Published by Istros Books
296pp, paperback, £7.99
Robert Perišić, a prominent Croatian writer and journalist, has written plays, essays and short stories. Our Man in Iraq is his first novel and quickly became a bestseller, winning him critical acclaim both at home and abroad.
The book took four years to write and Perišić says he wanted to catch ‘something of the chaos’ of war, but also wanted to focus upon a subject unfamiliar to most people. That is how the idea came of linking the Croatian experience with the Iraq war came about.
In the story, a local journalist sends a distant relative to report on the war in Iraq while he stays at home to sort out his love life and his professional career – all to varying degrees of success. As time goes on, things begin to unravel and the journalist ends up having to fake his missing cousin’s reports while struggling to hold on to his actress girlfriend.
Our Man in Iraq is a take on the Iraqi conflict from the other side of Europe, where politics and nepotism collide and the confusing after-effects of the recent Yugoslav wars mix with the joys and trials of modern life.
Now sample it for yourself.
‘Iraky peepl, Iraky peepl.’
That’s the password.
They’re supposed to answer: ‘I’m sory.’
I passed the checkpoint. Looked around.
Yeah! What a view – endless columns on the road from Kuwait to Basra.
The 82nd Division’s Humvees, armoured vehicles, tankers, bulldozers…
The place is full of camouflaged Yanks and Brits, the biological and chemical carnival has begun, and me, fool that I am, I haven’t got a mask. They’re expecting a chemical weapons attack and say Saddam has got tons and tons of the shit.
I dash around with my camera and ask them all to take my photo. It’s not for keepsakes, I keep telling them, it’s for the paper.
The columns pour along King Faisal Road towards the border. Dust is always coming from somewhere.
‘Iraky peepl, Iraky peepl.’
We continue on our way.
I keep looking to see if there are any pigeons.
I’ve heard that the British biological and chemical detection team allegedly has pigeons.
There were none in the Land Rover Defender. They set up an air analyzer there that registers the smallest changes in the composition of the air. It’s a simple, soldierly device. You don’t need to think: when the indicator goes red, things are critical.
That’s what they say.
Things would be critical anyway, even without it. Things are critical with me – I want that to be published. I see all those pieces of iron, pieces of steel, and I’m shut into a piece of metal myself. I can hardly breathe in here. You can’t help me. No, not you. You’d suggest I get out, but that’s even worse. You’d offer me your hand and help me out, but that’s even worse, when you know what’s going on outside. The 82nd Division’s Humvees. I watch them. They don’t know I’m inside.
Or do they? The British soldiers don’t want to introduce themselves. They say they’re not allowed to. That’s it, I said, Jeezus that’s it… No introductions. For security reasons. Why am I constantly introducing myself, when I’m not who they think I am anyway, and only put myself in danger for no reason? This job is fucked. You have to introduce yourself. I say I’m a reporter from Croatia. I tell them my name and ask if they’ve got pigeons.
I ask if it’s true that the NBC team (short for nuclear, biological, chemical), if it’s true that they’ve been given cages with pigeons.
I tell them I’ve heard (heard?!) about it. Birds are apparently the best detectors of airborne toxins cos they’re more sensitive than humans.
Then they reply. They say they’ve heard the story too but they’re not sure if it’s true.
I eye them distrustfully.
They’ve got masks, like I said. But sometimes they take them off and show themselves.
I don’t know if they’re hiding the pigeons or if they really haven’t got any.
Do what you like with this. I think the bit about the pigeons is interesting. It’s a good illustration: pigeons or doves in Iraq, the symbol of peace and all that.
I made up the bit with the passwords.
It wasn’t New Year’s Eve, but never mind. I entered the flat carrying some plastic bags and called out in a deep voice from the door: ‘Ho-hoho, Daddy Frost is here!’
‘Oooo!’ She held her hand coyly over her mouth, imitating an innocent girl.
I put the bags down next to the fridge.
‘But that’s not all!’ Daddy Frost said, standing up tall and proud. ‘I’ve brought some drugs too!’
I hadn’t really, but never mind.
‘Oooo, lucky me, lucky me!’ she chirped. ‘I can see you’re already smacked up.’
‘Just a bit.’
‘You naughty baddie, you!’ she said.
‘That’s just the way I am, miss,’ I answered, and added a gutsy ‘Yeah!’
She gave me a loud kiss on the cheek.
‘Hey, miss, where were you when I was shooting up? In Biology, learning about the birds and the bees?’
‘And pneumonia,’ she said.
‘Hmmm. Hmmm. Where does pneumonia come into it?’ I asked.
But we were already laughing at each other. Not that I really knew why. Part of our love (and understanding) thrived on nonsense. We could talk about non-existent drugs or make up the craziest of things. I guess that element of the absurd helped us relax (‘after a hard day at work’). One of us would say something silly and the other would laugh and say: ‘Gawd, how stupid you are! Who am I living with?!’
We enjoyed exchanging those insults.
I think it was she who started it, long ago.
Her name was Sanja and mine – Toni.
‘What pneumonia?’ I asked again.
‘I watched a Serbian film,’ she explained. ‘A woman kept complaining: My child will get pneumonia.’
‘I know that film,’ I said with a professorial air. I gave her a few smacks on the bottom, and she squealed and ran off.
Now we were supposed to ‘do it’ somewhere in the flat.
But, just so she knew who was the eldest, I made a face to show that I didn’t feel like playing those childish games.
* * *
What can I say, we met after the war, under interesting circumstances: I was Clint Eastwood and she the lady in the little hat who arrived by stagecoach in this dangerous city full of rednecks; she’d probably won the ticket in a draw. I watched as she climbed out, a fag between her teeth, and the smoke and sun got in my eyes and gave me a pained, worried face. She had a whole stack of suitcases, bound to be full of cosmetics, and I saw straight away that she’d missed her film and I’d have to save her in this one.
All right, sometimes I told the story that way because I was tired of telling the truth. Once you’ve told the same story a few times over you have to insert a few new elements – why else labour your tongue?
Our first meeting never ceased to fascinate her. Whenever she got in a romantic mood she made me tell the story again. The beginning of love is magic. That self-presentation to the other, putting yourself in the best light, striving to be special… Flowers bloom, peacocks strut, and you become a different person. You play that game, you believe in it, and if it catches on – you become different.
How do you tell a story if everything is full of illusions from the beginning?
I had several versions.
One went like this: She had a red strand in her hair, green eyes, and was punkishly dressed, with emphasis on the dressed (that’s the version of punk which isn’t exactly cheap). It’s the domain of bimbos with certain deviations in taste. And that’s how she behaved, too, not quite upright, boyish, deviant; she looked a bit wasted, too, a look which I think trendy magazines called heroin chic. I took note of her – how could I not have – when she first came to the Lonac Café (or whatever it was called), but I didn’t go up to her because her pale face revealed an apathy and pronounced tiredness from the night before. You know those faces which still radiate pubescent contempt for all around and the influenceof high-school texts with their occasional enigmatic, bright-eyed ladies, which gothic make-up just highlights; the nightly neon throws a final malediction on it all. People like that don’t want to live in a world like this, they can’t wait to cold-shoulder you when you come up – as if that’s what gives their life meaning.
At that point she usually thumped me on the shoulder – ‘Idiot!’ she said – but she loved it. She loved it when I described her, when I wrapped her in long sentences, when she was the centre of the story and the focus of attention.
‘Anyway, I didn’t go up to her. I just watched her out of the corner of my eye and blew trails of smoke into the night.’
She liked to listen to how I eyed her from the side. That refreshed the scene, a bit like when the country celebrates its national day and founding myths as retold through history and official poetry replete with lies. My language flowed – she loved my tongue and intercepted it with hers.
‘It was in front of the Lonac Café one day: I remember her crushing out her cigarette with a heavy boot, and then she turned in her long, clinging dress, with a little rucksack on her back, and looked at me with the eyes of a young leopardess. She stalked up to me as if she’d sighted a herd of gnus. That was the moment: she decided to make my acquaintance (emancipated as she was). Yes, she came straight up to me and said Sanja, even though my drawn features, as she later admitted, revealed an apathy and a pronounced tiredness from the night before, and she was afraid I wouldn’t react at all.’
Basically we were so cool that this crossing of paths was almost inconsequential.
Wotcher Ned, how’s them parsnips comin’ along? How’s the harvest goin’, cuz? Hey bro, where ya been? That’s how city kids mess around with mock swagger and rural ethos! God, when I think back… At times we had no idea if we fitted any of those roles. At home you’re someone’s child and you roll your eyes; you study at uni and you roll your eyes; then you go out into the world and become your own film star and you roll your eyes because no one gets your film and what you’re all about, and you pine away unrecognized in these backwoods of Europe. But you still switch films depending on the circumstances.
I acted in many films before they took me for my role in this serious life: I worked as a journalist and wrote about the economy. And her: she managed to become an actress with a capital A, which is just what she always dreamed of.
‘How was the rehearsal?’ I asked.
She waved dismissively as if she wanted to take a rest from it all. A lot of stuff had happened in the meantime, you see. And right now she was taking things out of those plastic bags – you remember the ones.
I’d bought bread, cigarettes, mayonnaise, pancetta, milk, yoghurt, parmesan cheese, a bottle of wine, and so on; I’d been over at the super-market and paid by card.
‘She’s ripped you off again!’ Sanja protested as she checked the receipt.
‘She can’t have.’
‘She’s typed in three yoghurts although you’ve only got two,’ she said, waiting for me to get angry.
I shrugged my shoulders.
‘I’m going to go over and have a word or two!’ she menaced, as bolshie as could be.
‘Oh come off it.’
‘Of course she’s going to rip you off if you don’t pay attention.’
‘I know –,’ I said, ‘but if I kept tabs on her I’d have to say: You’re ripping me off!’
‘But the checkout lady is always so friendly.’
That sort of thing drove Sanja up the wall.
‘As if you were a millionaire!’ she sneered. ‘When you buy a flat they’ll charge you for a non-existent balcony and get away with it.’
I gave her a kiss on the cheek.
Then I slapped myself on the forehead and exclaimed: ‘D’oh, they’ve stolen our balcony!’
Sanja just rolled her eyes.