In celebration of Croatia's recent entrance into the European Union and in response to the growing interest in the country's culture, The Guardian listed writers Slavenka Drakulic and Robert Perisic as two names to know in contemporary Croation literature. As an introduction to both, we've republished Drakulic's review of Perisic's book Our Man in Iraq below.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, symbolically marking the fall of communism as a political system, I expected that the next decade in world literature (and art) would be marked by prose from former communist countries, manuscripts that I believed writers had been piling up in their desk drawers fearing persecution and censorship. The time had come, I naively expected, when all those works, all those pearls of creativity, all those hidden Kunderas and Solzhenitsyns would finally see the light of day and surprise and delight the Western audience, sick of the superficiality of romance novels, crime novels and self-help books. But, just like in some comedy of errors, the exact opposite happened: Eastern European markets behind the former Iron Curtain were momentarily flooded by works from the West that, for the most part, were trash. Just like in other areas, clothing boutiques and shoe stores, for example, bookstores (which would soon begin to disappear) and chain shops were flooded with bad products. Starving East Europeans could finally get their fill of badly translated bad books, cheap shoes, unhealthy food and knock-off apparel, and so feel like a part of the world, a part of the unified package of the global economy: freedom, democracy, human rights and whatnot.
I don't know if writers had those hidden manuscripts and whether they tried to publish them. If they did, an incomparably small number of them saw the light of day. We got into trash and did so well forgetting the past that, when five or six years ago in Prague high schools they asked students what was communism, most of them had no clue. Those in the West remained indifferent because there were no more victims, no more dissidents from the other side. Who still could be interested in life under communism? Of course, a few young writers broke out onto the global scene, like Andrukhovitch, Stasiuk, Dragoman and Cartarescu, thanks largely to the Germans who translate everything out of a sense of duty. Writers from various countries of former Yugoslavia — one had to first learn the names of these new countries! — were somewhat lucky because for a brief period the war ruled the media, and a couple of names rode that wave and cleared the path to others with last names ending in -ic.
In the meantime, the financial crisis happened, and all the writers felt the blow to publishing — along with the transformation of media into electronic media. Reading has seriously plunged, even in Scandinavian countries. Those who were translated into a world language can feel like they've hit the jackpot.
Robert Perisic hit such a jackpot. Our Man in Iraq has been translated to several languages. Novels about transition from writers in transition countries aren't translated much, especially in the United States. Probably from their point of view it seems that all of us in Europe are now more or less in the same situation (today they'd surely say "in the same mess").
The protagonist of the novel is a provincial and a journalist, a former rocker with some, now faded, ideals, surrounded by his actress girlfriend, his junkie friend, various editors, journalists, entrepreneurs and bums. He's at that age when you lose your ideals, and the only difference between his reality and that of his friends is in the degree of corruption. His path toward a mortgage and disappointment with society is framed with another, seemingly unconnected story about his cousin Boris, for whom Toni arranges a job as a war correspondent in Iraq, where the war has just started. Boris's reports, unusable from the start, which later turn into monologues, are complementary to Toni's observations. It's as if they draw a frame for apathy and meaninglessness, not just of war but of life during peacetime, that is, consumption, whether it's politics or a TV program.
In the conflict between the individual and society, the individual loses himself, his money, his mind, his ideals. Love, too, breaks under the burden of the absurd. Surrounded by greed and corruption (and aren't we ourselves responsible, didn't we want change, didn't we vote for it?), Toni sinks into hopelessness. Maybe it really is a transition, i.e. a road to something else, say, something better, but he doesn't see it like that anymore. On his own skin and in his own life, he feels only the current state of affairs, which wraps around him as a thick fog in which no light is visible. The reader believes him — and that, to a writer, is the highest possible praise.
The pronounced urban nature of Perisic's prose is not the only thing that makes the novel interesting. There's also the writer's ability to create the atmosphere of that imaginary or real city. The reader is immersed into Toni's world because he's drawn by the atmosphere he establishes with a series of seemingly trivial observations and semi-conscious thoughts. Because the city, too, is a character in the novel, whether as a fortress to be conquered by the provincial or a meat grinder.
Perisic writes about the contemporary moment of Croatia's transition and about the everyday life of transition in a small country that emerged from a war; he also describes the features by which it can serve as a model for all the other ones. Transition is thereby just a prettier name for the reigning chaos, seemingly without end, but it's important to understand that, although the model is the same, the degrees of chaos from Albania to Poland, from Romania to the Czech Republic are, nevertheless, pretty different. The perception of countries behind the "Iron Curtain," considering the fact the political regime was the same, was precisely that the countries themselves are the same. They were different precisely to that degree to which their transitions differ today. Robert Perisic's novel convincingly describes diversity within the unity.