My relationship with Brane Mozetič’s Passion was difficult. This is the first English translation of a collection of short fiction by this Slovenian poet, translator and gay activist. Its themes are sex as domination, violence, revenge — even, sometimes, as an expression of love.
The peculiar relationship between writer and reader is shaped by the paradox in which it resides — that of intimacy combined with non-acquaintance between, on the one hand, one writer and on the other, many readers. What creates communication within this relationship?
Partly it is skill, but it is not that alone. David Foster Wallace’s clever fiction feels cold and palls easily; the cleverness of his non-fiction, by contrast, allows more personality to come through. In each case, the communication between the same two people is different. Of course, one looks for different things in different genres. The essay form lends itself to displays of cleverness. The most awful tripe in the weekend papers can tear at the heartstrings.
When a work has been translated from another language, the connection can be even more tenuous. When I read literature in translation, it can take a long time to become attuned to the author’s voice, which can have a sort of generic ‘literature-in-translation’ tone. Even with very good translations, there are times when you can hear the cogs turning, or feel that the work remains resistant to translation.
Literature in translation carries its own set of questions. How close has the translator got to the style of the original? What is the cultural context of the original, and do I need to understand it in order to understand the work? How much of the original work was simply untranslatable into English?
Translation issues begin with Passion’s one-word title — which I assume is the closest equivalent to the Slovenian word ‘pasijon’, which constitutes the book’s original title. In a collection whose central themes focus on sado-masochistic violence, there is doubtless an intentional irony in the Slovenian title. There may also be an unintentional one in the English title, which is to do with the recent shift in colloquial meaning of the English word. ‘Passion’ used to carry (among other things) the suggestion of something florid, steamy or Romantic. Now it more often connotes the way people feel about their hobbies or their jobs as Human Resources managers.
Like its title, unadorned but charged with meaning, Passion avoids almost all artifice in favour of the sparest of prose. There are different voices in the stories — more vignettes and prose poems than conventional stories — which are all in the first person. A number of recurring themes link them. The material is ordered so that the opening and closing stories, which are written in a more lyrical style than the bulk of them, synthesise the brutal themes of the stories in between, creating a whole that incorporates both love and hate.
Mostly, the stories are told by means of deadpan reportage that amounts at times to a laundry list of sexual brutality. Mozetič’s detachment makes it hard to navigate the ugliness and nihilism of much of Passion, despite the title’s ironic agenda-setting.
And so we return to the conundrum of literature in translation. How much of this agenda was to do with Mozetič’s political position at the forefront of gay activism in Slovenia? Do his words carry, as J. M. Coetzee describes his own as sometimes carrying, ‘the full freight of their history behind them, [which] is not easily carried across to another language’?
Part of my difficulty with this book was attempting to disentangle the ‘sameness’ with which translation can imbue a work from the stylistic ‘sameness’ of Mozetič’s catalogue of violence. When there is humour, savagery and banal chit-chat clash bizarrely, as in ‘Gym’:
Z. was a gym teacher. I bumped into him in a bar, I almost raped him.
The sardonic humour of these opening sentences evaporates, however, as the narrator explodes with anger when the gym teacher does not want to see him again:
I began bashing him and he didn’t fight back. He probably hardly felt anything. I yelled at him: where had he got this idea from? What did he know about me?
This new mood sits so incongruously with the opening of the story that I wondered whether it was the translation.
In his poetic writing, Mozetič travels the terrain of ugliness, alienation between people (particularly lovers) and nihilism. His poetic language (and that of his translator) is also bleak but direct, with rhythms that can be heard in English, and distinct images that create a link between him and his reader, regardless of the other things that may separate them. In the following poem, from the collection Butterflies, Mozetič’s response to war in the Balkans draws one into the world the poet is witnessing. Mozetič establishes a strong relationship with me, his unknown reader:
the neighbour is cutting off heads, flays and hangs them
in front of the house like Chinese lanterns, with nails
he broadens their smiles and glues bright stars for their eyes,
and they glitter at night like fireflies.
The mood of Passion is like an overcast sky with the occasional cloudbreak of lyricism. I found myself searching among it all for something I could recognise. Such are the demands we readers, like desperate housewives, place on writers: Talk to me! Tell me something I can understand! Validate my feelings!
The sense of shifting ground, combined with the sparsity of the prose in Passion, draws out Mozetič’s theme of destruction of the self and others. I stepped out of my own alienated despair long enough to notice that my very despair at Passion is one of the work’s chief merits. Mozetič creates an atmosphere that will not let up.
The stories sometimes meander with the aimlessness of pornography, setting Passion apart from more ‘literary’ depictions of sado-masochism and sexual violence. To make a comparison between Passion and fiction that adds verbal scenery to an otherwise bleak landscape, let us consider Susannah Moore’s novel, In the Cut, which is also written in the first person.
Moore establishes a relationship with the reader that is based, not on the sexualised violence that is at the core of the novel, but on the reworking of this violence into a literary artefact. This is achieved in a number of ways, partly through the use of the detective fiction genre but also by digressions into the sub-theme of New York street argot, ostensibly because the narrator, who teaches writing, is interested in the language of subcultures.
Aesthetically, this provides an additional layer to the novel, but with the effect that this racy book about violent sex (or sexy violence) reads as ‘literary’ in a rather laboured way. My strongest impression of the book was one of the fetishisation of sexual violence.
Literary — as opposed to ‘literary’ — responses to violence steer well clear of the faux-brow. Otherwise, there is the risk of ending up in the trashy-novel-passing-off-as-literature genre of novels such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. Like the juxtaposition of high-grade journalism and soft porn in Playboy’s halcyon days, the bringing together of disparate ingredients is hard to get right. It only works if the motives behind the writing are (dare I say it?) in good taste.
The prose of Passion is not a mere crutch for the subject matter. Mozetič develops his mood through such techniques as denoting characters solely by an initial, not a name, and his largely monochromatic pallette. The occasional bursts of real passion are, accordingly, all the stronger. Notably, the collection opens with ‘Cinema’, a meditative, melancholy prose poem, loosely written in the form of a letter:
There was something special in the air. A desire for words? No, harmonious peace, like in a consecrated place; only the soft thuds of chairs folding and the barely audible footsteps of people walking down the aisle towards the screen ... They seemed like people going to the sacristy for holy wafers.
The stuttering line of ‘No, harmonious peace, like in a consecrated place’ is one passage where the English version knocks like old pipes in the cellar, making me wish I knew how close to the Slovenian rendition it was. Nevertheless, the mood is clear, and in stark contrast to most of the stories that follow. To return to relationships between reader and writer, the effect of the shift of mood between ‘Cinema’ and the subsequent stories is something like sitting in a quiet corner in intense conversation with a contemplative but rather depressive person, only to have a gang of thugs burst in and beat the crap out of you both.
In Passion, the first-person voice is ubiquitous and at times elusive, as in ‘The Unfortunate’, in which the narrator infects a sometime lover with AIDS. Addressed almost entirely to this lover, the narrative switches momentarily to refer to the lover in the third person before addressing him in the second person again, as the narrator wonders whether it was this lover who had infected him in the first place.
While this device creates an overall sense of detachment, of elusiveness, at other times it suggests a link between the different protagonists, so that the stories sometimes seem like part of a larger conversation between different facets of one protagonist and an unknown interlocutor. This is particularly suggested by the opening and closing stories of the collection, ‘Cinema’ and ‘You’ respectively, which read as if addressed to the same person.
At other times reading Passion, I felt like an eavesdropper or a spy in an alien world. This was generally at the points where the violence was at its most extreme. In such places, Mozetič’s understatement tips over into the banality of the psychopath, such as in ‘The Rails’:
Above us a rumble started. Of course, a train was approaching. It arrived, clattered past us, fast, since the station was still some way off. Now, I yelled. We got up, grabbed the guy by his arms and dragged him up the embankment onto the rails.
In a story that veers more into the territory of Butterflies, a slightly different atmosphere is created in ‘The Soldiers’. Here, sexual violence extends beyond both the gratuitous pleasure-seeking of some of the narratives, and the victimhood of others, to draw parallels between the closed circles of sadist/masochist or predator/victim and the wider horror of wartime atrocity:
I don’t know how many days S. dragged me among the uniforms, protruding dicks, singed corpses, exploded asses, things I did not understand at all. I don’t know how many nights he bounced up and down on me to suck more life out of me ... I don’t know what drove me to tear out tongues, to chop off balls, to rip up mouths. I felt this need inside me. Everything became worthless. I wanted to allow myself everything, since there were no perceptible limits any more.
Elsewhere, the style becomes cruder, the writing more of an angry sexual drama. The most prominent symbol in Passion is that of the knife, an ever-present prop, a synonym for the aggressive phallus, a metaphor for the struggle for dominance (sometimes won by the first-person character, sometimes not).
The first use of the knife is actually a razorblade, in the story of that name, and this very immediate image allows Mozetič to progress rapidly along the continuum of violence to murder. Elsewhere, the knife as a metaphor for the phallus underlines the narrator’s humiliation of his subject, as in ‘Woman’, where a gay man has sex with a woman as a form of delight in revulsion, the woman ‘constantly sitting down on the knife’.
David Mamet, in his extended essay on theatre, Three Uses of the Knife, quotes Leadbelly’s blues to draw a link between the literal and the figurative in drama:
You take a knife, you use it to cut the bread, so you’ll have strength to work; you use it to shave, so you’ll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart.
Mamet boils a story down to its essence. The knife becomes prop, not symbol, in the three-act structure which has formed the basis of storytelling since Aristotle’s Poetics. Within this structure, the prop is then transformed into something intangible (such as a reason for committing murder), triggering its shift into the symbolic role of signifying an emotional state. Thus the story takes shape around a motif that is ‘congruent to the bass line in music’, the thing that gives a work of art its driving force and emotive power.
Following Mamet’s line, we can ask the question that reminds me of a series of riddles that was popular when I was a child, the most ubiquitous of which was the following:
Question: When is a door not a door?
Answer: When it’s a jar (ajar).
The hook for young minds is the pun that opens the door to a world of possibilities (although the fascination was not entirely among the young — my German-born uncle adored them). Similarly, if we ask, ‘When is a knife not a knife?’ we open up a world of literary possibilities, regardless of whether the answer is ‘When it’s a prop’ or ‘When it’s a symbol’. These possibilities are many because, as the Leadbelly example shows, the line between prop and symbol is so often crossed and recrossed in literature. And so it is in Passion, as in this excerpt from ‘Razorblade’:
Lovingly I drew the blade down his arm, now his grip tightened, the blood began to flow and drip onto his chest. I clenched my teeth and opened my own chest, then I placed my bleeding wound over his, as though we were making a blood-brothers’ pact. Probably we were, for the final battle.
The centrality of the knife to Passion is also stated on the original cover of the collection, which features a male torso flecked with razor cuts. The US cover features a much tamer evocation — symbol? — of violence: a pair of bovver boots. Anyone can wear bovver boots.
The original, far more explicit, cover suggests that ‘Razorblade’, the story from which the above excerpt was taken, is very important in the collection. The stories are not about violence in general, but about intimate violence. This violence can be gratuitous sexual violence, but there is still an intimacy about it because it is sexual.
In the ‘Razorblade’excerpt, the key word is the first one, ‘lovingly’. In the world of passion depicted in these stories, we have our prop acting very much as a symbol. The knife signifies aggression but also pain, both physical and emotional.
If we open the discussion to consider knives in art generally, it is hard to know where to stop. Working backward from Mozetič, Moore and Leadbelly, examples jostle for attention, from Tosca’s kiss to Shakespearean sword fights.
It is only relatively recently in history that handguns have become a personal weapon, so that in representations of hand-to-hand combat before the nineteenth century, knives are bound to be involved. Let us take as an example a Shakespearean play that is frequently modernised and reworked. In Romeo and Juliet, swordplay occurs in the killing of Tybalt and then Mercutio, with the final appearance of the knife as the ‘happy dagger’ with which Juliet kills herself.
The two most influential modern reinterpretations of this play would have to be Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story and — echoing this recasting of the story in a Latino gangland setting — the Baz Luhrmann film adaptation, Romeo + Juliet. In both of these versions, because of the strong association between knives and Latino cultures, the sword or knife becomes more than a personal weapon of necessity.
The choice to set Romeo and Juliet in Latino gangland suggests that something about these gangs is reminiscent of the warring factions in Shakespeare’s original in a way that, say, warring Italian mobsters are not. The mafia motif is more likely to appear in modern settings of the history plays — where politics, not love, is paramount. The knife suggests intimacy in the way a gun cannot.
Jorge Luis Borges, whose work testifies to his fascination with the use of the knife in his particular neck of the South American woods, discussed Argentinean rituals of knife fighting in an interview in 1980. Here, he touches on the intimacy of the relationship between combatants:
Borges: ... A man might begin by praising another. Then you would want to say that where he came from nobody knew how to fight. You might teach him, perhaps. Then after that, he would interrupt the other with words of praise, and then after that he would say, ‘let us walk into the street,’ ‘choose your weapon,’ and so on. But this whole thing was done very slowly, very gently. I wonder if that kind of rhetoric has been lost. I suppose it has. Well, they use firearms now, revolvers, and all that code has disappeared. You can shoot a man from a distance.
[Daniel Bourne, Artful Dodge]: Knife-fighting is more intimate.
Borges: It is intimate, yes. Well, I used that word. At the end of a poem I used that word. A man is having his throat cut and then I say, ‘the intimate end of the knife on his throat.’
Just such an intimate scenario features in the conclusion of Borges’s story, The South, where the protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, is tossed a ‘naked’ dagger by an old gaucho, in order that Dahlmann can engage in a fight that will end in his own death. There is something honourable about this death, more honourable than the cold death in a sanatorium which he nearly suffered in the first half of the story.
Returning to the northern part of the Americas, the predominance of the gun in popular US culture can often overshadow the significance of the use of the knife as prop and symbol. To take just one example from US literature, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer has a memorable knife scene. Although the novel deals with a gun murderer, Gary Gilmore, the knife makes an appearance in an intimate scene between Gilmore and his girlfriend, Nicole Barrett, at a turning point in the story:
Soon enough, he apologized. He kept apologizing. But it did no good. She had been hit so fucking many times. The kids were in bed, and she looked at Gary and said, ‘I want to die.’ It was how she felt. He kept trying to make up. Finally, she told him that she had felt like dying before but never did anything about it. Tonight, she wouldn’t mind.
Gary got a knife and held the point to her stomach. He asked her if she still wanted to die.
It was frightening that she wasn’t more afraid. After a few minutes, she finally said, ‘No, I don’t,’ but she had been tempted.
Joan Didion has praised Mailer for his ‘deliberately featureless simple sentences’ that convey the despair at the heart of ordinary life in the American west. Yes, it does imitate ‘conversations at K-Mart’, but with the rhythm and structure of a vast narrative that ponders the unfathomable distinction between good and evil. Didion acknowledges Mailer’s working of his material into something formal, too, in her discussion of the book’s ‘two long symphonic movements’.
‘Deliberately featureless simple sentences’ are far more characteristic of Passion. If you want flatness, it is here. If you want despair, it is here, too. The recurring knife in Passion synthesises the work through its constancy as either object or symbol, its manifold forms. The final encounter with the knife, in the last story, ‘You’, is with an object both essential to advancing the story and with a symbol that gathers together the collection’s themes:
You return naked, with a long knife in your hand. You sit on my stomach and look at me. I don’t even twitch when you start traveling over my skin with the blade.
And if you want the essential rhythm of Passion, the prop/symbol that gives it its driving force, it is here, in Mozetič’s use of the knife. As a reader often lost in an unfamiliar and uncompromising world, I found, in the literal and figurative forms of the knife, the bass line of Passion.
 It has beguiled many a train journey between my home and the legal publishing company where I work.
 On the subject of DFW, he has some funny and insightful and, yes, clever things to say about translation from Russian in ‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky’, in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2005: 262–3.
 J. M. Coetzee, ‘Roads to Translation’, Meanjin vol 64 no 4 (2005): 143.
 Available at <www.rattapallax.com/fusebox_02slovenia>, translated by Ana Jelnikar; reproduced with the permission of the author.
 Mamet, David, Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama. London: Methuen, 1998: 58.
 Kindly provided to me by the author.
 Such as the nice young Goth who sometimes catches my train.
 Cape, Stephen and Bourne, Daniel, ‘A Conversation With Jorge Luis Borges’, Artful Dodge interview 25 April 1980, available at <www.wooster.edu:80/artfuldodge/interviews/borges.htm>.
 Mailer, Norman The Executioner’s Song. Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1979: 101–2.
 Joan Didion, ‘I Want to Go Ahead and Do It’, review of The Executioner’s Song, New York Times, 7 October 1979, available at <www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/04/reviews/mailer-song.html>.
 And most of all, surely, the good and evil in Mailer himself, whose own violent nature resulted in him almost killing his wife, Adele, with a knife in 1960.
Bridget Brooklyn has worked at various things, including drinks waitress, tutor in Australian history and low-level vertebrate in the bureaucratic food chain. She now works as an editor and writes various things. Her first published short story appeared in Best Australian Stories 2004, and she has had a poem published in The Australian. She lives in Sydney.