The World of Zoran Zivkovic, Part 3: Compartments

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As I have noted elsewhere, and more than once, with the possible exception of action movies, there's not much that's duller than the sort of surrealistic or weird or fantastic fiction that is nothing more than a series of odd images and ideas, each more jarring and hallucinatory than the last. There's nothing wrong with the jarring and hallucinatory, and a lot that's right with it, but if all we have in the end is the sad spectacle of a writer in competition with him- or herself to keep upping the ante of the odd, the end is not exhilaration, but exhaustion.

Zoran Živković, whose ideas and images can be plenty odd, guards against the tendency to settle for the easy "wow, far out" by ensuring that his marvels are contained within forms that, while never squelching freedom, impose salutary limits. In his collection The Library, for example, which I wrote about here, the title of both the collection and of every story in the collection contains the word "library," and every story in the collection is, indeed, about a library in one way or another. That The Library is, as Živković calls such works, a "story suite" rather than just a random selection of short pieces ensures that he can't just hurl any old oddness he come up with at the reader; the oddness must play a part in a larger scheme.

The title novella of the collection Compartments takes place on a train, a train that is, in fact, a container that holds at least six stories, stories that the protagonist encounters, one to a car, as he moves through that train. Just as the train cars through which the protagonist moves are coupled, so the stories are connected by the story the conductor tells before guiding the protagonist on his journey, the story of an elusive woman who has moved through the cars ahead of the protagonist and left behind her, in each car, a story.

The woman is not the only link coupling the sections of the novel. They are also joined by the form they share: the protagonist enters a car and encounters an outlandish situation—a band of monks, silent except when in tunnels, who play games of chess that begin at checkmate and move backward to the beginning, for example, or a corps of women so martial that they offer our protagonist a meal of, "Infantry cheese in gunpowder eucalyptus sauce, three bayonet olives filled with almond shot, [and] rocket liver commando style" to be served with "tank red wine," and so on. Our protagonist experiences these oddities with equanimity, and learns upon exiting each car a little more about what he has encountered from the conductor, who, it becomes clear, is something like the narrator of this train full of stories.

The oddities the protagonist encounters are odd, but they are never random. The protagonist moves not through a mess of weird stuff, but rather through a logical phantasmagoria, and the track along which Živković conducts him—and us—does lead, in the final car, to a destination that feels inevitable. We disembark satisfied rather than exhausted—if not bored—by a pile of oddities randomly assembled.

Another feature that unifies the stories that constitute the novella, as well as the four additional stories that make up Compartments, is the simplicity of the prose. In fact, this simplicity unifies all the Živković titles Kurodahan has published, an artful simplicity I'll discuss further in the next post in this series.

On to Part 4

—David Cozy is a writer and critic. He lives in Japan and is an editor at Kyoto Journal.

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