What you usually hear, when you inquire about Robert Perišić, is that he is excellent at capturing the moment of now, the master of our Zeitgeist. His first two books, short-story collections, were perfect examples of the so-called reality prose, characterised by emulating the real world, which was at its peak in Croatia in the 2000s. Perišić's first novel, Our Man in Iraq, published in 2007, was likewise praised for its skilful depiction of contemporary urban life. It is true that Perišić excels in rendering a plausible Croatian present, describing the life of the disillusioned poor, barflies, couples who can't afford to have children, the misery of the never-ending transition from socialism to capitalism, salting his narration with a good sense of humour. However, Perišić's second novel, Područje bez signala (An Area without a Signal) doesn't just imitate reality, though this could easily be said of his previous one, as well, but creates new possible worlds by venturing often into the uncanny, the unlikely and the absurd. An Area without a Signal is a braver and bolder move than the author's previous ones, one by which he created a much richer and multi-layered text that requires an active reader. This is also a move that would make his novel less attractive to the ordinary reader. With his second novel, Perišić created a demanding text that is, in Barthes's terms, ‘writerly’.
An Area without a Signal came out in the 2015, the year that saw great fiction productivity in Croatia. Slobodan Šnajder came out with his masterpiece Doba mjedi (The Age of Brass), Zoran Ferić was there with an excellent novel about the Croatian tradition of seducing tourists, and Luka Bekavac finalized his Slavonian Gothic trilogy. There were also many other interesting books, and it wasn't easy to become a smasher that year. But Perišić's novel easily settled among them, garnering large attention nevertheless.
The story opens with two guys coming to an unnamed town in a derelict area, the area without the signal. It's a district that most people in the Balkans are familiar with – devastated by the war and the subsequent conversion, steeped in gloom, with the younger generations leaving for more prosperous places. Nikola and Oleg will try to invest money there in a closed down turbine factory, put it to work again and employ locals who have long lost hope that there would be any improvement in the living conditions. The plan is to present the project to local workers as a process of giving them back what they were deprived of. Giving them back the means of production. This re-invention of self-management is just the starting absurdist point of the further strange plot. Perišić then branches the narration into various directions and introduces numerous characters – weapon smugglers, war lords, art-dealers, engineers, factory workers, tycoons and politicians, providing their backgrounds, and going back and forth in time and space to recreate, across the 424 pages of the book, the last thirty years of the Balkans. He creates a historical novel that maps the birth of capitalism since the dissolution of socialism, telling the story with a sense for awkward humour. It's a strong effort and Perišić executes it rather well, verging on the border between realism and farce.
Perišić's humour, which is pervasive, is smooth, his rendering of virility, felt in male characters, is likewise, not getting in your face, like Hemingway does. His narrative coolness is smooth too, if coolness can be smooth at all. Yet, Perišić is not frugal with words, he is abundant and generous. It seems he doesn't care if you'll end up overdosed on them. But he is also easy-going, unburdened by the topics of his narration – be it a trip to unknown, devastated area, or claiming a turbine a work of art.
The main characters, and there are a lot of them, are well-rounded, developed, each with their own history so the reader can actually feel what drives them. Love, greed or an unnameable mix of various emotions combined into one operating energy.
The author garnered considerable success with his first novel. It is likely that, with the second one, he will be even more successful, since it is more developed and opens up more questions. It is also removed from one person's perspective and involves many character focalisations that equally contribute to the plot or to its lack. This novel is a far more ambitious attempt at showing the temporary state of things, since it involves many more factors, places, characters, points that contribute to the overall picture. It is a wondrous mesh of relationships spread across a vast space, from Tbilisi to Maghreb and from Siberia to London.
It wouldn't be false to say that this novel is Perišić's most layered work, well-planned and skilfully executed. It gives readers a far bigger picture than they could hope for, regarding both individual histories and collective happenings. What actually happened in this area after the fall of socialism? We all know about the war, theft, corruption, money laundering, and war profiteering. But the reality is always so much wilder than we know it, and Perišić gives it all to us, a tale so wild that he inevitably, at some moments, ends up in the genre of the grotesque. Think Bulgakov without magic, think Gogol with more experiments. It is a worth read because it tackles a very problematic and complex period of one country's history and it does so from various perspectives that all have to be taken into account.