There’s a central irony that emanates throughout Slovenian author Andrej Blatnik’s new collection, You Do Understand–namely, this is a book about misunderstanding. Take the first piece, “Few Words,” for example. Here it is in full–
“Do you believe in a tomorrow together?”
“First I’d like to believe that tonight really happened.”
Or, even more to the point (if that’s possible), here’s “Misunderstanding” (again, in full)–
“You’re even more beautiful when you come,” he said.
How would you know, she thought.
These two stories are probably the shortest of the fifty or so pieces in the collection, but even the longest selections barely pass four pages, creating a terse, clipped rhythm that lends You Do Understand a poetic immediacy. This rhythmic consistency, along with the book’s central theme, give it the feel of a novel-in-vignettes as opposed to a collection of unrelated stories.
You Do Understand begins with a series of miserable young single people shambling from failed romantic encounter to dismal hookup to ugly awkward sex. Take the (non)couple in “Do It Quickly, She Said” who both just want to get the sex over with so that one of them can leave, or the pair in “Melting Point” who trip over their own expectations. The narrator of “Say That” defers his drunken confusion and guilt by speaking his story in the second person. “Say that you’re kissing a strange girl,” he begins. As the microstory unfolds, it turns out that “your” dilemma is twofold–it’s not just that “you” are approaching cheating on “your” wife (if “you” haven’t already crossed a line), but also that this “strange girl” just might be a guy.
Blatnik never names his characters, but by drawing them in spare, concrete details, he makes them real nonetheless. The effect is uncanny–these are aliens you probably know in your own life, only, y’know, not. Stories like “Words Matter,” where a man fails to order a hooker for his hotel room, or “I Write These Words,” where another hotel-dweller finds his writing interrupted by paramedics fetching a dead body, express a core loneliness intrinsic to modern, transient existence.
There are other travelers in You Do Understand–although none of them seem to have a clear destination in mind. In “Other Paths,” a stranger arrives in a village in what might be a Third World country, perhaps with a romanticized notion of getting away from civilization. His illusion dissipates when he realizes that the villagers cannot even spare a bowl of rice for him to eat. In “Stains,” an expedition picks up a man in the middle of the desert, robbed and dehydrated. As he drinks their precious water, they nervously wonder if he’ll ask for the help that they don’t want to give him. It’s a cruel world, and at times You Do Understand is a cruel book, although it’s also quite funny–but never at the expense of the humanity of its cast, whom Blatnik measures with a distant compassion and a deep cynicism, as if human beings were programmed to fail, but also programmed to try again. Tamara Soban’s nimble English translation highlights Blatnik’s telegraphic style in these brisk but heavy stories, which call for rereading. Recommended.
You Do Understand is available September 7th, 2010 from Dalkey Archive Press.