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    Specialties: An essay on The Law of Desire

Petra Vidali

"A presentation of a successful literary development is necessarily always also a simultaneous presentation of continuity and discontinuity," writes Tomo Virk in the opening of his essay accompanying Andrej Blatnik's Biographies of the Nameless from 1989. Though the Biographies were only Blatnik's third book, and his second short story collection, (preceded by Bouquets for Adam Fade from 1983 and the novel Torches and Tears from 1987) there were already grounds for talking of continuity and discontinuity. Virk's study is entitled "How Big Stories Got Short" and delineates the postmodernist paradigm of exhausted literature and the metafictional and minimalist reversals. In 1996, Virk was to write another study of another of Blatnik's works, the novel Closer to Love, in which he again brilliantly registered the shifts in Blatnik's prose: The formal exhaustion of literature is followed by the visibly deeper, existential exhaustion of the character. Cases in point, albeit different in genre and style, are the novel Closer to Love and before that, a collection of short stories, Skinswaps, from 1990.
Separating the first and the third books are seven years and, roughly speaking, three styles: predominant pre-postmodernism (Bouquets), metafiction and formal minimalism (Biographies), and existential minimalism (Skinswaps). What separates Skinswaps and The Law of Desire is ten years and... And what?
The world of literature itself seems to revolve faster and faster: In just the few decades of the last century it turned around more times than previously in its entire history. The Slovene reaction time got shorter too, to a great extent thanks to authors of Blatnik's generation and to Blatnik himself. Sensitized to new trends, they tried them out as soon as they emerged. The old style skin would be shed for a new one now even quicker than where it had originally appeared. That, however, is not to say that the works were "slapdash" or lacking in maturity. A proof to the contrary is the fact they still ring true. But it also seems in accordance with the "natural laws of growth" that the current has lost its turbulence, that the generation has abandoned their temporary shelters, and that those who remain are now turning to more stable literary essences.
The Law of Desire certainly seems a product of such a maturing process (1). For this reason it is probably not such a pivotal work as the Torches were, or the Biographies, or the Skinswaps either. In my view no injustice is done to The Law of Desire stories if the Skinswaps paradigm is ascribed also to them; that is, if we read them as accounts of exhausted existence. The designation seems as it were universal, and the state of affairs definite. How could a rupture of discontinuity even be made in this case, how could this exhausted existence not be continued, how could it be transcended?
The Law of Desire contains a number of attempts at that, but the "results" can not be easily molded into a new pattern. Unless, that is, one were to accept the paradigmatic fact that a universal solution is not possible (if it were, it would quickly become institutionalized as a new trend), that the various attempts reach only as far as each individual story, and that the changes are traceable only on the level of individual recurrent subjects.

What then am I talking about?
When Skinswaps appeared (soon to be followed by the publication of individual stories from the present Law of Desire in magazines), Andrej Blatnik's name was more and more closely associated with that of Raymond Carver. Which is not odd at all. In his preface to the Slovene translation of Carver's selected stories, Aleš Debeljak wrote: "While it can not be claimed that American literature as such can be divided into pre- and post-Carver literature, it is certainly true that the art of the short story will never be what it was before Raymond Carver came along."
In the short story What We Talk About, literary reference has become part of literature, and not in the choice of title alone. The second sentence already reads: "I was returning Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which I'd been reading longer than I should have ..." An almost ontological rationalization of selecting this particular Carver book, of posing this particular question, has been presented by Tomo Virk: "... The title of the story What We Talk About symbolically illustrates the fact that, following the death of the acting protagonist, there appeared on the horizon of this existential position a conversing protagonist."
But the principal character of this most explicitly Carver-related story differs considerably from the one in Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, indeed, differs from characters in Carver's stories in general (2). The protagonist of What We Talk About is not a lower middle-class American, but an intellectual Slovenian of cosmopolitan background (3), a person who understands the gist of the problem, (that is, that Carver's heroes, and all present-day heroes as well, can no longer do anything but talk) and confronts it head-on. So that talking itself becomes the subject of the story (4).
I can not really think of a better way to illustrate this than through the "dialogue about kissing". Hypothetically, Carver's heroes would talk about kissing; Blatnik's protagonists talk about how kissing is nowadays only talked about. But: Does their knowledge, their awareness of the problem do them any good? Does it help them avoid talking - like Carver's characters do - past each other? ("She said it Carver's book was too sad, that all the characters talked past one another.") And not tell the only thing there is to tell - their own respective stories: "I could not tell her my story. The one that weighed on my chest. So, then, I thought, what on earth can we talk about then? About everything, okay, but - does that have any sense at all now?"
Even when the protagonists have achieved only a lower level of awareness, talking, or the impossibility of it, is one of the recurrent themes of The Law of Desire. Liza in Total Recall has similar difficulties with "her story" as does the protagonist of What We Talk About. Also in her case, her story would be the direct opposite of the empty prattle of her girlfriends and would underscore the falsity of the socially desirable truth - in Liza's case, sexual pleasure at all costs. Just as speech itself does in Key Witness. But that story is different again. Faced with a choice between hush money and eternity, the key witness opts for the latter, unfortunately also literally, but it is this very act of changing the state of affairs with words which gives speech meaning. Are words unreliable, senseless and powerless (or else too powerful) (5) only in a twosome, while when they are faced with a community, a new trace of meaning can be discerned?

Music vs. Words
"What puzzles me is this incessant originating of music from every single pore of existence" or "I hope you live to see the day when you play a melody of your own" or "You don't know yourself, you think 'I love music' is too simple as an excuse, and that there has to be something else behind it"... What a pre-postmodernist, naive, slightly pathetic ring these sentences have - all of them taken from Bouquets for Adam Fade. And yet ... Electric Guitar, written in 1999, conveys a similar message. Here, however, naivete is well camouflaged: it pertains to a child. (Incidentally, childlike innocence and phantasmagoria here again lead to the murder of a parent; the first time it was in His Mother's Voice in the Biographies. Evil born from ignorance, from good intentions even, has its allure for story-tellers.) The boy from Electric Guitar still simply loves music. ("The worst part of it is that he loves music.")
There are a number of stories between the Bouquets and The Law of Desire in which this "love of music" is rather more discursively elaborated (6). In Billie Holiday, that lady's voice helps save a relationship already on the rocks; conversely in Rai, the man puts the relationship at stake for the sake of Cheb Khaled (both examples are from Skinswaps). In both cases music is stronger than words. In The Law of Desire, the two main characters of Bastards Play Love Songs, following futile verbal attempts, finally find each other (perhaps an exaggeration in light of the ironic context of the story) through music: " And we play on. And it begins to seem to me that it's better without words."
Electric Guitar is possibly the only story in The Law of Desire where it does not matter who says what. The boy believes in the magical power of the guitar and is convinced that this power can save him: "... If I had an electric guitar, a real one, then I could do it. He would be the right person for it and he could play it without a hitch, and his father would not take the belt out of his pants but would open his arms and lift him up and tell him how proud he was of him ..." And so on and on, a real phantasmagoria. The boy knows it is all just a dream, but his fascination also has effects in reality: The "electric accordion", a combination of what he has got and what he wishes he had, makes his fantasy come partly true; his father will never again take the belt out of his pants. Thus music, unlike words, still seems capable of changing things. (7)

Women vs. Men
... is part of the quote that begins Official Version: "... No one knows how it started and God knows how it'll end / The fighting continues - Women versus Men." (David Byrne, Women vs. Men)
Blatnik could just as well have used it before, or later, since hardly any of his stories do not deal with the relation between the sexes; in Official Version, however, the conflict is of warlike proportions.
In a brilliant interview for the magazine Literatura in 1995, the author answered the question posed by Ženja Leiler (a question which, as a matter of fact, already contained an answer, and a brilliantly formulated one at that: "The most frequently recounted story is itself as old as the first couple evicted from paradise. A man and a woman. Is their relationship, in a perpetual state of break-up-make-up, the eternal 'little-great story'?") thus: "Yes, I'd say this is the fundamental story of all stories."
There is nothing to add to that. This is, even more than the story about the impossibility of a story and the unreliability of words, also the main story of The Law of Desire. Just as it was the main story of all Blatnik's previous books regardless of their spiritual-historical or style orientation. But in The Law of Desire it has gained several new dimensions. In addition to Official Version (in which the clash between the sexes is essentially socially institutionalized), No depicts a relationship that comes to a head in a radically physical way, beyond the possibility of appeal. These stories are the oldest two in the book, dating back to 1991. After bringing things to such a culmination, it was necessary to head off in a new direction. The first time a tragedy, the second a farce, isn't it? There follows Just As Well (1992). Already in Skinswaps, in the story Damp Walls, adultery did not result in action but in talk, and the absurdity of the situation already then contained a certain amount of humor, although not quite as much as Just As Well does. A suitable genre classification of the text is provided by the heroine's train of thought: "You know, life really is like a comic opera." And as such, it resolves into a reconciliation.
These deviations are followed by a return to the "usual" deadlocked form of relationship. To stories in which the relationship is defined rather by its absence, or the impossibility of it: He and she in What We Talk About, in Closer, probably in Too Close Together and possibly elsewhere, talk past each other and remain, despite their desire for closeness, on their opposite sides.

One vs. Many
I find the "point" of A Thin Red Line surprising. A social dimension, even an idea of socially engaged action? That is definitely new, coming from Blatnik.
In the Biographies (and included also in Skinswaps) there is a story entitled Isaac. Isaac tries to save himself from the train taking him to a death camp, but only manages to jump off after the train has already arrived. Just before pulling the trigger, the officer tells him: "If you can't change the fate of the majority, you have to share it."
This sentence of sharing the fate of others is also there in A Thin Red Line. The protagonist is likewise the same, though more elaborate now. For Hunter, just arrived in an African village in quest of the Nameless One, fleeing from the ideology of saving the masses which he used to support, on the run from an exhausted revolution, this sharing of fate is but an empty cliche. Like Isaac, Hunter is only trying to salvage his own fate. But his fate only gets more complicated. Because finally Hunter can actually change the fate of the group. So he does. (In the end he can feel the first drops of rain. Would that just be a dying man's hallucination?) Does the sacrifice of an individual for the sake of a community make sense then? Possibly. But: Is it necessary to make a conscious, deliberate, involved sacrifice for the community? No. A community does not benefit from the community, from a movement, but from an individual consistently true to him- or herself, doggedly following his or her path. Hunter has, just like the community, found the Nameless One, that is, his destiny. And this can not really be called social involvement. Quite the opposite: The "action" works when and because he gives up the involvement.
No, in this sense Blatnik remains true to himself. A further proof of this is also The Day of Independence. By definition, the declaration of independence is a social, historical event, while in Blatnik's story its relevance is restricted to being a generator of personal history. (8)
But what is so unusual about A Thin Red Line and The Day of Independence and the above mentioned Key Witness as well, is that - unlike the futile interpersonal exchanges between couples - the individual's confrontation with the community bears fruit (even though it results in the individual's demise in two cases). The threads of various destinies are spun together and even acquire a sense of transcendence. In this I see the fundamental novelty of The Law of Desire, a departure from the eternally open carveresque modern short story.
Nonetheless, as Letter to Father warns, these happy solutions probably can not solve existence in its entirety.

One vs. One
A story without compare in any of the previous collections, be it in idea or "genre", is Letter to Father. The letter expounds practically the entire list of problems, the constants of the present-day spiritual paradigm. First of all, there is the literal verbalization of syntagmas of the "exhausted existence", "exhausted metaphysics" and also "getting over metaphysics" type. "I'm tired, father," says the writer of the letter and checks to see if the message has been received: "Are you there? Are you listening?"
Symptomatic of this attempt at tiredness are not only the initial and the concluding addresses to father (should he, father, be named something else? - no, let him remain nameless), but also the "story" part of the letter. The choice of the stories, of the roles played by the writer is such that it would have occasioned the labeling "metafictional" only a few years back: They derive in equal proportion from the symbolic and real-life treasury (again to equal extents domestic and global), in perfect accordance with the premise that fiction and history are made equal and transformed into possible discourse. (Regardless of their origins they are united by their tragic outcomes: "precipice", "ruins", "dark", "dry throat", "blood", "tombs", "battlefields".) Another thing not to be overlooked is perhaps that the writer of the letter treats also the metaphysical instance in a sort of metafictional way, like a creator of stories. "I can't tell your stories any more. I've forgotten my own. Can you hear it, can you hear it softly pulsating?" A small story versus the great ones, we would hasten to add. What's so new about that?
Heretofore, Blatnik's search for a rationalization of existence was not direct, but well camouflaged. Despite the fact that Closer to Love is after all very serious, the intention is masked with humor, and the most substantially ironic character is the story's warrantor of meaning, Rosebud. The problem has been similarly tackled (or rather circumvented) by other contemporary authors. As a pure genre parallel of Letter to Father, we could probably cite Maks Kubo's "Open Letter to God" (by Samo Kuščer, if I am not mistaken) from 1984. Very directly and naively the writer of the letter addresses classical metaphysical questions to a hypothetical god, and at the same time incessantly parodies the seriousness of the situation, like the title of the story itself.
There is nothing funny about Letter to Father. And it will not fit either the mold of metafiction or minimalism. The former was interested in answers to questions of life merely as part of the literary game; the latter speaks about exhausted existence by describing it, and not by summing it up. Letter to Father, on the other hand, dares raise again - without simultaneous self-irony and also without the metaphysical pathos, but only existentially touching, sadly beautiful - the still pressing questions.

In the end a universe of possibilities
The sequence of stories in The Law of Desire (9) - arranged by the author himself - is indeed carefully considered. The book opens with a crucial story, and equally significant are the stories at all the other strategic points.
The stories are arranged according to their similarity in theme and/or subject matter (and not chronologically): Closer and Too Close Together describe different aspects of closeness, Too Close Together and A Thin Red Line share the line motif (the lines being also metaphors in both cases), Electric Guitar and Letter to Father a problematic relationship between a father and son, Letter to Father and Nora's Face some sort of omnipotent creator of stories, No and Official Version perilously strained relations between a him and a her ... Even more positively than bound by these correspondences, the book is divided into segments by the varying "moods": Starting with neutral nuances (exhausted existences, no worse off at the end of the stories than at the beginning) it slowly slips into black, final (No, Official Version) or otherwise desperate attempts (Letter to Father), only to end on a rather more conciliatory note (The Day of Independence, Just As Well). And the placement of Surface at the very end seems pregnant with meaning: An event that rocks the very foundations of the hero's existence is followed by radical change (or at least a prediction of it), a traditional action-packed story as it were, of the kind we are not used to with short-story characters. The open end may well be a characteristic trait of this genre, but it is usually an openness of a different kind; the story remains open-ended because a solution is not possible. At the end of Surface, on the other hand, there open, literally, galaxies of possibilities.
A few of them are realized: We witness a truce between the man and the woman, and the hero's realization that the two sides fight because they are both vulnerable. (For that reason he says: "I'm not going to let you get to me any more ...") And among other things, he says, he'll say how he feels. Will the hero then end up telling his story?
Sure - in the next book.

Translated by Tamara Soban

Petra Vidali is a critic/essayist from Maribor, Slovenia.

1) This is a book that displays maturity in subject matter and perfectionism in formal style. The author has been justly recognized as a master stylist before, in Torches and in Biographies, but in my view he has even further honed his skill. Feel the cutting edge of his dialogue.

2) A more Carver-like story - in that it is without a reasoning protagonist - in The Law of Desire is Closer. Compositionally, it is actually a counterpart to Carver & Altman's Short Cuts. Naturally, you'll find a sentence or two referring to the film in What We Talk About as well.

3) Similar, perhaps even identical, to the hero of Closer to Love, and with a few real-life traits of the author to boot (by this I mean above all the translated books).

4) In addition to being the subject of the story the protagonist is writing. The story What We Talk About is full of metafictional tricks, a masterly compilation of approaches Blatnik has previously used to his advantage. No wonder another of Blatnik's endless "sources", Jorge Luis Borges, finds his way into the story.

5) Or in the words of Official Version: "Words are unreliable. They can strike elsewhere than where they'd been aimed. And on top of that, they don't leave a visible trace. You can never be absolutely certain what they have accomplished."

6) The different literary approaches are echoed also in the music - from classical music in the Bouquets to a real maze of rock culture (which in itself would deserve a separate detailed analysis) in The Law of Desire.

7) I have to admit I am a bit troubled about the other electric guitar story, When Marta's Son Returned. Could Marta's son be the boy from Electric Guitar after he had found his mother and grown up? And is the world so deranged that even music can no longer help? It must be the war, I comfort myself.

8) After this study had already been written, I happened to hear a nameless reader's rigorously political interpretation of this story which I find so brilliant it would be a sin not to repeat it here. Here goes: Declaring independence (in Slovenia and elsewhere as well) is like a party; nobody thinks about the future, they just rush into dark nooks to get it on with the first attractive bit that comes along, and then have to bear the consequences of their euphoria - the children. (The poor people - the bag lady in this case - are left empty handed.) Not to mention the point made in the end, i.e. that the punishment for the children is having to listen to their fathers' interminable and incomprehensible stories (which could be interpreted as a hint at the hush-hush post-WWII killings in Kočevski rog and similar matters)...

9) The Law of Desire could also be a quote. It is the title of a film by Pedro Almodovar (while a more direct link would probably be to psychoanalysis); further references to films in The Law of Desire are A Thin Red Line and Total Recall, and also Key Witness and Official Version have a movie-like ring. In addition to Carver the titles could also refer to some other author, maybe Franz Kafka, or Franjo Frančič after all. Not to mention the musical "sources". But while What We Talk About can truly be seen as a quotation, this label is too strong in other cases. They are probably just instances of more or less incidental, and definitely free correspondence. Searching for any deeper connections would probably turn out to be absurd.



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