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Words Matter

youdounderstand

You Do Understand, Andrej Blatnik, trans. Tamara Soban, Dalkey Archive Press 2010

You Do Understand is a collection of 50 very short stories by Andrej Blatnik, published as part of Dalkey Archive’s ongoing Slovenian Literature Series. Born in 1963, Blatnik has published three novels, five collections of short stories, two books of essays, and a number of radio plays. You Do Understand is his most recent short story collection, published in Slovenian in 2009, and the second to have been published in English translation, after Northwestern University Press released Skinswaps in 2006. Blatnik was also included in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2010 anthology. Most of the stories in You Do Understand sketch everyday situations and relationships, usually on the verge of a mini-crisis or breakdown in communication. None of the characters ever seem quite at home. The title, then, is a desperate plea and a question, rather than a statement of fact. Blatnik’s prose-style is characterised by intimacy, brevity, and (if I can be excused so ungainly a word when discussing such elegant short stories) climax-lessness.

The shortest pieces in the collection are a mere two lines, such as ‘Misunderstanding’, a pointedly brief snapshot of dysfunctional pillow-talk:

“You’re even more beautiful when you come,” he said.

How would you know? she thought.

The tension in this story is quite literally in its lack of climax. The silence of the female voice, in discord with her thoughts, suggests an ongoing lack of fulfillment and communication. The unpleasant taint of arrogance and perhaps unwitting neglect in the male voice is contrasted with the bitter, but again, perhaps well-meaning silence of the female character. Both characters, clearly somewhat alienated from each other, are also alienated from the reader, who is left without enough information to fully empathise or understand. Blatnik adopts this strategy throughout the book, using unnamed characters, and rarely giving away clues as to appearance or personality traits. It lends his collection a strong sense of ambiguity and of the ever-present probability of miscommunication, almost like receiving an email from someone you haven’t met, and trying to gauge the full implications of their tone and turn of phrase.

In ‘Words Matter’ the first-person character makes an ill-considered judgment based on an image on a business card and calls the number, thinking, although it remains unspoken, that it’s the number of an escort. The two speak at cross-purposes, while the female character on the other end of the line offers to ‘listen’ to the man’s story, which seems to be the last thing the man desires:

I dialed the number. A woman answered. We switched to English straight away. “I feel a bit lonely,” I said. “Would you come up to my room?” The woman was silent for quite a while. “Are you sure you know who you’re calling?” she finally asked. “Well there’s a picture on the card. I assumed it was you?” “It is, but – did you read what it says below? Words matter.” “So you’re not…” “No, I’m not.”

I was at a loss. “What then? What can we do?” “I’ll listen to your story,” she said. My head was spinning. I think I read a short story or something once, with exactly this same premise, once. It didn’t end well.

Blatnik is excellent at using a seemingly throwaway detail – the fact the speakers immediately switch to English, for both a language they speak, but for neither their natural tongue – to diagnose a condition and its symptoms: alienation from one another, a lack of identity, a lack of clear purpose. The hotel feels like the quintessential location for Blatnik’s urbane but lonely characters – impersonal, dispassionate and abstract. Something like the mood Sofia Coppola achieves in Lost in Translation. This sense of the abstract is also present when Blatnik’s stories are situated in an undisclosed, conjectural location. The aptly titled story ‘Few Words’, which happens to be the first in the collection, plays on a turn of phrase to subtly convey a dream-like, uncertain atmosphere and pose a half-hearted phenomenological question:

“Do you believe in a tomorrow together?”

“First I’d like to believe tonight really happened.”

Blatnik’s stories bear comparison, and not just in their minimalism and economy of expression, with the fiction of Gabriel Josipovici and Lydia Davis. Davis, in particular. Both writers simultaneously exploit and explore the humour and pathos in un-dramatic situations, linguistic kinks, and psychological and philosophical dilemmas. Both writers also share an indulgence of the playful and a tendency to frankly explore the darker and more perverse aspects of gender politics. Blatnik’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Night’ narrates something like a short video game sequence in which the character has to rescue a princess, ruthlessly sending up male fantasies:

Trembling, she waited to see who would reach her first: The monster or her rescuer. Her face brightened when she saw it was me. “‘It’s you, Superboy, my saviour, isn’t it?”

But just at this point, when Superboy and the video game’s ‘she’ are finally two characters talking the same language, without misunderstanding each other, approaching (at last) a story with a climax – the potential culmination and presumed fantasy consummation of the hero-narrative, Blatnik quite literally pulls the plug:

But as I reached out for the door handle there was a flash and I was plunged into darkness: My mother had unplugged the cable again!

“I was so close, Mom!” I groaned.

Climax averted, the collection resettles into its rhythm of disappointed, unfulfilled characters misunderstanding one another in the dark. An inspired publication from Dalkey Archive of a distinctive contemporary stylist at the top of his game, it would be particularly interesting to see them follow it up with a translation of one of his novels.

colinherd

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, will be published soon by Knives Forks and Spoons Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 10th, 2011.