Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Heart of Hell by Alen Mattich

Autumn, 1991. The sounds, the scents, the light and look of Croatia come through clearly in this best-by-far third installment of the Marko della Torre mystery series. “Wild thyme and lavender, pine resin and a faint fragrance of the sea” waft around della Torre as he plans a middle-of-the-night sailboat crossing from the island of Korčula to Dubrovnik in the middle of the Yugoslav blockade of that walled city on the Dalmatian coast.

Della Torre is a senior member of the newly-formed Croatian military intelligence, but with a government in disarray and the former Yugoslavia breaking into component countries at the hands of vengeful and land-grabbing combatants, no knowledge, no ‘friend’ was firm, steady, or sure. Della Torre is out of his depth much of the time in this novel, tossed about physically and emotionally by his alliances with the untrustworthy.

We follow della Torre in his rented Citroën from almost-winter in Zagreb (“a green city, pocket-sized, and close to wilderness”) to late summer in Rijeka, close to Croatia’s northwestern coast and the “beautiful Venetian city” of Poreč. He drives south along the coast road hoping to find a way into Dubrovnik despite the Yugoslav blockade. He travels to Herveg Novi in Montenegro before he leaves the south for Belgrade and Vukovar in his search for reasons why the CIA is so interested in his movements and involved in his affairs.

Mattich has the heart of a novelist (or travel writer), though his other life as Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal financial reporter may leave him little time or energy for creating characters that stand up for what is right in the war-torn Balkans. This third novel in the Marko della Torre series is a heady mix of spy thriller and war reporting along the crystalline Adriatic. The morally complex characters keep our wits sharpened: we don’t quite trust anyone but time and again these characters surprise us with their generosity, humor, grit and drive. Especially notable in this novel is Strumbić, a man who lives large in his role as policeman, prisoner, fixer, smuggler, thief, and friend to Marko della Torre.

We hear the canny Wall Street insider behind Strumbić’s words to della Torre about money and risk:
“Gringo, when you grow up using chestnut leaves to wipe your ass, the man with an indoor toilet is rich. You’re right, though, I’ve got enough. The money is neither here nor there. But I’m not a gambler. For one thing, real gambling is putting something on the line you can’t afford to lose, and the odds aren’t particularly good. Think about things that way and you realize you’re the gambler, Gringo. For me, mostly it’s an intellectual challenge. Like Dubrovnik. How many cigarettes do you stock up on? How many should you sell? Or do you wait for the price to go higher? Do you dump your holdings when people find out the armada’s coming to save them? Or do you pay some docker in Split to unload all the cigarettes and then sell into the panic when the boats arrive with only half the expected supplies? These are all hypotheticals, mind…A lot of money that comes in goes out…ultimately money matters because it gives you control.”

In his Acknowledgements, Mattich notes that his work of fiction hangs on a scaffolding of history. That history, he notes, is both well documented and well told in Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia and Laura Silber’s The Death of Yugoslavia. The sleepy river town of Vukovar was the site of an 87-day siege by the Yugoslav People’s Army that destroyed the town in the autumn of 1991. “It is estimated that the city suffered the most massive and sustained barrage fire in Europe since Stanlingrad.” That siege and its aftermath has since been labelled a massacre for the thousands of defending Croatian National Guard and civilians that were killed. Mattich loosely quotes the opening lines of Dante's Inferno and rarely has it seemed so apt.

The horrors of history are therefore addressed in Mattich’s fiction, lest we forget. Mattich is able to draw our attention to the beauty and terror of the place and time with a lightly-told, thought-provoking, and informative tale of spies-on-spies. I can’t recommend it more highly. Each book in this series is a real treat, but this last was his best. I didn’t want it to end.

This series is published by House of Anansi Press in Canada. This book and the others in the series will be available in the United States in paper this summer and I urge those interested in international fiction to order them early and often.
#1: Zagreb Cowboy
#2: Killing Pilgrim

An interview with Alen Mattich

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

No comments:

Post a Comment