When change is on the cards, the temptation can be to throw out the old and welcome the new, often without considering the consequences. But wiping the slate is not always the best policy, especially in a traditional society where recent trauma has left it wary of change. When bloody conflict has ripped the heart out of a community, people often cling to familiarity as they cope with being forced to accept so much that is new and unsettling in their lives.
Despite its title, Our Man in Iraq is neither a story specifically about war reporting nor a comment on the situation in Iraq. Both feature in this book, especially the shifting sands of journalistic standards, but they are not the main issues addressed here.
Set in Croatia in 2003, this bestselling book from journalist and award-winning author Robert Perišić is part love story and part satire on identity, using humour, comment and cultural parallels to tackle themes that are as relevant to the recovering Balkan states as they are to the situation in Iraq.
By placing his novel in Croatia in the early 21st century, Perišić has mined a rich vein to create an engaging story of personal and collective morality, responsibility and freedom. He shows, too, how the opportunities available in a country still coming to terms with its own renewal can corrupt people from both sides of any blurred moral divide.
Robert Perišić was born in Split, Croatia. After some success writing plays and short stories, he hit the bestseller lists and scooped awards with his first novel, Our Man in Iraq. That book firmly established Robert Perišić as one of Croatia’s foremost writers, with established author Slavenka Drakulić describing him as one of the best writers of his generation. He is set to attract even greater readership now that Istros Books has released Our Man in Iraq in an English translation by Will Firth. Black Balloon Publishing will release the US edition in April 2013.
In this novel, the narrator, Toni, is a local newspaper reporter who has made his way up the journalist ladder from the Dalmatian coast to Zagreb. He lives in a newly independent Croatia and the future is full of opportunity. Toni’s life should smell of roses but he is not entirely satisfied in his job, cracks are showing in his relationship, and his needy relatives down south put pressure on him to get them jobs using his new city contacts.
The fact is, he lives in a country still facing up to the aftershocks of war and realising the weight of its independence, with people who are made dizzy by the new freedoms, and where the opportunities that have opened up in the recent years have only fuelled the corruption and nepotism.
War Reporting From Iraq Starts in Zagreb
When his newspaper needs regular reports from Iraq, Toni is unable to fly out due to issues with his girlfriend and career. So, Toni decides to kill two birds with one stone and puts his Arabic-speaking cousin Boris up for the job as correspondent in Iraq. Of course, only these two will know about their little arrangement to keep it in the family. As Boris dutifully files his poorly written reports, the ruse seems to be working. But not for long.
It is one thing that Toni concealed the nepotism, and that is nothing new in his world, but that he hid the fact that Boris is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is too much for the situation. When Boris goes missing, panic forces Toni to make a rash decision: he will cover-up the disappearance by faking future copy, drawing on his own memories of war in the former Yugoslavia to provide authenticity to the reports. Inevitably, this is not a long-term solution and, after his aunt is sick with worry, Toni is forced to raise the alarm and so reveal the truth about the faked reports.
Typical to the Balkans, it doesn’t take long before the conspiracy theorists step in with the idea that the disappearance is part of a feud between two Croatian media houses.
A Country Creating a New Identity
This enjoyable book shows people dealing with the inevitable anxiety and confusion that accompanies a period of changing identity. By making Toni’s girlfriend an actress, Perišić is further able to explore this issue. Like his newborn country that is working through who it is and who it wants to be, she must confront the physical, behavioural and moral angles that come with adopting a new character.
Engaging, humourous and often thought-provoking, Our Man in Iraq introduces characters who face personal dilemmas in a society still coming to terms with its past and facing up to the responsibilities of its future. As Croatia approaches accession to the European Union, it begs the question: how many of these questions remain unanswered?
- Our Man in Iraq is released in the UK by Istros Books.
- Black Balloon Publishing will publish the US edition in April 2013.