Absorption: On “The Paper”

Cory Stockwell

The first thing you notice about “The Paper,” the Croatian political drama currently available on Netflix (season three is slated to be released in the coming months), is its grayness: from the clothing worn by the main characters, many of them journalists working for the newspaper that gives the show its name, through the interiors – offices, homes, and also the smoke-filled bar where the journalists spend far too much of their time – that always seem just a tad too dark, to the stately, off-white Hapsburg-era buildings and concrete docks of Rijeka, the coastal city where the show takes place, everything is strangely muted, and there never seems to be quite enough light to make things out clearly. This is all the stranger, to my mind at least, given The Paper’s setting: this part of the Adriatic coast is known for its many beaches, to which tourists from all over Europe flock every summer, and as I binge-watched the first two seasons, I kept expecting to be dazzled by the light of this region that is just a short distance from Italy. But the summer in which this light might appear never arrives. The series seems trapped inside an endless, rainy winter, even in the establishing shots with which every episode begins, generally bird’s-eye panoramas of the city and the sea that adjoins it: the terracotta roofs of the old town are of a dull rust rather than a bright red; the mountains in the distance are an indistinguishable dark grey mass; the sky and the sea blend into each other in a featureless whiteness.

All of which, strangely enough, is a perfect setting for this fast-paced show that deals, in the main, with the corrupt underbelly of this small city. The series is structured around three separate but interrelated poles, the first of which is The Paper (about as bland or gray a name as one could imagine for a newspaper), a serious publication staffed by talented and hardworking journalists – and which is therefore, unsurprisingly, constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. Each of these journalists is compelling in his or her own right – one of the strongest aspects of the show is the way it develops its characters, such that they are at once recognizable personality types, and completely unique individuals – but by far the most commanding presence is Dijana Mitrović, a foreigner of sorts in that she grew up not in her native Croatia but in far-off Belgrade, where her father served as a high-ranking officer in the Yugoslav army, and found himself on the wrong side of the fighting when Croatia declared independence in the early 90s. From time to time, the people she targets in her stories – from corrupt politicians to police doubling as hitmen – seek to use her foreignness, which comes across in what one of them calls her “cute accent,” to isolate her. It never works: Dijana is a force of nature, with a knack for being in the right place at the right time to get the scoops that evade both her competition and her colleagues. Inevitably, she clashes with the wealthy Kardum family, which makes up the second pole of the series, and whose scion, a construction magnate named Mario, buys The Paper early in the first season, seeking to turn it into a mouthpiece for his quasi-legal business empire; the struggle between Mario and his own newspaper is the focus of much of season one.

The third and by far the most formidable pole is comprised by a single man, Rijeka’s mayor Ludvig Tomašević, a far-right politician whose every effort is directed at crushing those in the way of his ascent to power, and if this series has been a surprise success in the United States and elsewhere, it is undoubtedly at least in part due to just how recognizable a political figure Tomašević is: an unscrupulous populist who constantly bends the rules to suit his own purposes, who brushes foes out of his way with a wave of his hand, and whose constant invocations of patriotism, and invectives against those who would seek to undermine the homeland, exert an almost mesmerizing pull on his supporters. Tomašević – played by the excellently named Dragan Despot – is indeed a wonderful character, who grows more prominent as the series progresses: his machinations form one of several plotlines in the first season, but by season two the show’s main focus is his run for president, against a female center-left incumbent who makes the mistake, against the advice of everyone around her, of sinking to his level (of playing in the mud with him, as her husband puts it). And this is where I want to come back to the grayness that pervades the series. Try as they might, Tomašević’s rivals are incapable not only of dislodging him from power, but of putting the slightest dent in his armor: their attacks seem only to increase his support, to add to the myth of victimhood that he so carefully cultivates; every allegation against him, regardless of how explosive it appears at first, is rendered impotent, brought back into a narrative sludge. In a telling moment near the middle of season two, a prominent television journalist badgers Tomašević during an interview, getting him to admit that, if elected president, he will create a database to track the activities of all non-ethnic Croats living in the country; when the reporter, taken aback, suggests that this smacks of fascism, Tomašević calmly retorts: “I admit it then, I’m a fascist,” in a jocular tone that seems to ask: what are you, what is anybody, going to do about it? This seems a step too far even for the mayor, but soon he is back on the campaign trail, greeted with rapturous applause as he announces that he “will prioritize the fight against the internal danger.” Even “fascist” is just a word, indistinguishable from any other, fading immediately into the show’s all-pervasive grayness.

This hews to the idea that we live in an era in which the truth is impotent, and raises the question: what can anyone do to fight against this all-absorbing grayness that drowns meaning in a sea of indeterminacy? The moment you push back against it, you fall in, like quicksand, which would seem to make the most reasonable strategy that of not resisting at all. This is why the most interesting character in the series may be a man I haven’t yet discussed, a retired (yet tirelessly active) former secret service agent named Blago Antić. Blago doesn’t fit within any of the poles I have discussed so far, but given how easily he moves back and forth between them – he begins as an advisor to Tomašević, but switches his allegiance to the Kardum family when he sees an advantage in doing so, all the while maintaining a close relationship with Dijana Mitrović – it seems inaccurate to describe him as a “pole” at all, for there is nothing stable about him: far from resisting the grayness, he becomes one with it, moving about at will, switching back and forth from one idea, opinion, or conviction to another as it suits him. And it may be that, despite his often reprehensible acts, this éminence grise provides a lesson for any politics that seeks to resist absorption: such a politics, he suggests, must be courageous enough to wade into the shifting sands it deplores; it must recast this sludge as a sea of opportunity, allowing itself to be carried away by its swirls, eddies, and flows, so as to locate a current different from that of Tomašević and his ilk. Only by doing this can a politics of resistance truly become a movement, in the most literal sense of the word.

Cory Stockwell is Assistant Professor in the Program in Cultures, Civilizations, and Ideas at Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey. His translation of Aurélien Barrau’s “Poetic Resistances” appeared in Politics / Letters in 2019. He has published numerous articles in academic journals and collections, mostly on the links between literature and politics. For more information, see: https://bilkent.academia.edu/CoryStockwell.