All the World’s a Stage (a book review)

In «Our Man in Iraq» Robert Perišić talks less about Iraq but more about Croatia and the eternal play that's life. “Our Man in Iraq” is a story of Toni, a Croatian journalist who sends his cousin Boris to Iraq to report on the war for his newspaper. Boris’ reports turn out to be nebulous poetic blurbs, and Toni decides to rewrite them hoping nobody will ever find out he sent a dilettante – and his cousin - on this important task. But one day Boris disappears. To cover up the scheme, the editor decides on an even bigger scheme and asks Toni to pretend he is Boris. The story is great. But there is more to it and with every page, Perišić 's book exposes new layers. A love story. A story about transition from socialism to capitalism. A story of a country recovering from war. A story about media and journalism. About consumerism and postmodern identity crisis. But mostly a story about the roles we are playing. Yes, you can expect to find a lot in this book. Just don’t expect the war in Iraq.

Simultaneously witty, entertaining, critical and layered, the book reminds one of Frédéric Beigbeder’s “99 Francs”. Like Beigbeder, Perišić creates a complex character who is accomplished but confused, funny but cynical. And just like Beigbeder, Perišić will wrap him into sex, drugs, alcohol and parties to entertain us and keep us receptive for the strong critique of society and the system he will serve between those juicy bits.

When the novel was first published in Croatia in 2008., Perišić was an established journalist (yes, just like Toni) and a celebrated author of two collections of short stories. Croatians love Perišić's work because he brutally and honestly holds a mirror in front of their faces, and makes them laugh, in spite of the darkness they see around them. Non-Croats will find «Our Man in Iraq» interesting as a portrait of Croatia, that mysterious country which went through a transition from socialism to capitalism and a very brutal war - only to become one of world's favorite tourist destinations.

The experience of war is still omnipresent in lives of Perišić’s characters, filling them with cynicism: «Evil had touched and tainted us. That torments us every day, I thought: we have no trust and no faith in this reality, this peace, these people, or ourselves.» He will accuse them of senseless consumerism as a way of finding their identity once they were freed from both the oppression of socialism and the war: «People bought things left, right and center, shopping malls shot up like mushrooms after the rain and Croatia entered WTO and similar organizations just when Naomi Klein published No Logo with the aim of spoiling our fun.”

And the fun was quickly spoiled not only by Klein, but by disappointment in the promised wonderland: Capitalism. «They assured us that global capital would save us here in Eastern Europe and that we had to attract it like a new lover, break down the barriers, deregulate the labor market, and reduce welfare expenditure. Capital needed air to breathe so it'd feel comfortable. A lot was done to make capital feel welcomed, but in the end it made off.»

Disappointed, hurt and confused, Perišić’s Croats continuously wonder which role they should be playing. Take a mortgage and buy an apartment? Get married and have children? Wear a leather jacket? Or a suit? Be a rebel? A businessman? «Acting is a fundamental survival technique. It's always been that way. But now the choice of roles is bigger – democratic. The range on the identity market is broad. That's why socialism failed. It didn't offer people enough options, enough masks, enough subcultures, or enough films.»

That is what this book is essentially about: Playing roles. Perišić went so far to make Toni's girlfriend an actress. And during their love story, they switch roles. In the beginning an unemployed actress, Sanja becomes a star while Toni mutates from a successful journalist into a failure. Even when they have sex, they «liked to play raunchy scenes» . Toni will often analyze his acting: «It occurred to me that with Sanja I couldn’t any more act the cool freak; it was like I was obliged to be depressed because I'd disappointed her....» And when he loses everything, he decides to start a new film: «I just need to return to the game, find a new job, and be who I was before. I just need to assume my old face, light up a fag like Clint Eastwood and ride into a new film.» Toni’s friends and parents are acting, his newspaper is acting, even his country is acting: «Trying to be European, it [Zagreb] wore the most modern rags and expensive labels. Sunglasses and street cafés sought to invoke the flair of Milan and Vienna.»

The book delighted Croatian readers with its authenticity. They recognized themselves and were forced to question, and analyze, the “roles” they are playing and the “theater” they are a part of. The question is if the book is able to charm non-Croatian readers. I believe it is. I believe the issues raised are same for us all: Who am I? Who should I be? What will make me happy? But most of all: What is reality?

 

«Our Man in Iraq» by Robert Perišić

Balck Baloon Publishing, 2013