31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 8: “What We Talk About” by Andrej Blatnik; Tamara M. Soban, trans.

May 8, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Law of Desire

Law_of_Desire_Andrej_BlatnikThe English title of Andrej Blatnik’s 2010 story collection is You Do Understand. This could reasonably serve as a motto (the question mark is implied) for much of the Slovenian author’s work. Blatnik writes about understanding or, more frequently, misunderstanding: the struggle of individuals to make themselves relatable to others and the difficulties inherent in communicating even basic needs. The law of desire, in Blatnik’s conception, is that it must remain unfulfilled: “A desire fulfilled seems not to be our desire anymore,” the author has said. “Isn’t that alone enough for doubt or pain?”

As its title suggests, “What We Talk About” riffs on Carver, focusing on the fraught nature of interaction between men and women in a post-postmodern world. The first-person narrator encounters a woman at a library where he is returning a book (the book is Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). The man strikes up a conversation with the woman – both of whom are appropriately unnamed in the story – and they go for coffee. They go back to the woman’s apartment, where they engage in a telling dialogue:

“And what are we going to do now?” she said finally.

“Now we’re going to kiss,” I said.

“Oh no, we’re not,” she said.

“I didn’t think we would,” I said.

“Then why did you say it?”

I shrugged.

“You thought you had to. But you didn’t.”

I made no comment on that. “What do you suggest?” I asked.

“We could talk.”

“About what?”

“About kissing, if you like.”

“It’s too innocent,” I said.

“Okay, then about something less innocent.”

“About what?” I pretended not to understand.

“About exactly that,” she said calmly, unruffled.

“You don’t talk about it, you do it,” I objected.

“You’re behind the times all right,” she said.

“So what’s in then?” I asked.

“Not to do it, but only to talk about it.”

Actually having sex, in this conception, would be passé; to talk about having sex, however, perfectly fulfills the post-postmodern impulse for absolute subjectivity. It is impossible to truly know another person, therefore any attempt at intimacy is doomed from the start.

Not to mention that sex is dangerous. The man tells the woman of a friend who is afraid that his girlfriend might catch AIDS by eating salad out of the same bowl as someone else. Then there is the violent confrontation that occurs on the street on a subsequent night. The woman is surrounded by a group of roughnecks who threaten her with physical (read: sexual) violence; the narrator steps in and gets beaten for his efforts, saved from a much worse fate only by a passing police car.

The physical confrontation here is of course another means of communication and, in the event, one that is more direct and clear than anything else in the story. There is a political aspect underlying this confrontation (the gang leader derisively curses the man by saying, “Fuck off, southerner”), but largely it is gendered: the men communicate through violence and, quite explicitly, through the kind of violence they have consumed in the media. “I was aware I had to do something,” the man thinks, “but I don’t have much experience with this type of situation. Well, I knew what they did in the movies, at least.”

Much of the man’s approach to human interaction is gleaned from the movies. He borrows a videocassette of the movie Short Cuts from his brother (more Carver); Altman’s film is probably not the best thing to watch if one wants to clarify how to negotiate smooth interpersonal relationships. But the man admits that his understanding of the world is mediated and second-hand: “Most of the people I come into contact with are like me. We go to the movies. We read books. We listen to music. No harm in that, but it’s not real either, so to speak.”

It may not be real, but it is one of the only ways by which the man knows how to interact with other people. When he and the woman end up in a bar, their conversation swirls around mundane external matters, resolutely refusing to become in any way personal or significant: “we thoroughly exchanged our views on the development or rather decline of motion pictures since Casablanca, touched upon the exorbitance of rents, lauded the new municipal decrees allowing much longer opening hours for bars than in our student years, and so on. Small talk.”

Yet small talk is ultimately better than no talk: it transpires that the man has a girlfriend, who has abandoned him for a trip to the mountains with a mutual male acquaintance. The two are probably having sex, but the man will never know for sure, because he and his girlfriend have a tacit understanding that they will not discuss it. Similarly, when the girlfriend comes home early and encounters the man and the woman at their apartment, she leaves them alone for the night and does not ask questions about what transpires (answer: nothing sexual).

The man spends much of his time in the story trying to convince the woman to divulge to him the nature of her business. He is initially convinced she operates a phone sex line; the truth is much less salacious, but more absurd and finally quite sad. The woman runs a service whereby people call her up and divulge their innermost secrets, thoughts, and desires, which she then strips of all emotion and writes down in an objective, third-person voice. This is the ultimate actualization of an inability to communicate or to acknowledge the importance of a feeling or desire; callers must shroud themselves in anonymity before they can talk to another person about their true emotions or intentions.

Needless to say, any kind of true communication is unavailable to the narrator of the story. “I couldn’t possibly do what I had been contemplating doing for the last couple of minutes,” he thinks. “I could not tell her my story. The one that weighed on my chest.” For the sparse and denuded universe of Blatnik’s story, this is the ultimate tragedy: in a world that has been reduced to media-saturated subjectivity, what we talk about is nothing.