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.
Perisic’s messenger is a Zagreb journalist named Toni, who, with his actress girlfriend Sanja, and his colleagues take stock of the unfolding conflagration in the Middle East. And yet, the war in Iraq is mostly an extended ruse in Perisic’s bleakly comic novel, which, like many of the recent spate of novels that occupy themselves with the war, keeps combat scrupulously at a distance.
Toni sends his feckless cousin Boris to Baghdad to report on the war for his newspaper, neglecting to mention the family relation to his editor, or the fact that Boris has gone incommunicado for almost a week. The Balkan wars of the 1990s give “Our Man in Iraq” a privileged perspective on the unfolding Iraqi calamity. Toni identifies with the Iraqis as fellow media-branded survivors. War provides a purpose that peace never can, and Toni’s aimless drinking and scheming and bemoaning of his fate is subtly contrasted with his cousin’s fond reminiscences of his own grisly wartime experiences: “I was so happy when we were cleansing villages. And now I’m unhappy when I leave the flat, and I go back to check I haven’t left anything switched on, so nothing catches fire, because I don’t trust myself and I know what it’s like when there’s a fire.” Life was, in some elemental way, easier when Croatians were fighting Serbs than during the contemporary war of all against all.
Toni must secretly rewrite his cousin’s unhinged front-line prose, submitted in rambling e-mails, and after his misbegotten scheme inevitably unravels, a study of his efforts indicates that Boris is not the only one to have been affected by combat: “Psychiatrists specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder joined in the debate and detected a paranoia in his sentences, as well as a shattered sense of his own worth, suicidal tendencies, a schizoid imagination, and a feeling of impairment and guilt.” Perisic is ultimately less interested in Iraq itself than the war as a manifestation of Toni’s, and Croatia’s, own tenuous place in the world. “AL-QAEDA SILENT ABOUT THE FATE OF CROATIAN REPORTER, they screamed,” Toni wryly notes about the newspaper headlines. “As if we were so important for al Qaeda to target! Yes, we wanted to be a part of the global spectacle!”
Toni’s editor briefly suggests he pose as his missing cousin by venturing to a tanning salon for that bronzed front-line glow and Photoshopping in a Baghdad backdrop, and while the plan is ultimately dropped, the notion of one man — and one place — as a stand-in for another lingers. Croatia enjoys a decidedly tenuous peace, its resources gobbled by intrepid businessmen, its ambience a pallid copy of the richer precincts of Europe. The happy portrait is only a Photoshop masterpiece covering up a country bruised by its own wartime experiences. “Peace has become a problem for me,” says Boris, and his fellow Croatians might agree, caught between their traumatic memories of the war and the cardboard-thin façade of European stability. The Iraq war was a disastrous mistake for Americans and a tragedy for Iraqis; for Croatians, at least according to Robert Perisic, it is another outbreak of post-traumatic stress, a reminder of all their young and infinitely aged country has already had to endure.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of the forthcoming “Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community.”