"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
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
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)
... 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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."
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.
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.
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)...
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.