It's not every day a science fiction author is hired to write a presidential biography. But in 1997, I was asked to write one about the president of Croatia, the controversial and authoritarian Franjo Tudjman. I am not an historian. At the time, I had only one published book to my name, "The Official Alien Abductee's Handbook," a humorous self-help look at alien abductions. So, why me?
That was the question I posed to the man offering me the job. Jakov Sedlar was Croatia's most famous film director, Tudjman's personal filmographer, and the man known as "The Leni Riefenstahl of Croatia," but without the German woman's talent. Jakov informed me that this biography was to tell Tudjman's story to America, and that my lack of historical understanding of the Balkans was, in fact, a plus. "You tell from American viewpoint," he excitedly encouraged me, "to tell how great a man Tudjman is!"
"Jakov, I don't know anything about Tudjman. Can I get back to you?"
I quickly researched the man, the war and the war atrocities. While Tudjman was not Hitler, neither was he an altar boy. He expelled the Serb citizens of Croatia, and was complicit in many of the atrocities committed against Serbs and Muslims.
I was two years out of a divorce, deep in debt and on a heavy rebound. The idea of an all-expenses-paid trip to a war-torn country thrilled me. But I didn't want to become a propagandist.
"I can't write this book, Jakov."
"No, Joe, you must. Only you must write book."
"I can't write a glowing book about Tudjman. And even if I could, I wouldn't. I'd have no credibility. Why don't you hire a PR agency? There's lots in New York."
"No, Joe, you just write what you have to."
"But I can only do that if I have creative control over what's written."
"Yeah, of course. We give you."
"Are you sure? Do you know what you're saying? I want you to know that it won't be uncritical."
"I know, but you can make great job, Joe. And we pay you up front."
"When do I leave?"
The party then ruling Croatia, Tudjman's HDZ party, was involved in a massive public relations effort to refurbish the tarnished president's image after the war of the '90s produced the largest number of atrocities and death since WWII. When Jakov hired me, he thought I would tow the party line, Americanize it and hand in a hagiography that would paint Tudjman as "the Croatian George Washington." I rationalized taking the money and writing the unvarnished truth, thinking that I could actually discover anything closely resembling the truth.
Once in Zagreb, Jakov paraded me before government officials, one after another after another. Never have I been lied to by so many people in such a short period of time. And they all wanted to explain, very politely, the true cause of ethnic rivalries that started only recently - if you call the 11th century recent.
Surreptitiously, I met with opposition leaders, harassed dissident journalists and human rights activists in an attempt to uncover the story of Tudjman's reign. In Sarajevo, I met with a high-ranking official in the Bosnian-Croat government who claimed to possess documents linking Tudjman with the Croat death camps in Bosnia.
Though I never secured the alleged documents, it did become clear to me how many resources the Croatian government was deploying to keep Tudjman from being called to the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague. The day before I interviewed Tudjman, 6 October 1997, a deal was announced where ten Bosnian Croat war crimes suspects would "voluntarily" surrender to The Hague. This announcement was followed by the release of a $40 million credit to Croatia by the International Monetary Fund, an amount far greater than my literary advance.
Many of the Serbs, Croats and Muslims I met in the Balkans expressed outrage over the crimes committed against their own ethnic group, but few would ever name any of their own as guilty. Tudjman personally told me that his own soldiers could not be blamed for any alleged crimes they committed; that after suffering at the hands of the Serbs, they "could not control their feelings of revenge, their wishes to retaliate."
After months of research and travel, I completed a 400-page manuscript titled "In Tito's Shadow." Very quickly, I was asked by Jakov to make "small minor changes."
"Please not to mention anything from old Communist time."
"Well, that would make it substantially shorter."
"And please not to mention war crimes."
I refused to make the changes, and the book remains unpublished.
Jakov had hoped to co-opt an authentic American voice to lend the biography credibility. Instead, the author bit the hand that fed him. In December of '99, Tudjman died, escaping The Hague unlike his fellow Balkan leader Slobodan Milosevic, who every day wrote his own biography on the stand.
What is a writer's obligation to history? Whose history? If history is written by the victors, who speaks for the vanquished - and in whose voice?
Shortly after Tudjman's death, I sent the information and interviews I recorded to The Hague. I could no longer in good conscience hide the identity of some particular anonymous sources. At a certain point, it was time for me to come out from the cold.