In the bestselling Croatian novel Our Man in Iraq, the main character, a journalist named Toni, is struggling with his job, his girlfriend, and his very identity in post-war Zagreb. One day during this existential crisis, Toni comes across a biography of Jimi Hendrix. He's fascinated to read that, in the early days, the rocker aspired to look like Bob Dylan -- even to the point of using curlers to straighten his hair to achieve a Dylan hairdo. Then Hendrix went to London, where he was received as a marvelous exotic.
"So he chucked the curlers and tried to look as eccentric as possible," Toni discovers about Hendrix. "He adopted an afro and began to buy stupid clothes in second hand shops... He got a bit carried away with the attention and became Jimi Hendrix. That was a revolution. When you come up with a new role, a new persona, you change the culture. If the pieces of your mosaic fit together right you can really take off like Hendrix."
This is precisely the transformation that Toni wants to pull off as well. He's a transplant from the countryside, like so many Croatians, and he's in a nearly constant state of anxiety: "The fear of someone thinking I was a redneck made me read totally unintelligible postmodernist books, watch unbearable avant-garde films, and listen to progressive music even when I wasn't in the mood. I was terrified of everything superficial and populist. If something became too popular, I rejected it."
Hendrix pulled off his self-reinvention, at least until the fame and falsity became too much and he died of an overdose. Toni the journalist, meanwhile, is not quite able to make all the pieces of the mosaic fit together.
The late 1960s, with the explosion of youth movements, the Vietnam War, and the transformation of popular culture, offered a grand opportunity for the reinvention of self. So, too, did the late 1980s, particularly in East-Central Europe. The fall of Communism enabled an entire generation to wipe the page clean and begin again.
For those living in Yugoslavia, however, there was a hitch: the war.
The wars that convulsed the Balkans in the 1990s put everything on hold. While the other countries the region pressed the fast forward button with their political and economic reforms, the rapidly shrinking Yugoslavia hit rewind - back to the atrocities of the 1940s, back even to the Balkan wars of the early 20th century.
Our Man in Iraq, the novel by Robert Perisic recently translated into English, is set in Zagreb some years after the war is over. Croatia has, after this interval, found the fast-forward button and pushed it with a vengeance. Toni the journalist has just sent his cousin to Iraq to report on the second Gulf War. He thinks that the countryside he escaped and the war in Yugoslavia that he has survived are safely behind him. 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.
I caught up with Robert Perisic in New York during his recent book tour. We had coffee at a café in the East Village, and I asked him about the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on his life.
"The true effects of the Wall's fall: that came for me and a lot of my generation only after 2000," he told me. "Before that, we were thinking that everything happening in Croatia was the result of the war. We thought that after the war and all the postwar disturbances, we would continue from the moment right after the fall of the Wall. And we did, for instance with the coming of the WTO, shopping malls, and a flourishing consumer society after 2000. I placed my novel Our Man in Iraq in that period of long-expected consumerism and emerging capitalism driven by loans (not-very-cheap loans, as we can see today)."
We talked about his experiences during the war, his evaluation of Croatia's economic and political developments, and the country's enduring division between town and country.
The most interesting feature of the book in terms of language is the difference between the elite language and slang. In the English used in the book, some of the characters speak a kind of Cockney. When I was in Croatia, people talked about two different Croatias -- the Croatia of the city and the Croatia of the countryside. They talked about it in two different ways. Either the people in the countryside are backward, living in the 18th century, or the intellectual elite is completely disconnected from the rest of the country and doesn't care about the impact of economic reform on general populace.
That question reminds me also of my first book of short stories, which was published in 1999. It included stories that I published from 1994 to 1999 in various magazines. There was much more emphasis on language in those stories. There were different characters than what was common in Croatian elite literature at that time. And I used the language of people, not the language of literature. My approach to literature has been democratic, not elitist, from the beginning, though at the beginning I wasn't thinking about it much and wouldn't have put it that way.
It is also here in this book. I'm just making jokes about this division in Croatian society that you mentioned. This main character started out as a liberal intellectual, an urban guy. He talks about his family in the countryside and how he tried to emancipate himself from them. But in the novel, they are coming back to try to catch him. This is a comical version of this Croatian fear of peasants in the countryside.
Of course, people from villages in the countryside are not progressive in a cultural way: they are more attached to conservative values. But they could be progressive politically. And people are not so very different in cities and in villages. We are all from villages in Croatia. Our modernization happened in the 20th century, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. That was the period when a lot of people came to the cities.
The division between urban and rural is a replacement for political thinking. It seems to me that from that cultural division, people try to explain politics. People from village will always be like that, and they were like that before. The countryside is eternal. But politics is something else. It's about ideas that don't depend on eternal things. According to this small-town reflex of liberalism, we in the city are good and they in the countryside are not good. Who will care about these ordinary people in the villages and these ordinary workers in the suburbs?
There is no Left really in Eastern Europe. Our social democratic parties became more interested in the upper middle class and don't care so much about the working class or for the peasants who have lots of problems with agricultural adjustment to the EU. What will happen to these people? If they can't do agriculture, will they come to the cities? You have to think about these people. Liberal politics is mostly focused on the city. But leftists should be interested in helping ordinary people. Without the Left thinking about ordinary people, the people in the countryside will vote for the right wing.
A lot of intellectuals say, "I don't care about them, they are stupid." It's not a good approach if you think they are just hillbillies.
For the most part in this book, the characters don't talk about the war in Croatia. They talk about the war in Iraq. There's almost a silence in the book about the Balkan wars. No one talks about their experience during the war. Is that a reflection of the situation in Croatia today, or is that a metaphor for a refusal to address responsibility or the effects of the war?
For the rest of the interview, click here.