Ognjen Spahić – Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
In his diaries, which are melancholy and bitter, aware of the fullness of disappointment that is the payment of a man's life from the society in which he lives as, misunderstood, he toils without reward, without gratuity, without recognition, and, because he cannot help it, without cease, American writer John Cheever wrote,
When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand. It is a headache, a slight case of indigestion, an infected finger; but you miss the 8:20 and arrive late at the meeting on credit extensions. The old friend that you meet for lunch suddenly exhausts your patience and in an effort to be pleasant you drink three cocktails, but by now the day has lost its form, its sense and meaning. To try and restore some purpose and beauty to it you drink too much at cocktails you talk too much you make a pass at somebody's wife and you end with doing something foolish and obscene and wish in the morning that you were dead. But when you try to trace back the way you came into this abyss all you find is a grain of sand.
Our own, individual grains of sand are what they are, but there are grains of sand for relationships, too. In Ognjen Spahić's Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead, which tells the story of a young couple immediately before the birth of their child, the story itself forms, we suspect, the grain of sand that will, a few years hence, remain unrecognised as the beginning of the abyss Spahić's couple they will find themselves vanished inside. They won't recognise it, but we can, for as we read, we sense that something's wrong, even if nothing ever happens. The entire story is precipitation.
“She” is the very pregnant wife, a woman with a penchant for reading the works of newly dead American authors. Why American and why dead? She likes to imagine them lying in their coffins, waiting peacefully, all those thousands of kilometres away, as she lies, equally peacefully, rubbing her pregnant stomach and reading their work. “He”, the husband, has taken to disappearing for long stretches at night, inevitably winding up at Vladimir's house, a somewhat unsavoury fellow who nonetheless possesses a distinctive library fully of these oh-so-desirable dead Americans.
The plot of the story comprises the walk of “He” from the couple's home to Vladimir, and includes a number of detours. And then he returns home, and then the story is done. The plot is slim, but along the way to Vladimir's house, the story acquires an uncomfortable echoing feel to it, as though it is retracing the works of, yes, dead American authors (though I recognised some still living). The most recognisable is Carver, but that can be discussed later. There is a conversation between a nameless man and woman in bar that echoes Hemingway's Hills like White Elephants, though that story deals with the conversation before an abortion, and this one the conversation after. The story, as quoted above, feels like a Cheever-esque story of quiet domesticity hiding a seething undercurrent of disappointment and misdirected bitterness. The sky is once described as “the color of a dead TV screen”, another echo, this time to the opening of William Gibson's Neuromancer. There are others. Spahić's text retains its own feel while seeming like a homage to so many things. Consider the following paragraph:
First the man came out, then several minutes later the woman. She was leafing busily through a smallish bundle of bank notes. Large dark glasses covered her face. He saw them once again the same evening, arm in arm under umbrella and staring into a store window full of TVs. The central screen was the focal point for their two faces, now drawn into smiles. Before continuing off down the street the woman adjusted her hair. The man waved at the camera in the window and they walked off again in silence.
There's so much in this paragraph, so many gestures and things happening – what could they mean? The couple have nothing to do with the story, which could as easily have cut out the paragraph and remained coherent and, perhaps, have gained greater focus and more clarity. These two are the two discussing abortion, but that hardly changes the disposable nature of the above paragraph. What, then, does it reference? There is an uneasy suspicion throughout the text that everything must be referencing something, because so much of it is recognised as attributable to someone else. It's hard to say whether this is a strength or a weakness of the story, that is, until the “He” enter Vladimir's apartment.
Vladimir is a writer, most likely a failed one; one of the first things he mentioned is that Raymond Carver has died. The husband immediately dismisses this, but it is the clearest (besides the title) indication to the reader that this entire story is a homage to the great short story writer. The clipped sentences, the absence of superfluity and the reduction of a sentence to its essence – these are quintessential Carver traits. The author rapidly becomes the clearest and truest touchstone of the story, functioning as its spiritual parent. The husband goes so far as to take one of his short story collection from Vladimir, for how can his wife resist the freshest dead American author of them all?
“He” returns home, and along the way he decides against giving her Carver's book. He reasons it is too morbid, but she knows he has it, and knows he chose not to give it to her. And here, with the closing sentences, comes a return to Cheever's bitter quote above. The story closes with, “In this manner, the issue was decided.”, but there was no manner, and no issue was raised. Instead, Spahić provides us with an astonishingly ambiguous conversation between the husband and his wife, a conversation loaded with, we know – because it is the closing sentences of a story! - must have greater meaning than if the conversation existed anywhere else. Spahić knows this too, and so does Cheever, for this is the key upon which the lock of the relationship turns. Something has changed, shifted irrevocably, become broken in a way which isn't clear and will be, later, impossible to trace. But we have borne witness to it, we have read the closing moments of something, and the ease of it, the simplicity of it, the understandability of it, is frightening and disconcerting.
Ognjen Spahić's story is unashamedly subtle, leaving its meaning entirely in the hands of the reader. I have found these references, and made much of the closing conversation. But what of the reader who is unfamiliar with Carver, Cheever, Hemingway? What will they make of it? Perhaps more, perhaps less. Boiling a story to its essence, in the vein of Carver at his best, has a tendency of creating subtlety, ambiguity, and multi-interpretative meanings. Spahić Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead has all this in spades.
Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead by Ognjen Spahić is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review