Slovene Author in Focus 2022: Andrej Blatnik
Andrej Blatnik was born on May 22, 1963, in Ljubljana. He studied Comparative Literature and Sociology of Culture and received his PhD in Communication Studies. He is a Professor of Publishing Studies at the University of Ljubljana and edits the book series of ‘modern classics’ at one of the main Slovenian publishing houses.
He has published five novels, six collections of short stories, five books of cultural studies and a ‘how-to’ book Pisanje kratke zgodbe (2010; Short Story Writing), which was twice reprinted and also published in translation in Croatia and Macedonia. He translated several books from English, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles.
Andrej Blatnik won several major literary awards: the award of the city of Ljubljana, Zlata ptica, the highest award for young artists, the Slovenian National State Award, the Prešeren Fund, and the Russian best Slavic book of short fiction Jugra Award in 2016.
His stories have been translated into more than 40 languages and published in literary magazines and various anthologies including Best European Fiction 2010 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010) and Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short Short Stories (Persea Books, 2014). He has over 35 books in translation in fourteen languages. In The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe Since 1954 (Columbia University Press, 2008), Harold B. Segel called Blatnik “a leading light of contemporary Slovenian literature”.
Andrej Blatnik has read fiction around the globe, including at such literary festivals as PEN World Voices in New York City, Toronto International Festival of Authors, Jaipur Literary Festival and Cosmopolis in Barcelona. In 1993 he was a participant of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, and in 1995 he was a guest at the International Writers Center at the Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia. He has received various fellowships, including a Fulbright. A list of his publications, along with some samples, is available at www.andrejblatnik.com
What Do I Talk About When I Write About Andrej Blatnik
Prepared by Jagna Pogačnik
- a) In Private
When I write about Andrej Blatnik, I mostly talk about many years of reading and translating. At a time when the 1980s are already becoming a theme for a historical novel, it is with a touch of nostalgia that I recall my own eighties, the beginning of my translation adventure and my overwhelming happiness when I was asked by the literary magazine Revija in Osijek to translate several stories from Blatnik’s collection Biografije brezimenih (Biographies of the Nameless). I have no idea by what train of lucky circumstances it was that I, a junior literature student with practically no translating experience, was entrusted with translating an author with whose prose I had made friends on the very first reading. What was all the vogue at that time was American metafiction and the kind of literature which suggested that one should be enormously well-read in order to both to write and to read others’ writings. With his then prose, Blatnik fitted in to a nicety, and an additional advantage was that he came from ‘our’ parts, a neighbour who did things in literature that we had somehow considered a prerogative of the Americans and their academic circles. The literary paradigms and poetic models gradually changed, of course, as did my reading preferences, but unlike many authors whom I liked and reviewed, Blatnik had the rare privilege that his prose changed together with me. This statement may sound extremely self-centred, as if I were upholding my reading taste as the measure of everything, but the point lies elsewhere. Andrej Blatnik’s oeuvre, translated into many languages, which today includes five novels and six books of short stories, books of essays, a handbook and more, is one of those oeuvres which clearly shows progress and change, always reflecting the pretentiously named zeitgeist, but never losing the basic features of the author’s style – superior craftsmanship, virtuoso delineation of relationships, unobtrusive literary and pop-cultural references which make the reader – if equal to and eager for the task – feel like one hunting for additional meanings, as well as a brilliant polished style, which always accommodates on the surface (or at the bottom) an intelligent humour often purposefully shading into irony. Like my translation for Revija, the eighties are now far away, but I may boast that my translator’s career in the meantime ‘grew’ together with Blatnik – as attested by my Croatian translations of his books Zakon želje (Law of Desire), Labirinti iz papirja (Paper Labyrinths), Saj razumeš? (You Do Understand), and Pisanje kratke zgodbe (Short Story Writing).
- a) In Public
On Metafiction and Short Stories
Tracing Blatnik’s prose from the early eighties, more precisely from 1983, which saw the publication of his short story collection Šopki za Adama venijo (Bouquets for Adam Fade), to his novels Luknje (Pits) and Trg osvoboditve (Liberation Square), published in the pandemic years, reveals the telling trajectory it has followed. Beginning with metafiction, or rather, cleverly dosed metafiction, Blatnik’s course in his collection Menjave kož (Skinswaps, 1990) shifted towards small everyday stories, a Carver-like inquiry into male-female relationships. After the novel Tao ljubezni (The Tao of Love, translated into English as Closer to Love), which draws on the experience in certain trivial genres, the collection Zakon želje brings an overt Carver quotation in its first story, ‘O čem govoriva’ (‘What Do We Talk About’), as well as the ‘Women vs. Men’ theme, which is the title of a David Byrne song. While metaphysical techniques are not entirely abandoned, they are toned down and cleverly blended into other narrative landscapes. Another step forward was taken in the novel Spremeni me (Change Me), which again departs from Blatnik’s preceding oeuvre but is decisively marked by new elements. These lead to a genre crossroads, where it is both difficult and needless to define the text unequivocally as dystopia, satire, science fiction, love story, socially committed critical prose, or something else: each label is too narrow to accommodate the novel comfortably. Yet we know today that it was just this novel that paved the way for Blatnik’s latest publications, the postapocalyptic Luknje, founded on dystopia, and Trg osvoboditve, which – steeped in Blatnik’s style, of course – confronts recent history and the eighties as a mythical point of his generation’s nostalgia, again subjected, as might be expected, to a touch of irony and self-irony.
Blatnik belongs to the so-called postmodernist generation of Slovene prose writers, which emerged in the literature of the eighties. Gathering around the Literatura magazine and the book series Aleph, conceived and created by Blatnik himself, it largely drew on the experience of American metafiction. The paradigmatic writer of this generation is none other than Blatnik. His first short story collection, Šopki za Adama venijo, and the novel Plamenice in solze (Torches and Tears) with its network of motifs, trivial genre themes and literary reminiscences, which was perceived by literary criticism as a singular manifesto of a new writers’ generation, were followed by Biografije brezimenih. Those twenty-five short stories undoubtedly belong to the apogee of the short fiction written in Slovenia at the time. Moreover, the development to be traced through them is important for the journey of this prose from neomodernism through metafiction to autopoetic eclecticism. Biografije surprises the reader with its deft play on genres, catastrophic stories, atmosphere of anxiety, and highly successful ‘short short stories’, which flirt with an aphoristic quality, foreshadowing the developments and compositions in Blatnik’s later books.
Blatnik’s mastery of the short story was confirmed by his later collections, Menjave kož, Zakon želje, Saj razumeš? and Ugrizi (Bites). Apart from alerting us – as literary critics – to the craftsmanship refined in each successive book, they show us in practice the well-known motto of the representatives of minimalism: ‘Less is more.’ Blatnik’s collections are genuine models of short story writing, based on economy of narration, themes and expressive devices, on condensation and distillation. Focused on everyday and seemingly fleeting scenes, on the law of desire and the individual unable to control it, they pierce straight into the heart of identity crisis, marriage, love, communication, growing up, for the crucial moments always involve a crisis and inability to cross the thin red line which might someday, somewhere, lead to an exit. Both in form and content, Blatnik’s stories perfectly embody the view that ‘no story can last’, either in text or in life. Genetically, the stories from all his collections are associated with his handbook Pisanje kratke zgodbe, based on his experience of leading creative writing workshops, which was translated and widely used in Croatia. Indeed, for Blatnik theory and practice always stand side by side, as is graphically attested by the book Labirinti iz papirja. Štoparski vodnik po ameriški metafikciji in njeni okolici (Paper Labyrinths: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to American Metafiction and Its Surroundings). Since we are talking about an author who, in his own words, likes travelling and reading best, it comes as no surprise that this book, perhaps slightly unusual (or at least removed from the classically conceived theoretical and scholarly formulations which address a part of a national literature), should be subtitled ‘a hitchhiker’s guide’. Labirinti traces the author’s journey from delight in textual play to a certain reserve as well as to departure from a narrow conception of metafiction – a departure which takes the form of extending his interests to other kinds of American prose as well.
What I consider to be Andrej Blatnik’s particular asset is related to the above and forms the summary of all his poetics. I will seek to explain it at this point, passing from the discussion of his short stories to a discussion of his novels. Andrej Blatnik has two characteristics which (in my opinion) raise and single him out from the multitude of writers. The first is that he has no problem with change: this is best attested by his time-honoured claim that his first books might as well be omitted in new interviews about his writing (not my own view, of course, but meaningful nevertheless). These changes, occurring from book to book, are not influenced by topical literary fashions or trends, but rather by his inner sense that a given model has been exhausted and thus needs to be expanded or replaced. The other characteristic that I wish to stress is his ability to build his oeuvre like a puzzle: each new work includes fragments of the old, the changed, the added, thus establishing strong intertextual links, the recognition of which profits the reader but is not a prerequisite for reception. The same process appears in his novels, which feature at strategic moments a quotation, paraphrase, or mere allusion to the short stories which we have read before.
- b) In Public
On Blatnik’s Novels
After the novel Plamenice in solze mentioned above, Blatnik composed a short novel or long novella, Tao ljubezni, which diverges somewhat from his previous prose. The author, a (perhaps former?) fan of exotic trips, sets the story in Thailand and stresses the two key words in the very title – ‘the way’ and ‘love’. The narrative is congested down to a minimum, the minimum which forms an indispensable framework for the dialogues dominating the novel. It presents a couple with a penchant for travelling, not travelling as arriving at a certain destination but as moving: travelling in the sense of change, of attaining self-knowledge and inner peace. This time they seek it in an esoteric Thai institution, a monastery with the comical trappings of a tourist centre. The narrator and his companion work as antipodes – while she is dedicated to travelling, eager to live like the locals, the narrator is rather sceptical of all he encounters: in the typical Blatnik manner he keeps relativising all surrounding events and analysing them critically, ironically, and self-ironically. Even though the story begins as an intimist novel, it assumes towards the end recognisable markers of a crime story, while travelling increasingly becomes a quest for meaning and an abstract quest for (self-)knowledge. Most effectively as well as symptomatically, the novel ends with a double question: ‘Do you love me?’ and again, ‘Do you love me?’ – that is, with an open ending. This work already lays the foundations for Blatnik’s later novels by employing contradictory ingredients (in this case exoticism, esoterics, Oriental philosophy, elements of a crime story and a love story), which are assembled with surprising dexterity into a coherent whole.
Similarly, and this is very important, the futuristic novel Spremeni me, set in the near future, avoids the didacticism and moralising often attendant on this genre. Moreover, it avoids all pretensions to a ‘great story’, at least in the sense which would damage the primary message conveyed by each of Blatnik’s works, above all their literary quality. The story ‘Tanka rdeča črta’ (‘A Thin Red Line’) in the collection Zakon želje includes the sentence: ‘If you can’t change the fate of the majority, you have to share it.’ And this sentence, moved to the multilayered novel Spremeni me for a good reason, is not an isolated example of reference to Blatnik’s preceding prose. From the perspective of genre, Spremeni me is reminiscent of the ‘perfect mix’ striven for by the protagonist, Borut. The protagonist is aware that creativity is reduced today to compilation processes, which may become a lifelong work despite their seeming simplicity. A hugely successful copywriter, Borut has spent year after year indirectly changing the fate of the majority, but when he realises how far this has made him stray from the ethical principles which had persisted in the depths of his being throughout his professional triumphs, he decides to make a cut in his life and surrender to change. Egged on by his midlife crisis, which corresponds to the general crisis of meaning, he forms a carefully considered plan to leave his wife Monika and their two children. The rebellion of the individual who leaves his own life is all that remains in this brand new world, in which Borut used to participate with great sincerity. His departure from home and farewell letter to his wife begin the first narrative strand of the novel. Its cyclic structure (identical beginning and ending) and the balanced exchange of Borut’s and Monika’s chapters leaves the separated couple linked together at literal and symbolic levels. This is an embodiment of the feat by which Blatnik has already proved his mastery in his earlier prose: a brilliant portrayal of male-female relationships, eloquent and nuanced even in what remains unsaid, while the unfinished or interrupted sentences of the stream of consciousness mirror the horror of the void and the alienation of interpersonal and familial relationships in the characters’ world.
And we have in fact been living in this world for some time, even if it is set in the near future, and even if we have been living in it without being aware just how and why we landed in it or at which moment it all began. This indisputable connection with our reality permits us to read the whole story as a socially critical and committed picture of the world. A consumer society with all its merciless features, such as the giant corporations which had long ago spread their ‘octopus’ arms to the state institutions, the scanning of cards as the only form of identification, shopping centres arranged as day lounges, total control systems, always new technologies … Haven’t we already seen and even lived this?
Blatnik’s pronounced interest in the economy of expression spreads from his short stories to his novels: his sentences are condensed almost with the virtuosity of the most consummate copywriter, making a noticeable minimalism a dominant feature in the novels as well. Blatnik’s prose tells a lot between the lines, leaving no room for the explanations or mediations of an omniscient narrator. The unspoken and unspeakable, the suppressed and the allusive, all of this forms an important part of all his novels. It is likewise typical of his novel Luknje, published in 2020 and probably written with the intention of being read as a dystopia, but thwarted in this intention by the pandemic reality into which it emerged from the printing press. Borut’s self-exclusion from the world on recognising what it is really like and his individual rebellion seem almost like Disneyland compared to the world inhabited by the protagonists of Luknje, a novel structured by a dialogical main plot and by scenes in the form of short stories. In Luknje, the world as we know it practically no longer exists. It is a postapocalypse of unknown causes and extent, and if the hero is to become the hero at all, he has to crawl out of the pit where he has buried himself with a stock of tinned food to wait for the unnamed cataclysm to pass (or maybe not?). A thoughtless exit from his niche/pit brings him together with someone who sends him on a journey (how could Blatnik’s text ever take a different turn?), on a quest for an artefact which could help save the world. Of course the notion of world-saving art transforms dystopia into utopia at times, but the novel’s publication in 2020 captured the zeitgeist with its accompanying dilemmas, which obsessed humanity during the pandemic. Such staples of Blatnik’s prose as the motifs of choosing your way, of circling and returning to the start, of the thin red line which cannot be crossed, are visible in this novel as well. One of its genre mainstays is the road novel, except that, as is the case with Cormac McCarthy, the road is no longer a road in the strict sense of the word: rather, it is a sidetrack running in an inescapable loop. The uncanny atmosphere is created by thorough minimalism – there is no description of the preceding events, no definition of time or place, and there are not even many characters. The goal of the two men’s journey along nearly Beckettian ways is their search for lost music recordings, which might restore meaning to the cataclysmic world. The novel already contains allusions to the same past period which is addressed in Blatnik’s next novel, Trg osvoboditve. The history of Yugoslav rock and punk, scraps of former Yugoslavia’s history, the literary treatment of historical events and personages, all this is interwoven in the main plot. The plot unfolds in dialogues: the expected and familiar connotations fade in the postapocalyptic context and scatter in accordance with the world, which is just as scattered and paradoxical. The only secure foothold in the novel – another instance of typical Blatnikology – is the allusions, quotes, literary references, and the sense that the point of a journey is the return to the starting point. The quest for something that belongs to the past, something vanished of which we nevertheless know that it once existed because it lives on in the collective memory (threatened by extinction because the collective is disintegrating), adds still another dimension to the catastrophe novel – an awareness of the past, which should be thoroughly dug into before we bury ourselves in our pits, finally and irrevocably.
Blatnik’s approach has not the remotest connection with the cheap nostalgia which is peddled to us in various guises as salvation but in fact only profitable to its pedlars. This crystallises even more clearly after reading Trg osvoboditve (2021). Of all Blatnik’s novels, this one is the most receptive to reality themes: it never withdraws into dystopic excursions, and moreover provides the male-female relationship, which is again the centre of the story, with a clear temporal (political, social, etc.) context, from the late 1980s roughly to our own day. The novel begins with the great Ljubljana protest in support of ‘the Four’, JBTZ, on 21 June 1988 in Ljubljana’s present-day Congress Square (at the time named Trg osvoboditve, Liberation Square), where a young man runs into a girl and offers to buy her an ice cream. Their turbulent relationship is central to one of the novel’s layers, while another layer passes from a transition in love to the transition in politics and economy. Like in Blatnik’s previous novel, the hero is bewildered by the multitude of events surrounding him – he is a passive fatalist, uncertain how to take advantage of his opportunities, and – from a broader perspective – representative of a generation which has walked the whole way from a variety of protests to utter fatalism, from punk and New Wave concerts, youth journalism, and belief in change, to passivity, through which this generation likewise expresses its attitude to transition in ‘our’ ways. The structure of the novel is fragmented, and though Blatnik has no intention of spelling out his generation’s chronicle, it spells itself out indirectly of its own accord. Memories of generational nodes, of social and cultural events, of idols and their twilight, from music bands and concerts through media to politics, make Trg osvoboditve a novel which catalogues certain key topics of a generation’s common past: another hitchhiker’s guide, except that it travels through a common past rather than through American metafiction (which may have been more comfy). By his flair for assembling all those real events and real persons from three decades ago, here involved in the personal fate of the hero, Blatnik proves that his literary maturity has found a way to subsume all the instruments used and deservedly accoladed in his previous writing. In particular I mean the dialogues, where the dramatic qualities and tone changes define the characters and form the story, as well as the numerous references to popular and not-so-popular culture. Blatnik’s novel portrays a change of political order, loss of ideals, shift in moral paradigms. While highly critical of all these, he still continues his battle through indirect commitment and irony. If I may be permitted a private reflection in this ‘public’ text: what struck me the most was that the protagonist, an antihero of our time, unable to shake off his loser’s position – writes literature reviews. Faced with the fact that reviews are no longer of interest to anyone and consequently paid poorly or not at all, he, too, finds himself in the grip of marketing and PR slogan coining and wool-pulling. I can responsibly claim that I have never had any such experience (yet), and that it is from no such position that I am writing this text!
Trg osvoboditve is undoubtedly Blatnik’s most ambitious novel to date, a proper catalogue of his poetics and literary devices as well as the album of a generation which expected more and received less. But – haven’t we established, even for his earlier works, that less can be more?
- b) In Private
Just as the stranger in Luknje persuades the protagonist of Blatnik’s novel to begin his quest for a lost artefact, I persuaded myself to embark on a similar albeit much less complex journey – one that goes several decades back to the beginning of Blatnik’s writing and my reading and translating careers. On this journey I revisited the quotations which I used to twine into my presentations and reviews. I remembered that his writing had been compared to a ride in a Mercedes, that he had been considered the B. B. King of Slovene prose, and then a sentence occurred to me that had once been uttered by Blatnik as a writer’s credo: ‘I prefer living to writing, but in a written text I feel more real.’ Blatnik’s prose, one may conclude, is ironic towards the existing models, genres and theories as well as to its own position among them. In short, a brilliant fusion of wholeness and fragmentariness, theory and practice, but always reader-friendly. Another striking fact in his literary journey of thirty years is that at a time when mainstream literature (not only in Slovenia but more widely) was socially active, Blatnik conveyed his views on the subject by writing intimate stories in which a more pressing issue than all the externals was, for instance, why people no longer kiss in books or even talk about kissing but only talk about the fact that kissing is only talked about. Considered properly, this is indeed a burning question. Conversely, when writers tended to withdraw into the niches of the individual’s intimate world, Blatnik began to address the social background of his individual intimate stories. All of this leads to the moment where I – paraphrasing the author – have to admit that his texts have always made me feel more real. The question whether I prefer living or reading, however, I will leave open-ended for the time being.
Translated by Nada Grošelj