The World of Zoran Zivkovic, Part 2: The Library
For readers of Zoran Živković's generation, and also mine, libraries evoke not electronic media, but books, and though each of the stories in The Library is related in some way to books, The Library is not—or not entirely—an exercise in nostalgia for the days when print and pulp reigned supreme; the electronic present—our present—intrudes as early as "Virtual Library," the first story in the collection.
If one knows that Živković spent a good chunk of his career focused on science fiction one might expect him to take a science fictional approach in this tale and delineate the probably dystopian, but possibly utopian, futures that this intrusion, the digitization of knowledge, the decline of print, might bring. He does not. Instead the scenario he gives is more concerned with the future of an individual than that of a society or a planet, and more with metaphysics than science, fictional or otherwise.
The story begins with an email—spam—received by a writer that links to an on-line library containing not only the three books the writer has published, but also to titles of several books he might go on to write. Eighteen books are listed, but he will, in fact, write a maximum of eleven, and possibly fewer, his total output dictated by the trajectory his life takes. "All nine possibilities have equal footing at the moment," the virtual librarian tells him, and as we come to understand the prospect Živković has painted, that we live in a universe, universes, where our multiple destinies coexist waiting for us to stumble into one or the other of them, it becomes clear that he is more concerned with the contingent nature of the future(s) than, in any hard science-fictional way, the future.
The action of the story is . . . well, there isn't any to speak of. It's just a writer sitting at his desk exchanging emails with the proprietor of the Virtual Library. There's no frenetic running around, no saber waving, no odd life forms. There is, however, a lot to think about, and that we do have to stop and think, as we read this story and the others in this collection, rather than simply gape in awe, situates Živković squarely among the cerebral crew. (Borges, one remembers, was also much interested in libraries.)
To say, though, that Živković's fiction is cerebral, a literature of ideas, is to make it sound, leaden and dull. It never is. As was the case with Borges, who never wrote a boring story, each of Živković's stories is enlivened with humor, and stimulates, as all successful stories in the fantastic mode do, our sense of wonder. We chuckle, for example, as we read "Infernal Library," a story that turns on the notion that hell, today, is a library—and what punishment could be worse, in our increasingly anti-literate age, than for thugs and bad guys to be forced, for all eternity, to read pastoral works and idylls, and for evil aesthetes to be sentenced to an infinity of bureaucratic reports? And we gasp (as we chuckle) when we read other stories in the collection: a visit, for example, to a night library full of the books of people's lives; an encounter with a single book that contains all books; a writer's house overrun with books that ceaselessly multiply.
Živković has said that, "Even the most profound search for meaning fails if it is not spiced with some humorous touch that softens it, . . . [but] the laugh needs the presence of the seriousness to be truly effective." The good news is that in the stories collected in The Library, as with the tales in the other collections Kurodahan has published, Živković in his own terms, succeeds; he effectively mingles those sets that overlap all too seldom: the cerebral, the wonderful, and the laugh-out-loud funny.
I will support this claim further in my next piece, which will focus on another of Živković's story suites, Compartments.
—David Cozy is a writer and critic. He lives in Japan and is an editor at Kyoto Journal.