The name Jesse Armstrong may not be familiar to you, but when you learn he was a co-writer of the British Iraq War satire In the Loop and has written for the HBO series “Veep,” you’ll have a good idea of the darkly comic sensibility that infuses his droll first novel, Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals.
In the summer of 1994, a group of eight young English men and women who dub themselves the Peace Play Partnership pile into a diesel van and set off for war-ravaged Sarajevo, Bosnia. They plan to spread the message of peace through the art of theater and somehow “extend the evolution of humanity to a new continuum.” Andrew, a sometime construction worker and the novel’s narrator, wangles his way into the van by falsely claiming fluency in Serbo-Croatian, but his main goal is to ingratiate himself with Penny, an African-born beauty who’s the adopted daughter of a well-connected British politico. As the group makes its way into ever more dangerous territory of the ironically named U.N. Safe Areas, the sexual tension is as thick as the humid Bosnian air.
Armstrong trains his dry wit like a laser on the fumbling progress of the English do-gooders, whose sincerity is equaled only by their naïveté. Andrew’s bathroom stop in what may be a minefield and his trip to a military commander’s headquarters to deliver a briefcase he fears contains a bomb are just two of many scenes that showcase Armstrong’s comic gift. But in his realistic depictions of sniper attacks, artillery shelling, encounters with ragtag militias and mercenaries and even a hanging, he ensures that the reality of conflict is never far from the center of an otherwise amusing story.
“Everything is complicated. Everything is simple. It depends how far away you stand, I suppose,” says Andrew. That’s an apt summing up of the tragedy of the savage war in Bosnia. Armstrong’s novel is an admirable contribution to the literature of that conflict, its mordant humor effectively balanced by a keen appreciation of the futility and irrationality of war.