The Moment of Decision
The man decides things can’t go on like this. The man realizes all the women he knows only want to be friends; even the ones who sleep over only sleep over because they’ve been rejected by his best friend. The man quits his job, leases his apartment. The man goes abroad. The man travels a long time and is silent, people speak to him, he answers as briefly as possible. The man is finally tired, the man stops somewhere, the man rents a room. The man watches the girl making his bed. The man feels something inside him stir, something he thought he had left far behind in the past. The man tells the girl she is beautiful. The man is glad when the girl laughs and thanks him. The man asks if she has time for a drink after work. The man is pleased when the girl says she does. The man thinks it perfectly all right when, after the drink, or rather, the drinks, the girl declines to come up to his room, or rather, the bed she has made. The man tells himself it’s really too soon. The man is glad when he sees the girl in the hallway the next morning and she smiles. The man is in love. The man decides no to travel anymore; this place is just as good as the next one, or better, rather, far better. The man takes the girl out to dinner many times, out for drinks, out on trips on her days off. Then, when she has two days off, the man invites her on a longer trip. After dinner in a faraway town the man asks her if she feels like staying, like spending the night. The man is happy when she says she does. The man knows: It has to be in some other hotel, not the one she works in. The man pays for the room, leaves a tip, orders drinks up to the room. The man enjoys feeling the looks of envy on his back as he climbs the stairs to their room. The man doesn’t understand why the girl starts crying when she sees the bed meant for two, them, and not one, him. The man thinks: This is love, a surprise, it always catches you by surprise, and it did her too. The man tells himself: You have to live for something larger than yourself. The man walks up to her, places his hands on her shoulders. The girl looks at him, she looks at him for a long time, then she crosses herself and starts undoing her blouse. The girl asks him: Will you always love me? The man thinks: Yes, that is the right question for this moment. The man is happy.
The story above, quoted in its entirety, is one of the longest and strongest pieces in Andrej Blatnik’s You Do Understand (translated from the Slovene by Tamara M. Soban, as part of Dalkey Archive Press’ Slovenian Literature Series). Fifty short-short stories that, as the blurb aptly claims, “addresses the fundamental difficulty we have in making the people we love understand what we want and need.”
Ambitious [if ultimately promise-fulfilled] statements aside, the pieces in this slim book manage to cover those small, almost split-second moments of miscomprehension and great misunderstandings, turning points and scenes of extreme vulnerability and volatility.
The unnamed characters that people the stories fail to connect, fail to make themselves understood. Here are confessions that fall on deaf ears, love and desire remaining unstated. Each small scene had me feeling like I was residing inside some representative of humankind’s mind at the most crucial moment in his life.
The stories are spare, sometimes gruff. Touching and charming, even [especially!] all the awkward parts. Sometimes baffling, yes. Very rarely intense, but the calm self-assurance palpable in each makes up for it. Then again, mind you, not every story is a success: Although the stories are generally earnest [earnest enough for the most awkward communicators this book would inevitably affect most], so many opportunities for lyricism are missed. Stories of two sentences that are supposed to encapsulate a lifetime of scenes and intentions more than ever rely heavily on those handful of words: And so why not make the reader breathless in the process? Why not take a risk once in a while and let the reader come away with an utterance he could pin to his lapel?
Still. Blatnik’s short short fictions’ greatest asset—in an evolution of the form that lends itself to inside jokes and wordplay and too-cutesy semantic riddles [I am looking at you, Lydia Davis]—is their insistence on focusing on the ordinary, the near-mundane: the little battles of our contemporary time. It draws on common experiences—quiet or violent, resigned or just plain kitschy-under-the-stars-frames. It comforts the most awkward among us, those who struggle to say, Yes, that was a lovely evening, and consoles the verbose at a rare loss for words.