Weekend short story: “Letters from a Prisoner” by Suzana Tratnik; Michael Biggins, trans.

from Games with Greta and Other Stories

Slovenian writer Suzana Tratnik, who was an instrumental figure in the 1980s LGBTQ movement in the former Yugoslavia, is an almost defiantly unsentimental writer. The stories in Games with Greta are urban and unsparing examinations of anomie, discord, and the limits of understanding between individuals. Elements of artifice and artificiality permeate the collection, not least in “Letters from a Prisoner,” which tells the putative story of an unrequited relationship between the narrator and her lover, Nada, who has rejected her.

Games-with-GretaThe story’s opening line – “When Nada left me I wanted to kill myself” – is a straightforward distillation of the tone and attitude Tratnik adopts throughout the piece. Unlike stories such as “Below Zero” or “Sewing the Princess,” which flirt with expressionism, “Letters from a Prisoner” is more or less a work of naturalism, though it comes at its material indirectly.

The opening pages describe the first-person narrator’s despondency at the loss of her lover, who summons the narrator to a public café to call off their “occasional trysts,” because she is worried that if their relationship were to continue she “might fall in love,” and in any event, she is “stretched too thin, in too many directions.”

As if to underscore the lack of sentimentality in her narrative, Tratinik has her narrator express dismay at the intensity of her feelings upon losing Nada: she considers her impulse to kill herself “pathetic” and suggests that her friends would have “wrung [her] neck if they’d known what black thoughts [she’d] succumbed to.” The narrator is adept at rationalizing all the reasons the relationship was not meant to be: Nada is too young and flighty – or, as the narrator puts it, “not quite right upstairs.” In fact, the only unambiguously positive aspect of the erstwhile relationship, as far as the narrator is concerned, is sex. “The sex was good, the best I’d ever experienced. But that I should do away with myself on account of a bothersome ache between my legs made the least sense of all.”

All this transpires over about a page and a half – testament also to Tratnik’s concision and her ability to convey great depth of emotion in a highly concatenated space and a few spare sentences.

But “Letters from a Prisoner” may seem at first glance unfocused or casually digressive. The fallout from Nada’s blithe dismissal of the narrator sees the latter retreat to her roommate’s library, where she discovers a cache of letters written by a prison convict whom the roommate had been corresponding with for a term paper. After the student was through with the paper, the inmate, due to misplaced feeling or a simple lack of any other human connection, continues writing; the narrator discovers numerous letters her roommate has not even bothered to open.

The most fascinating aspect of these letters for the narrator are the sections the prisoner titles “My Life Story”: these autobiographical segments include anecdotes about the prisoner as a child learning to converse with the pigs on his grandmother’s farm; his developing crush on his uncle’s stepdaughter; and his revenge on a boss who unceremoniously fires him.

This extended digression ends when the narrator exits her home and spots Nada in the company of a group of friends at a café. After spying on Nada over the course of successive days, the narrator witnesses one of Nada’s companions, Lidija, brush her off in much the same way Nada had done to the narrator.

At first glance, the disparate elements in Tratnik’s story appear unconnected and detached; it is not until the story’s conclusion that the connections between the various parts become apparent. Retreating to her roommate’s library, the narrator comes across a series of books that contain lesser known work by famous writers; one of these is a novel that includes the stories the prisoner passed off as autobiography in his letters.

Here we arrive at the crux of the matter, the essential meaning that Tratnik’s story has been working toward from the beginning. What initially appears as a simple tale about unrequited love becomes in its totality an allegory about authenticity and the way we present ourselves to others. The masks we don in various interpersonal situations – the personas we adopt – are often power plays, or attempts to gain the upper hand in a relationship. Nada’s calculated indifference and emotional coldness shares much in common with the way the prisoner attempts to seduce the roommate by trying to appear more erudite or interesting than he most likely actually is. (Nada’s name, at least in its English translation, also tilts in the direction of an absence at the core of her character.) And the repetitive nature of the methods by which Nada and Lidija negotiate untangling themselves from their respective relationships testifies to the clichéd language we often fall back on to avoid honest confrontation in such situations.

In case a reader were to miss the point, Tratnik underscores it in the narrator’s assessment of the overheard encounter between Nada and Lidija: “Lidija ended by assuring Nada that she meant a great deal to her, too much to risk falling in love. The whole time she spoke in shameless, simplified sentences that would’ve been impossible to contradict. I had to admit: Lidija’s oral delivery was incomparably better than Nada’s.”

The shifting power dynamics over the course of this very brief story – “Letters from a Prisoner” clocks in at just under 10 pages – are stark, and an unsympathetic reader might be inclined to accuse Tratnik of cynicism in her attitude and approach. A more sympathetic reader, on the other had, would be liable to compliment the author on her candour and to applaud the legerdemain behind her carefully constructed story.

Weekend short story: “Letters from a Prisoner” by Suzana Tratnik; Michael Biggins, trans.
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