Our Man in Iraq

Our Man in Iraq

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Overview

"Robert Perisic depicts, with acerbic wit, a class of urban elites who are trying to reconcile their nineties rebellion with the reality of present-day Croatia. . . . The characters' snide remarks could easily sound cynical but the novel has a levity informed by the sense of social fluidity that comes with democracy."— The New Yorker

"Robert Perisic is a light bright with intelligence and twinkling with irony, flashing us the news that postwar Croatia not only endures but matters."— Jonathan Franzen

"This jivey—and I should say x-rated—story stays with us."— Alan Cheuse , "All Things Considered" NPR

"Despite the serious themes, the novel is largely comic and in many ways falls into the same genre of satirical anti-war novels that includes The Good Soldier by Jaroslav Hasek and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five . Perisic constructs a series of long and entertaining scenes full of quirky dialogue and rhythmic interior monologue."— The Times Literary Supplement

"In this raucous and funny novel about an entire country's post-traumatic stress syndrome, Toni discovers that you can't entirely escape your past no matter how must you try to live your life in fast forward."— Huffington Post

"In addition to being a delightfully acerbic primer on a literarily underrepresented part of Europe, Our Man in Iraq may well prove to be one of those rare cases where something is actually gained in translation."— Toronto Star

"Given the uncountable billions of words they have dedicated to the war in Iraq, it might be easy for Americans to think of it as belonging solely to them. Even its possession by the Iraqis can feel tenuous at times. So it is a refreshing reminder of the new global village to read a novel like Robert Perisic’s Our Man in Iraq , which studies the fighting in Baghdad from the distant shores of Croatia."— Boston Globe

“A must-read... brilliantly captures modern-day Zagreb.” — The Guardian

One of The Millions most anticipated books of 2013

"How deeply satisfying it is to hear Perisic’s wry voice take a different angle, and tell a different story."— ZYZZYVA

"This smart, cutting book powerfully illustrates the horrible hangover of war."— Publishers Weekly

Saddam is a young villager from the outskirts of Basra, named after the president. What can he do? He spreads his hands wide like a scarecrow, and I spread mine too, and we chat like two scarecrows in the field, except there are no crops, no grass, and no birds for us to scare away, only sand and scrap iron, and his village, said Saddam, is in a bad place. So he stuck all his goats in a pickup truck and took to the road like Kerouac, except there’s no literature here, and no shade.

2003: As Croatia lurches from socialism into globalized capitalism, Toni, a cocky journalist in Zagreb, struggles to balance his fragile career, pushy family, and hotheaded girlfriend. But in a moment of vulnerability he makes a mistake: volunteering his unhinged Arabic-speaking cousin Boris to report on the Iraq War. Boris begins filing Gonzo missives from the conflict zone and Toni decides it is better to secretly rewrite his cousin’s increasingly incoherent ramblings than face up to the truth. But when Boris goes missing, Toni’s own sense of reality—and reliability—begins to unravel.

Our Man In Iraq , the first of Robert Perisic’s novels to be translated into English, serves as an unforgettable introduction to a vibrant voice from Croatia. With his characteristic humor and insight, Perisic gets to the heart of life made and remade by war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936787050
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 04/02/2013
Edition description: Translatio
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author


Born in 1969 in Split, Croatia, Robert Perišic has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry titles in his native country, many of which have been translated into other languages. He began writing short stories in the 1990s with a clear anti-war sentiment and quickly became a popular voice among youth against the war as well as earning a reputation as a rising literary talent. Perišic is now considered one of the most important writers and journalists in the country. He currently lives in Zagreb, Croatia.

Read an Excerpt

Our Man In Iraq


By Robert Peri?ic, Will Firth

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2012 Robert Peri?ic
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908236-61-6


CHAPTER 1

DAY ONE


'Iraky peepl, Iraky peepl.'

That's the password.

They're supposed to answer: 'I'm sory.'

'I'm sory.'

No sweat.

I passed the checkpoint. Looked around.

Yeah! What a view – endless columns on the road from Kuwait to Basra.

The 82 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.'

'I'm sory.'

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 analyser 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 82 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.

No reply.

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.


Films

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: 'Hoho- ho, 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 influence of 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 unrecognised 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 supermarket 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!'

'That's right!'

'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.


Fatal slow food

'Is there anything in there for us?' I asked when I saw the classifieds lying open on the coffee table.

'There are a few we could call,' she said, and went to on the couch. I slumped into the landlord's old armchair.

She read out loud: Refined apartments with charm. I closed my eyes and listened to her voice. While she read out the square footage and the location of the flats I envisioned them: A peaceful and quiet street, air conditioning, lift ...

And soon we were climbing up into the clouds, up above that quiet street. We imagined that life, looking down at everything. But it wasn't one hundred percent definite that we needed that peace and quiet. Or that we needed what it said lower down, in a second advert: Close to the tram line, kindergarten, school. That made us think of children of our own growing up quickly and switching from kindergarten to school in the course of the sentence.

'And in the city centre? Is there anything there?'

Refurbished attic flat, right in the heart of the city centre, with parking space.

Immediately we saw ourselves coming down from that penthouse, going from café to café in the centre, with everything close by, like when you go out to get cigarettes and meet a whole load of people and breathe in the tumult of the street, with its boundless life.

We did that every day. Hovering in weightlessness and reading the adverts, we felt life was light and variable, and we thoroughly understood people who added the word urgent after the description of the flat.

Urgent, urgent, urgent.

We were catapulted into that imaginary life.

'Come on.'

'You do it.'

'I called last time,' I said

'Oh, give me the phone then.'

It was nicer to read those adverts in weightlessness than to descend into the lower levels of the atmosphere and talk with those people, hear their voices and feel how businesslike they were. There was something draining about those conversations.

Still, we had to ring that number.

The one with 'urgent' next to it.


* * *

We'd been in that flat for a bit too long, that was for sure, and were starting to get sick of the furniture which the landlords had dumped there in bygone ages. My friend Markatovic and his wife Dijana had bought an apartment on credit and furnished it futuristically: it was spacious and spacey. We'd been there a few times: they'd cook slow food for us, we'd drink Pinot Grigio from Collio Goriziano and feel part of a new elite in that designer apartment, so light and spacious.

Each time we returned from their place our rented flat looked ... like a charity shop. They had boldly moved into a new world, while we dwelt among the dark wardrobes of aunts long dead.

We didn't talk about that openly, but I sensed the disappointment in the air and – oh my woes – I even found myself wondering if I was successful in life.

I mean, what sort of question is that?!

I'd only just begun to live after the war and all that shit; I'd only just caught my breath again.


But there we were, one time when we'd returned from the Markatovics' and that fatal slow food. It was heavy in my stomach for some reason and I couldn't sleep, so I got a beer out of the fridge and looked around at the cramped flat and its ugly furniture. Why don't you take out a loan too, whispered a voice (probably my guardian angel). That bewildered me. I never would have thought of the idea because I always considered myself a rebel. Just look at Markatovic, the voice said, he's your generation, and he's got such a fancy place and even twins. Why couldn't you have that too?

Hmm, me and a loan, a loan and me ... I thought about it that night. I don't recall the date, but I thought about it long and hard that night. It was a fact that we were still living in Sanja's student flat although she'd finished uni. At my age, my old man tells me every time, he'd already ... And at my age my ma had already ... ohoho ... What can I say when I think how they lived back then? Perhaps I'd better not tell you. They didn't have enough money to buy shoes, but they still had children and even built a house. So, naturally, they wonder what Sanja and I are thinking. Do we think? When do we think? When do we think of thinking?

I looked at our Bob Marley poster on the wall, a black and white portrait with him in a statesmanlike pose, and wondered: What does a Rasta think? But he just holds his joint enigmatically between his lips. We have Mapplethorpe's black male torso on the other wall, which motivates me to do sit-ups regularly. That's what we've invested in. And then you start thinking. A loan – hell, talk about feeling deepended! I wandered the flat that night looking around as if I was saying goodbye.


* * *

When I slept here the first time, Sanja's rented flat seemed quite a des res: situated on the fifteenth storey of a tower block, above a tram loop. The view was so good that I was afraid to go up to the window:

I was afraid of falling out.

Of course, we came back drunk that first night. We were careful not to be loud because of her flatmate in the other room.

I couldn't come. She tried to give me a blow-job but turned out to be inexperienced at that. It was nice that she tried, although her teeth scratched. We kept on screwing, the condoms dried out quickly and kept bunching up around the head of my penis. I finally came in the third round. And now? Nothing had been further from my mind than pacing the flat at night and racking my brains over loans.

Anyway, after my first visit I dropped by again the next day, too, but skipped it on the third day so it wouldn't look like I'd moved in.

I tried to stick to some kind of rhythm, so my moving in was never officially confirmed. I'd visit in the evenings, spontaneously, as if I'd heard there was a good film on TV.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Our Man In Iraq by Robert Peri?ic, Will Firth. Copyright © 2012 Robert Peri?ic. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Robert Perisic is a light bright with intelligence and twinkling with irony, flashing us the news that postwar Croatia not only endures but matters."—Jonathan Franzen

“Perisic’s wit is complemented by his insight into the dynamics of human relationships . . . with just the right mixture of perceptiveness, self-deprecation and bathos.”—Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World

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