Thursday, February 13, 2014

Killing Pilgrim by Alen Mattich

Words are Mattich’s business…I mean in real life. He is a journalist and columnist based in London, writing for financial concerns like The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones. He makes dry and convoluted financial, political, and historical matters comprehensible and interesting. He makes a second incursion into fiction with this comedic spy novel set on the Balkan Peninsula, in the region of the former Yugoslavia. His first novel, Zagreb Cowboy, was the most fun, thought-provoking, and informative crime novel I read last year. At the moment, Mattich is not published in the United States, but I expect that is merely an oversight that will be corrected soon.

Zagreb, 1991. Marko della Torre alias the Gringo, works for a Croatian state security less than two months old. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from the Yugoslav republic in June 1991, and the new Croatian government “nationalized” former federal buildings. Marko had been a member of the regional headquarters of the Yugoslavian Department of Internal Security (UDBA) in Zagreb, Department IV, which was responsible for investigating extra-judicial killings.
“[Della Torre watched] the watchers everyone feared…No other secret police force in the world was as successful at killing people beyond its borders—not the KGB, not the Stasi, not the Securitate, not Savak, not even Mossad. The CIA didn’t even register as competition. Della Torre’s job was to find and prosecute any UDBA operations done outside the scope of Yugoslav laws. Killing done for the personal motives of people in power.”
With independence, della Torre’s office was to be absorbed into ‘military intelligence,’ in a Croatian military in its infancy. Armed forces in every state of the former Yugoslavia would like to see the UDBA, its personnel and its files, disappear.

One thread in this novel is about the assassin called the Montenegrin, and his killing of “Pilgrim,” code name for Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister, whose death in February 1986 was never solved.
--from the Acknowledgements: ”Olof Palme’s assassination on that cold February night in 1986 remains one of Europe’s great unsolved crimes of the postwar era…There are numerous theories about who might have been behind the killing and why. One is that the Yugoslav government was somehow involved. This isn’t particularly far-fetched. The UDBA may not be in the popular imagination like the KGB or the Stasi, but of all the organs of state security operating from Europe’s Communist bloc, the Yugoslav secret police was perhaps the most murderous beyond its borders—even if its known targets were Yugoslav dissidents or some related or associated with them.”
Mattich brings us to Vukovar in August 1991, just months before the infamous Vukovar Massacre at a hospital in November of that year. This undoubtedly foreshadows a future novel in the series since it is only touched upon, putting our nerves on edge and placing della Torre’s wife squarely in the center of the action, while the storyline brings us down the Dalmatian coast to the walled city of Dubrovnik where the Montenegrin has a hideout. The CIA shows up and wants him neutralized.

Along the way Mattich shares the beauty of the Adriatic: “The waters of Croatia’s Adriatic are crystalline blue and turquoise to a depth of ten metres and more, so that the coral fans and black round balls of spiny sea urchins on distant bare rocks appear to be no more than an arm’s length below the surface. This clarity engenders a sense of vertigo.” His descriptions of the coastline and mountains makes one yearn to visit. And he tells us the myth of the American West thrives and the whole country grew up reciting the stories of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, the famous cowboy and Indian pair created by German novelist, Karl May:
“Everybody had heard of Winnetou. Even if they hadn’t read the books, they’d seen the films. They were famous. ‘German movies made with Yugoslavs…based on the books by Karl May. May was a German wrote a bunch of adventures about exotic places...Most of what he wrote was from a debtor’s prison. Anyway, he’s famous in Germany and Yugoslavia…[everybody here] loves cowboys and Indians, mostly because of him…He was Hitler’s favorite writer.’”

This series is just too interesting to miss. Mattich strikes just the right tone as he introduces us to a region with which we may not be familiar, reminding us of recent earth-shattering events there and inviting us to imagine what life must have been like when Yugoslavia broke into its component states: “any sense of brotherhood was riven by two alphabets, three religions, innumerable dialects, and a history of mutual loathing.”

Mattich’s characters are richly developed and ambiguously framed by their questionable behaviors, and yet we admire and respect even the hitmen for their devotion to duty and family....all except for the Americans. The CIA operatives introduced in this novel are admired for their equipment, money, and dental work, but little else. And Mattich is funny. He catches the absurd and delivers it in such a way the one begins to imagine how nice it would be to be sitting late into the night around a small wooden table with a bottle of slivovitz and a bunch of rough-looking middle-aged policemen, shooting the bull.

This book is available in a deliciously high-quality paperback edition or for download from The House of Anansi Press in Canada. I have a paper copy I can giveaway to one interested reader of my blog. Giveaway completed February 20, 2014.

A word about the eBook: for some reason, those cute little accent marks above the alphabet letters for Serbo-Croat place and people names (e.g., Poreč, Anzulović, and Strumbić) are not manifest in the eBook but are replaced by an annoying question mark instead. It takes a little getting used to, but the book is understandable even without having the proper alphabet. I don’t really understand why it is not possible to rectify this (how hard is this?) but urge the eBook publisher to rethink this for the future. This series is worth any effort or expense in getting it right.

A third book in the series, The Heart of Hell, is scheduled for publication in February 2015.

An interview with Alen Mattich.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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