Three quarters of the way through Robert Perišić’s Our Man in Iraq, when its ersatz journalist protagonist Toni is getting into petty (though vicious) fights with seemingly everyone he knows in Zagreb, Croatia, I wanted to get into fights, too. With my wife, with my mother, with the jerk who parked so close to my driver’s side door that I had crawl in from the passenger side, with the punk kid at my oldest son’s hockey practice who kept ringing unnecessary slapshots off the glass. Everybody crowded my space. Everybody challenged my right to existence, and I got so surly that I had to sequester myself and finish the book just to regain some sense of personal peace.
In retrospect, this desire to fight is a visceral endorsement of Perišić’s novel; he pushed me into a fight-or-flight response mode that primed my psyche to receive his story. Though the presence of the word “Iraq” in the novel’s title will no doubt lead some to assume it’s a war novel, it really doesn’t count as one. It contains ramblingly incoherent reports from Toni’s unhinged cousin Boris—an Arabic-speaking Croatian whom Toni has dispatched to Iraq to cover the American “Shock and Awe” invasion of 2003— but no scenes actually take place in the country, and Iraq functions mostly as a metaphor and a pawn in Zagreb’s inbred journalistic war.
Our Man in Iraq is ultimately about the psychic experience of Balkanization and capitalization, which Toni, like the rest of the former Yugoslavia, has undergone. The dissolution of the communist stronghold into a tangle of struggling and (particularly from 1991–1999) warring states has been narrativized in the West as a victory of capitalism and democracy: communism fell, people fought over territory awhile, but they eventually got with the program of global capital and market-driven thinking. The novel shows the working through of this national history in Toni’s mind and life; he not only endures all phases of this transformation but is keenly aware of them, and in fact discusses them openly. “We’d grown up in strange European systems and placed too much hope in rock ‘n’ roll,” he says of himself and a friend.
Toni is the anti-rube, the anti-innocent, fully invested in and responsible for the changes he embraces. He arrives in Zagreb from his home village as a young economics student, joins the Yugoslav People’s Army, returns to “study” at university (seemingly majoring in drunken antagonism), picks up an actress girlfriend, and somehow works his way to the editorship of a newspaper. The turn of the millennium was a very opportunistic time in Croatia, apparently, and when we meet him, Toni is nothing if not an opportunist. Perišić neither sentimentalizes the old ways—what I can only describe as tribal crony Communism—nor demonizes the new worship of global capital, which makes his novel that much more tough-minded. He doesn’t get polemical and drag Toni through the mud to demonstrate the difficulties of any social or economic system. Instead, he shows us the mud that Toni, whatever personal identity he once had now lost among the choices he’s made, drags himself through in search of things he does not understand and has never asked himself if he truly wants.
It is the way he handles his cousin Boris—the titular “Our Man in Iraq”—that most reveals Toni’s specific species of lostness. We first meet Boris through his email reports from Iraq, cascading and looping works of stream-of-consciousness prose poetry that reflect an intensely immediate life. Boris, a fellow Croatian war veteran generally considered mad by all concerned, sees events in Iraq quite nakedly, partly to his environment and partly to his own buffer-free nature. Meeting Boris solely through his voice gives him an almost oracular authority within the book. He seems, in his unfiltered worldview and expression, to grasp the chaos of...