural people to make them a little uncomfortable.
Pressure to conform?
I’ve read the essays of Dubravka Ugresic, an older generation of writer. She felt enough pressure to leave the country. She felt that she was attacked personally. Did you have a sense at the time of a strong divide between writers like Ugresic and other writers who were more affiliated with the cultural politics of Tudjman and the HDZ?
I was aware of it. But I didn’t read many newspapers at that time. There was an article about the PEN conference in Rio in 1992 that was kind of an attack on five women, including her. It was completely incorrect politically. It was a personal attack with a political angle. It put enormous pressure on those people. That was a reminder to others not to behave so independently and not to say certain things. It wasn’t so much about the words. It was more about finding some scapegoats to make a ritual punishment.
Did you ever work in journalism? Your descriptions in the novel were very realistic.
I was attached to the newspapers for a long time, but as a freelancer and literary critic. I wasn’t involved in classic journalism. But I knew the atmosphere well because I was always a freelancer doing things with various newspapers. I had a small column in the Feral Tribune . I was pretty young then, maybe one of the youngest at the newspaper. They gave me a small column to write about books, because I was in that field. Gradually I started to understand how to write for journalism. It’s not the same as writing about books in academia and using that academic meta-language. I was writing for Feral Tribune during the 1990s, from 1994 to 2000. After that I came to Globus where they gave me a page column about books. I still write that column. So, yes, I know that world. Some people thought Our Man in Iraq was autobiographical. But it wasn’t, not in a direct way.
Feral Tribune was a publication with a mission. It did a lot of investigative journalism and had conflicts with the Croatian government. But the newspaper you describe in your book is more of an amoral business.
I describe a mainstream newspaper. That was the right place to frame the story. Among other things, the book is about the denial of reality. It could happen in other media, too. Because it was about that stable language and stable thinking of the media, that way of not showing instability.
Your correspondent is telling it like it is: war sucks, my situation sucks, I’m not going to give you straight reporting, I’m just going to tell you all the shit that is happening here in Iraq.
Yes, but you can’t publish that in a newspaper. That was something that interested me. As a frame, media is set up to exclude a lot of things. It is not just about objectivity. The frame excludes a big part of reality. So, the novel was also about reminding people that the framing of media is the first step in distorting our perception of reality.
The media also reflects the mainstream thinking in Eastern Europe about neo-liberalism. It is not very critical. There is no real rethinking of these issues. There’s no critique of capitalism in the sense of neoliberal processes, because the media elite embraces these concepts. This is a huge problem because you don’t get information about what’s happening. This avoiding and denying reality could be dangerous, and the liberal media is basically a mirror of politics. There isn’t any true dialogue about what’s happening among the intellectual elite. They’re not questioning anything about capitalism, not remembering anything from socialism, and talking about corruption like it’s some mysterious isolated phenomenon.
And there isn’t much concern for ordinary people. If ordinary people understood this, they could choose options that are not considered acceptable or they would choose something radical, but perhaps radical in a stupid way.
The most interesting feature of the book in terms of language is the difference between the elite language and slang. In the English used in the book, some of the characters speak a kind of Cockney. When I was in Croatia, people talked about two different Croatias — the Croatia of the city and the Croatia of the countryside. They talked about it in two different ways. Either the people in the countryside are backward, living in the 18th century, or the intellectual elite is completely disconnected from the rest of the country and doesn’t care about the impact of economic reform on general populace.
That question reminds me also of my first book of short stories, which was published in 1999. It included stories that I published from 1994 to 1999 in various magazines. There was much more emphasis on language in those stories. There were different characters than what was common in Croatian elite literature at that time. And I used the language of people, not the language of literature. My approach to literature has been democratic, not elitist, from the beginning, though at the beginning I wasn’t thinking about it much and wouldn’t have put it that way.
It is also here in this book. I’m just making jokes about this division in Croatian society that you mentioned. This main character started out as a liberal intellectual, an urban guy. He talks about his family in the countryside and how he tried to emancipate himself from them. But in the novel, they are coming back to try to catch him. This is a comical version of this Croatian fear of peasants in the countryside.
Of course, people from villages in the countryside are not progressive in a cultural way: they are more attached to conservative values. But they could be progressive politically. And people are not so very different in cities and in villages. We are all from villages in Croatia. Our modernization happened in the 20th century, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. That was the period when a lot of people came to the cities.
The division between urban and rural is a replacement for political thinking. It seems to me that from that cultural division, people try to explain politics. People from village will always be like that, and they were like that before. The countryside is eternal. But politics is something else. It’s about ideas that don’t depend on eternal things. According to this small-town reflex of liberalism, we in the city are good and they in the countryside are not good. Who will care about these ordinary people in the villages and these ordinary workers in the suburbs?
There is no Left really in Eastern Europe. Our social democratic parties became more interested in the upper middle class and don’t care so much about the working class or for the peasants who have lots of problems with agricultural adjustment to the EU. What will happen to these people? If they can’t do agriculture, will they come to the cities? You have to think about these people. Liberal politics is mostly focused on the city. But leftists should be interested in helping ordinary people. Without the Left thinking about ordinary people, the people in the countryside will vote for the right wing.
A lot of intellectuals say, “I don’t care about them, they are stupid.” It’s not a good approach if you think they are just hillbillies.
For the most part in this book, the characters don’t talk about the war in Croatia. They talk about the war in Iraq. There’s almost a silence in the book about the Balkan wars. No one talks about their experience during the war. Is that a reflection of the situation in Croatia today, or is that a metaphor for a refusal to address responsibility or the effects of the war?
I was writing more about the war in former Yugoslavia in my previous books. For instance, I wrote a lot of stories set in war zones. But the setting of this novel is 12 years after the war. We can’t always talk about it. The Boris voice in the novel is a reminder of that trauma. There is also in Tony’s discourses here and there some descriptions of how it was. But it was mainly a novel about this time of normalization, this time of forgetting. And the guy in Iraq disturbs that attempt to forget. Tony and other people are trying to move on and not think about it so much.
It’s not so productive when a country constantly talks about war. Yes, there are a lot of things that should be remembered from that time and things that should not happen again, like war crimes. At first this kind of discussion was only in newspapers like Feral Tribune . But after 2000, mainstream newspapers were writing a lot about what was happening in terms of war crimes.
New York, April 24, 2013