‘Just’ Literature

Context N°24

Interviews with Two Slovenian Writers
West Camel

Andrej Blatnik’s short-story collec­ti­­on Law of Desire is published by Dalkey Archive in July 2014.
Following his previous collection, You Do Understand, comes this expansive series of sixteen tales about “urban nomads” lost in a labyrinth of pop culture: “We go to the movies. We read books. We listen to music. No harm in that, but it’s not real.”
A bestseller in Eastern Europe, Law of Desire is Andrej Blatnik at the height of his powers. He is one of the most respected and internationally relevant post-Yugoslav authors writing today.

Q: This collection seems to suggest that the overarching ‘law’ of desire is that it is always accompanied by doubt or pain. Did you set out to write all or some of these stories with this in mind—or was it something you discovered in writing them?
AB: In all of my short story collections, I try to put together stories that fit within a specific frame. In You Do Understand, published by Dalkey Archive in 2010, the frame was formal—all the stories were shorter than 500 words (at least in my native Slovenian; not all the translations managed to achieve that length.) In Law of Desire, after writing the first few stories, I discovered in them the fil rouge of desire; not just any desire—but a demanding one, and, in addition, one that brings pain as well as pleasure. And it goes without saying that a desire fulfilled seems not to be our desire anymore—isn’t that alone enough for doubt or pain?

Q: However much your characters want to escape their desires, they seem ineluctable, despite the negatives associated with them. Is this the reason for the final tragedy of a story such as Electric Guitar?
AB: I had an interesting experience with that story. When I write about a specific topic, I look for advice from people who know more about it than I do. When I finished Electric Guitar, I sent it to a friend of mine who is a social worker and a specialist in child abuse. She called me immediately: “Who told you about this story?” Well, nobody told it to me, it’s an act of imagination, I tried to explain, but she continued: “You need to tell me who told you about it, it’s absolutely unprofessional that this very sensitive story leaked, since it could destroy even more lives if the media get to it.” It took quite a bit of effort to convince her that I really made the whole story up and that it was pure coincidence that it was very similar to another story—alas a true one—of a father and a child that her office wanted to keep as discreet as possible. We sometimes hear that no invented tragedy in literature, movies, etc., can compete with the tragedies of life itself—this story seems to prove this once again.

Q: As the opening story What We Talk About demonstrates, our relationship with our desires is complicated by the fact that they cross and conflict with those of other people. For your characters this is a frustration; but for writers and readers it is the raw material of literature. Can your writing be described as managing the conflicting desires of your characters?
AB: This management is not only crucial for my short stories to evolve but, alas, for our lives in general.

Q: In the face of these difficulties, some of your characters (e.g., Liza in Total Recall) internalise the ‘battle of desires’. Is this a typically modernist tendency—towards a literature of the conflicted individual as opposed to a literature of social beings in conflict?
AB: Even if this is true, I wouldn’t call it a modernist tendency; it might have to do more with the post-postmodern unstable, fluid individual. Many writers of my generation who shared Eastern and Central European cultural backgrounds and political experiences had to fight for the existence of a literature that does not necessarily serve a specific political or national idea. Most of the writing in our region in the last few decades was primarily meant to serve a task other than a literary one. There were nations to be estab­lished, political systems to be praised or destroyed, many jobs to be done, so literary tasks were sometimes left behind.
Once the new Central European literature had managed to achieve a new freedom—the freedom to be ‘just’ literature, without any political ambition—it regained the opportunity to say something political without losing dignity. But rather than discussing the kind of great political and social topics to which everyone can relate, now literature’s subject is the politics of everyday life—which is something we all encounter—and here the individual is the battlefield. Do we pay attention to pleasure or ethics? Do we buy cheap products, which use child labour in the third world, or spend more money on stuff produced by our neighbours? The contemporary individual might not see as many social conflicts as did the individual in previous times, but he or she may feel more internal conflicts. These questions are explored in more detail in my latest novel Change Me, which is not available in English yet, where an advertising expert changes his life completely and goes on a mission to erase his feeling of guilt because of his successful career. He is a contemporary Don Quixote in a corporate world. Compared to him, the characters in my short stories have an easy life.

Drago Jančar’s The Tree with No Name is published by Dalkey Archive in August 2014.
A diary recounting four decades’ worth of sexual exploits; the memoir of a mental institution attendant; a familiar-looking bicycle dredged out of a river: the discovery of these artefacts sends an archivist on an obsessive quest to discover their owners’ identities and fates. Shifting between Slovenia’s post-communist present and its wartime occupation by the Axis powers, The Tree with No Name is Drago Jančar’s masterpiece, a compelling and universally significant story of an individual confronting the constraints set on truth by his—and every—culture.

Q: The biblical epigraph to the novel deals specifically with the fluidity of time, and questions, in the manner of Einstein’s general theory, the relationship between cause and effect. How did these ideas about representing narrative in a non-linear way occur to you when writing the novel?
DJ: When you go through the kind of thing that happened to me, you start thinking about the irony of history. In 1944 the Gestapo imprisoned my father in the Maribor jail and then sent him off to a concentration camp. Thirty years later the communist police and courts imprisoned me in the same jail, albeit for a shorter time and with far less severe consequences, though certainly enough to cause me to think. If a person comes out of that kind of experience whole, as I did, then he’s likely to view a coincidence like that as a strange, not very amusing, but still ironic game played out by the stupid and violent twentieth century. As I was writing this book the question of time, of cause and effect, came to inform the very structure of the novel or, if you prefer, of life and the world, which revolve in a kind of circle, perhaps a spiral. I was trying to write something like a journey through a world of dreams, a world of both visions and reality. It starts off with a bit of irony and absurdist humor, but then we travel through a spiral of eroticism, anxiety and violence. With a character who is trying to understand historical time, cause and effect, but who is then drawn into the experiment’s black hole of time and history. One German reviewer wrote of the book that it’s rather dangerous reading, that the reader may get the sense that he’s losing his footing.

Q: Your protagonist is an archivist. Is this choice—combined with the treatment of time and causality in the novel—a way of representing the workings of the human imagination?
DJ: By accident I came across the notebook of some eccentric who during the war started to record his erotic encounters. It was amazing:  people were fighting against the forces of occupation, then civil war broke out, and here was this guy spending his time writing about his experiences in bed. I imagined an archivist making this find, a trained professional familiar with the item’s historical context, and the outlines of the novel started to take shape. The protagonist wouldn’t be the marginal sex maniac with the series of women he writes about, but a man of the present day who’s trying to understand the chaos of history. And when he dives into it, he senses that the earth beneath the shopping centers of today is hollow, a total abyss, a labyrinth of subterranean currents of the collective subconscious and of his own human uncertainty. The story of a modern-day protagonist began to take shape, an archivist who travels into the subconscious and underground of Slovenia’s and Europe’s twentieth century, with their individual and collective delusions. What starts as a realistic story shifts into a stream of associative connections, which is also the stream of the writer’s imagination on his dizzying journey through time, through a dizzying melange of past and present. This released a stream of imagination that also drew me in, so that the final text contains some of my own, personal searching, as well as a few autobiographical elements from my childhood.

Q: Turning from the personal to the political—in what ways are you discussing the Balkan experience through the character of Janez Lipnik? Are the layers of trauma he experiences and the mechanisms he uses to cope a synecdoche for his native country—for your native country?
DJ: This is not just the experience of the Balkans and my country, it’s Europe’s experience in the twentieth century. A person could live out  his whole life in some remote village, and yet History would enter his life in the form of variously uniformed people, each of whom was convinced that in the name of some social or national ideal he was helping to create a better world. In their wake they left corpses, charred ruins and survivors with wounded souls who to the end of their days could not grasp what purpose it all served. Two world wars, a revolution, and finally, at the end of the century, the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia. Of course it’s a synecdoche. Slovenia’s Karstic landscape is riddled with subterranean caves and whole unseen rivers, and the same goes for Slovene history: under the surface it’s littered with the bones of those murdered during the war and afterward. We stroll through shopping centers, but beneath and behind us are the remains of people who wanted to live, but weren’t given the chance. History, the blind tumult of man, as the Slovene poet Edvard Kocbek wrote.

Q: In answer to a question from Dalkey about his short-story collection Law of Desire, your fellow Slovene, Andrej Blatnik says that ‘rather than discussing the kind of great political and social topics to which everyone can relate, now [contemporary Eastern European literature’s] subject is the politics of everyday life […] and here the individual is the battlefield. Do we pay attention to pleasure or ethics? Do we buy cheap products, which use child labour in the third world, or spend more money on stuff produced by our neighbours?’ Janez Lipnik, surrounded by bags and shoppers in the shopping mall and paralysed by his recollections, seems in some ways to illustrate Blatnik’s point. But do you agree that the individual is now the battlefield in your literature—or does The Tree With No Name demonstrate that political and social questions are still of enormous significance?
DJ: To the mind’s eye of my protagonist, as he’s surrounded by bags and shoppers in the shopping mall, a bizarre, cataclysmic image appears of a landscape through which the shoppers are pushing their shopping carts toward some far-off, rugged mountains, where all of their objects are taken away from them and thrown onto big heaps and they’re deprived of everything they thought was the joy of their lives. My protagonist, a historian, knows that at some point man is left with just his naked body and the challenge of surviving. Once you’ve seen the heaps of clothing, eyeglasses, and wigs in the museum at Auschwitz—and I’ve seen them, all the things that were taken away from the victims — you can never forget them. Who’s to say that the human animal is incapable of repeating those scenes of brutality? My novel takes a sensitive individual on the margins of human political idiocy and tries through him to transcend the battlefield of everyday life—that’s why he travels from reality into the imagination, from the chaotic, dark facts of historical material into the light of literary images and to an attempt at grasping the cosmic order or, if you prefer, the cosmic disorder, and man’s place in it. In my understanding of literature the big questions of politics and society are always resolved on the backs and in the souls of frail and vulnerable individual human beings.

Comments are closed.