The World of Zoran Zivkovic, Part 4: Four Stories Till the End

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Form is the bass guitar of prose fiction. We can read a novel or a story quite happily without being aware of the work form is doing, but let a novel or story lack formal integrity and we will notice immediately that something is wrong—and may put the book down. Zoran Živković is a writer who understands this. His works are never just hodgepodges of events and characters thrown together; their formal integrity is always foregrounded. The bass player stands at the front of the stage.

We have seen that, in Compartments, which I wrote about here, the form is given physical shape. It's very difficult not to hear the thump of the bass which is, in Compartments, embodied in the series of cars through which the protagonist moves, encountering a new story in each, stories linked by the woman who has preceded him. Likewise, in Four Stories Till the End, so crucial is the bass line—the form—to what Živković is doing that we cannot help but notice it.

Here's the beginning of "The Cell," the first story in the collection: "A knock was heard on the door of the cell." The second tale, "The Hospital Room," begins: "Someone knocked on the door of my hospital room." The third of the four stories, "The Hotel Room," begins: "There was knock on my hotel room door, and the last of the stories, "The Elevator," opens: "Someone knocked on the elevator door." It's not hard to detect the pattern.

Those who don't understand the importance of form, and that the constraints an artist places upon him- or herself can bear abundant fruit, may object that this, and the similar emphasis on form in Compartments, is a recipe for tedium. The artist will be doing the same thing over and over: boring! But Živković makes the repetition inherent in what he is doing as riveting as Bach or Beethoven do when they shape their sounds into a theme-and-variations form—the same damned tune over and over, but with a twist, and another, and another. The frames that constrain Živković's words are all but identical, but the stories he relates within those frames—the people who knock on the doors in Four Stories always have stories to tell, and there are sometimes stories within those stories—keep us turning pages.

The stories are filled with the fantastic: a jungle bird of unspeakable, elusive, and, perhaps, deadly, beauty; art-loving giraffes; a circus-usher who kills his victims by placing deadly insects on the ticket stubs he returns to them after showing them to their seats; a hotel that features, among its amenities, a mine in the depths of which guests are encouraged to prospect for zinc, and... the list could go on.

The language Živković uses to relate these outlandish fantasies, however, is calculatedly commonplace, and his choice of simplicity is wise. There are, to be sure, fantasists who favor language that is, to say the least, baroque (E.R. Eddison, anyone?); the best of these are able to use fantastic language to mirror and augment the fantasy of their narratives, but in less gifted hands overwrought language weakens the wonder. The impact is less, for example, when the fantastic occurs among people who must always say "the house of Elrond" and never "Elrond's house."

Everyday language, though, can lull us into believing that we're safely ensconced in a realistic narrative and makes it all the more potent when the author swerves into the uncanny. Among writers of fantastic tales who have chosen this more subtle path, Borges is preeminent. As he explained in his Paris Review interview,

Whenever I find an out-of-the-way word, that is to say, a word that may be used by the Spanish classics or a word used in the slums of Buenos Aires, I mean, a word that is different from the others, then I strike it out, and I use a common word.

Assuming that Alice Copple-Tošić's translations of Živković's work from the Serbian are faithful in tone to the originals, Živković would appear to share Borges's fastidiousness. In describing, for example, the beautiful bird mentioned above, we learn only that it was "enchanting," that "its feathers changed colors with the slightest shift in the angle with which it was viewed and [that] it seemed to glow with some sort of inner radiance." Compare that, for example, with a snippet of Eddison describing some chairs:

...the body of each high seat was a single jewel of monstrous size: the left-hand seat a black opal, asparkle with steel-blue fire, the next a fire-opal, as it were a burning coal, the third a seat in alexandrite, purple like wine by night, but deep sea-green by day.

However fantastic the subject of Živković's work may be, I would be astounded to find in it writing—or furniture—this garish.

Živković's linguistic simplicity allows us to drift gently, almost imperceptibly, into his fantasies, and suggests a kinship with the work of contemporaries like Haruki Murakami and Paul Auster where one might begin, say, with a simple description of a man making spaghetti, and end up, with no prose fireworks heralding it, following a conversation between the protagonist and a creature part human and part sheep.

Fiction like this that borrows elements from both mainstream fiction and from fantasy is sometimes subsumed under the heading "slipstream," a category described as "the fiction of strangeness." I will explore more of the strangeness, and also the mundanity, of Zoran Živković's work in my next offering in this series, a consideration of his Miss Tamara, The Reader.

On to Part 5

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

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