- Interview by Molly
Molly Odintz: So, I’ve read a few novels set in former Yugoslavia this year, and Zagreb Cowboy is by far the most adventurous. What made you stay away from the mournful and focus on the amoral?
Alen Mattich: Zagreb Cowboy takes place just before the start of the Yugoslav war, before people realized quite how serious and tragic it was to become. There were local upheavals and stand-offs. A few shootings. But despite the tensions, mostly it was a time of uncertainty and unease rather than mourning. Many people had more pressing concerns than politics, not least how to make ends meet during a time of great inflation. In doing so, many behaved “amorally” — everyone was looking for an edge, everyone was gaming the system, corruption became a necessary way of life just to get food on the table. This was true for people in all walks of life. Economic laws that failed to account for economic reality were routinely ignored. Of course, some people do it better than others. In these circumstances, there are always Strumbićs. And I knew one who was equally lively, equally full of life and schemes and had done very well for himself. It’s hard not to admire people like that, notwithstanding their utter amorality.
MO: Your protagonist, Marko della Torre, is Istrian, and his ex is Jewish – their outsider perspectives undercut the general American conception of Yugoslavia as Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats. Why make Marko Istrian? How would his story be different if he was a member of a more targeted/targeting nationality?
AM: Marko’s Istrian because my father’s family is Istrian. It’s an interesting part of the world. Istria is at the head of the Adriatic, at the pivot point between eastern Europe/Balkans and the west. It’s been conquered so often in its history, the change of rule has happened so frequently, that Istrians have learned to be apolitical, to keep their heads down and to concentrate on commerce. Some see themselves as ethnically Italian, others as Slovenes or Croats. But above all they’re Istrian. Many speak the Istrian dialect, a combination of Italian, Serbo-Croat and local elements. By making della Torre Istrian, I allow him to be at one remove from the nationalist politics that are, when the book opens, poised to tear Yugoslavia apart. I don’t need to worry about him becoming a character with a nationalist vendetta. It becomes easier to have him sit apart. It also makes him more acceptable to Serb nationalists, which becomes a factor in the other two books.
MO: So, the Yugo. Was it really the worst car in history?
AM: The Yugo was a terrible car by western European standards. But it wasn’t too bad compared to the cars being made elsewhere in the east at that time, the Skodas, Ladas, Dacias, Trabants and the like. But Yugoslav cars weren’t all bad. Zastava, which built the Yugo, also made a knockoff of the Fiat cinquecento, a splendid and incredibly durable little car. And Citroen had a manufacturing plant in Slovenia, which built DSs, perhaps the most beautiful car ever made.
MO: You not only are originally from Croatia, but also truly immerse the reader in a particular time and place. What is the responsibility of the author to their setting? How does a writer present a setting, not just as a backdrop, but as essential to the plot and characters of the story?
AM: The only responsibility an author has is to his readers. If his goal is to educate, he has to do this as well and as honestly as possible. If, on the other hand, the intention is to entertain, then the imagery, landscapes and descriptions all have to serve the story. The scenery ought to have some significance to the story line — to the plot, or to a better understanding of the characters and their motivation, or to contribute to the atmosphere the author is trying to develop. Otherwise landscape becomes superfluous travel writing.
MO: One of the things I liked best about Zagreb Cowboy was that “policeman” and “black-marketeer” are basically synonymous. What are the challenges and rewards of an Eastern European/Balkan context while writing within the mystery genre?
AM: Policeman and black-marketeer aren’t quite synonymous in the old Eastern Europe. But there was always a good deal of corruption among officialdom. In part that was because many government employees were woefully underpaid. Sure, they often didn’t work particularly hard. But the money they earned would only just put food on the table and to cover heavily subsidized housing. Money for extras like a car or a TV or even a pair of proper blue jeans would have to come from somewhere else. Often that meant backhanders. The rewards of writing about this sort of environment is that you can explore many shades of grey, the writer can show quite how hard it is to determine the line between outright corruption and scratching out a living. On the other hand, the biggest challenge is drawing western readers into a foreign landscape and history populated by characters who have tricky to pronounce names. I find it interesting and a little disheartening that they will more readily accept wholly made up worlds in fantasy literature–with their absurd names, customs and convoluted histories– than to venture into real lands that are different from their own.
“The only responsibility an author has is to his readers. If his goal is to educate, he has to do this as well and as honestly as possible. If, on the other hand, the intention is to entertain, then the imagery, landscapes and descriptions all have to serve the story.”
MO: I may be guilty of reading too much into this, but to me, the specific era of your setting seems like a thoughtful and oblique way of approaching the violence to come, reminding the reader of the conflicts of the early 90s through their absence in the narrative, but also through their looming presence in the ’91 setting’s near future. How do you feel about this interpretation of your subject matter?
AM: I’m not sure quite how to answer this question. The politics of former Yugoslavia are just the background for the story–more so in the later two books than the first one. The books aren’t written on any elevated intellectual plane. I’m not intentionally comparing the degeneration of a society with that of individuals in it. I’d started writing about a couple of KGB agents in Russia around the time of the collapse of communism. Not long after, I went to visit my parents, who’d retired to Zagreb–my mother’s from near there and my father had studied medicine there. It was January and the city was incredibly atmospheric. In the medieval old town they still light gas lamps in the evenings. It’s a small city and tends to be quiet at night, so you can walk streets alone, among the oscillating shadows as the lamps are swung by the wind. And I thought, why am I writing about Moscow and Russians, like a thousand other thriller writers, when I have this wonderful, undiscovered, undisturbed ground of my own to plough here. The UDBA were among the deadliest of East Europe’s secret services beyond the country’s own borders. The fragmentation of the country creates all sorts of possibilities for thriller plots. So I abandoned the KGB novel and started Zagreb Cowboy instead.