BEF 2011/15 – Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead [Montenegro]
The statistics are worrying. More time is being given to the watching of television than to reading. Ink and paper are losing to light and glass. Mobile “reading devices” that can store many hundreds of books in electronic format make even the idea of a bound book seem quaint, its reader conservative. The moribund technology of printing has (and has had for some time) its elegists who fight to stop the book from becoming a Relique. I am thinking of the American critic Sven Birkerts and his beautiful, personal book of essays, The Gutenberg Elegies, named for the inventor of movable type. This theme of literature’s endangered existence is one taken up (though not as engagingly as Berkerts) in Ognjen Spahić’s story Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead.
The story is simple. A man and a woman sit in an apartment watching television. The man is an accountant for an underwear and sock factory. They are due to have a baby soon. The man decided that he will go out for the evening, perhaps to his friend’s place, Vladimir the writer, and the woman, his wife, requests that he return with a book. And so he does.
But first he goes out, stopping to buy a bottle of whiskey. Or, rather, trying to for he doesn’t have enough money. He stops on the way to Vladimir’s at a cafe and purchases a cup of coffee instead. He overhears an argument that gets violent but in which he declines to intervene. Later, he sees the couple reconciled and smiling in front of a TV shop. At Vladimir’s he “instinctively…wanted to turn on the television, but his friend had voluntarily relinquished his TV.” Vladimir exists in this story not as a character, and it is a sad irony that he knows it, an irony stolen out from under Spahić’s nose, as it were, and which goes a long way, paradoxically, to making him in his brief appearance more interesting than the protagonist or his pregnant partner:
I’m much better known as ‘the man without a TV’ than I am as a writer. Shocking, isn’t it?
He is there to act in his negative capacity as the “man without a TV”; defined not by what he does but by what he doesn’t have. He is the mouthpiece for the writer, Spahić’s surrogate, there to pronounce the doom of literature as much through the perceived oddity of his TV-less, book-furnished apartment as through his words:
‘The greatest among us is no more. The great text tamer. The prince of the short story. The baron of metonymy…’
‘Cut the crap. Who are you talking about?’
‘You really don’t know?’
Vladimir poured the whiskey [his own] and pronounced solemnly: ‘Raymond is no longer with us – Carver is dead.’
The television set is the dominant motif in the text, present everywhere even in Vladimir’s apartment where it is glaringly absent. Its power is contained not only in its functioning as a machine but escapes into larger and less technologically determined spheres. When he leaves the apartment he shares with his wife, the man notes that “the sky was the colour of a dead TV screen”; the arguing couple from the cafe are reconciled by their goofing around in front of a camera that projects their image onto a TV screen in a shop.
The man returns home with a book (something, yes, by Raymond Carver), feeling a little guilty for having left his pregnant wife alone. He resolves never again to do so and he decides to not give her the Carver book because his “stories were unsettling. They radiated a particular kind of anxiety. They were too much like life” and it was important that his wife feel relaxed and secure. No, much better to avoid real life altogether and slip into the easy passivity of television. But she won’t be denied.
‘I’m going to the bedroom. I’ll read there. Good night,’ she said and got up.
He also got up.
In the near-dark he worked on her fisted fingers with one hand. With the other he gripped the book. She felt Carver slipping away from her.
‘No!’ she yelled just as her hands came loose. Today she would read. She would have this damn book.
A tug of war follows the result of which lies somewhere beyond the stories ending. It is a fight worth fighting, a cause to be championed, the battle for books, for reading, for literature. Sadly, Spahić’s banal treatment of this important theme does nothing for the cause. One often encounters its fervid arguments in essays and journal articles, infrequently in fiction itself. But what better way to make the argument? Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead is not compelling enough to battle what Spahić rightly recognises as the indomitable allure of television, the “cool inexorability of the cathode ray tube.”
‘Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead’ is translated from Montenegrin by Will Firth.
This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done. For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.