“After the new Central European literature managed to achieve a new freedom – the freedom to be ‘just’ literature, without any political ambition – it got back the chance to say something political without losing dignity. But instead of great political and social topics, which can motivate masses, now the politics of everyday life is something we encounter every day – and here the individual is the battlefield.” — Andrej Blatnik
We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s Thursday Fiction Corner, we present an interview with Slovenian writer Andrej Blatnik, as he discusses his newest short-story collection, Law of Desire, and the tragic impact of desire on the human condition.
Andrej Blatnik with Dalkey Editor West Camel
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?
In all of my collections of short stories, I try to put together the 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.) In Law of Desire, after writing the first stories, I discovered the “fil rouge” of desire in them, but not just any desire – a demanding one, and in addition to that, a demanding desire that brings also pain, not only pleasure. It goes without saying that the desire fulfilled seems not to be our desire anymore – isn’t that alone enough for doubt or pain?
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 ?
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 this topic than I do. And 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 got 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 it again.
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?
Indeed: this management is not only crucial for my short stories to evolve but, alas, for our lives in general.
In the face of these difficulties, some of your characters (e.g., Liza in Total Recall or the protagonist in Official Version ) 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?
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 literature, which does not necessarily serve a specific political or national idea. Most of the writing in our region in the last decades was primarily meant to serve some other task, not the literary ones. There were nations to be established, political systems to be praised or destroyed, many tasks to be completed, so literary tasks were sometimes left behind.
After the new Central European literature managed to achieve a new freedom – the freedom to be ‘just’ literature, without any political ambition – it got back the chance to say something political without losing dignity. But instead of great political and social topics, which can motivate masses, now the politics of everyday life is something we encounter every day – and here the individual is the battlefield. Pleasure or ethics? Buy cheap products, which use child labour in the third world, or spend more money for stuff produced by your neighbour? The contemporary individual might not see as many social conflicts as the individual in previous times, but more conflicts might be felt inside. These questions are explored in more detail in my latest novel Change Me, 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. A contemporary Don Quixote in the corporate world. Compared to him, the characters in my short stories have an easy life.