Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perisic takes place in 2003, during those first few weeks of the Iraq War when some people still believe the war would be wrapped up and over in six weeks. Croatia is proud to be part of the “coalition of the willing” and the paper where Toni, our man in Zagreb, works wants to send their own reporter to cover the war. Toni recommends his cousin Boris, mainly because Boris speaks Arabic and partly out of family obligation.
But it is not working out. Boris is sending bizarre email reports that are stream of consciousness prose poems, part insight, part nonsense and utterly unusable for the paper. To cover up for his cousin and his nepotism, he rewrites the stories. But he is worried, his cousin seems to be losing touch with reality. But when Boris stops sending emails, things get worse. Toni is worried and Boris’ mother Milka is demanding explanations. Like many people, Toni ducks unpleasantness, not answering Milka’s calls. This blows up into a scandal broadcast on live TV that is both incredibly funny and devastating.
I had high expectations before I even read the first page of Our Man in Iraq. After all, not that many books by Croatian authors even get translated into English, so it had to be good to cross that bar. I have an abiding interest in the Balkans since reading the incomparable Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Since then I have read several nonfiction books including Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts. As far as literature, though, i had only read The Bridge on the Drina by Nobel Laureate Ivo Andrić, a Yugoslav writer from Bosnia.
Our Man in Iraq is post liberation, post war, during the early exuberant years of Croatian democracy and that excitement and freedom is important to the setting of the book. These are the first generation of people who really get to choose their destiny, or as Toni put it, “No one is obliged to inherit an identity now.” Toni’s identity as an urbane, successful member of the cultural elite is part of his downfall. The urban-rural divide separates Toni from his Aunt Milka and her worries. He takes things too lightly.
Meanwhile, there are many other things happening, a bank crash, his partner’s career as an actress seems to be taking off and Toni, all too much on the surface, allows his life to spin out of control.
The title, recalls the wonderful Graham Greene comic masterpiece, Our Man in Havana and set certain expectations. Our Man in Iraq was certainly bitterly funny and often very witty. It, too, is a social commentary and one about a country we seldom get to see from an insider’s view point.
Our Man in Iraq is a good book, worth reading and it offers a new perspective that we have few chances to see. However, even though the book was quite short and was well-written, I was eager to be done with it. I do not have to love the characters in the books I read, but I do have to care about them and I really did not care that much about Toni.