This week our guest is World Fantasy Award winning author Dr. Zoran Živković. Publishers in the UK and USA have snapped up Živković’s stories, written in his native Serbian, in English translation at an ever-increasing rate as his literary star has risen. His work has been compared to that of Calvino and Borges and has received praise from such notable authors as Jeff Vandermeer and Michael Moorcock. His tightly written novels and collections, beginning with The Fourth Circle and continuing to such recent publications as Seven Touches of Music and Twelve Collections and The Teashop, combine modern characters with fantastic, sometimes absurd situations, that reward careful reading but do not demand a single interpretation. His fiction often weaves a connected whole out of many seemingly separate parts—which, come to think of it, is precisely what an interview attempts to do as well.
With that, I’d like to thank Zoran for agreeing to this interview and welcome him as our guest at Boomtron.
Matt Denault: You have several novels forthcoming in the United States and the United Kingdom for 2007. In the UK, PS Publishing will be releasing Twelve Collections and The Teashop in early 2007 and The Bridge later this year. Meanwhile, in the USA, Aio Publishing will be releasing Steps through the Mist. Can you give readers an idea of what to expect from each book?
Zoran Zivkovic: Well, it depends on whether or not readers are already familiar with my writing . If they are, I’d say that they would know what to expect—that I always do the unexpected in some way. If they are not familiar, then I would suggest they limit their expectations to noble curiosity and let me try to surprise them. Hopefully pleasantly…
The three books of mine that will appear in 2007 in the USA and UK are quite different from each other. Steps through the Mist is the final of my five mosaic novels that comprise the “Impossible Stories” cycle. In this book there are five female protagonists of varying ages, ranging from a young girl in a boarding school to an old lady living through the last day of her life. As it is always the case with my mosaic novels, the various segments of Steps through the Mist are interrelated in many ways, with the leitmotif of mist being the central cohesive factor.
Twelve Collections and The Teashop has an unusual composition. It is a story-suit (Twelve Collections) plus a novella (The Teashop). A 12-part TV series, The Collector, produced by the Belgrade TV company Studio B, is based on Twelve Collections.
As for The Teashop, I am not supposed to have favorites among my own fiction, of course, but if I did, this novella would be one of them…
Finally, The Bridge is a three-part novel about three encounters that should or could have never happened: a man meets an alternate self, a woman out on a shopping trip runs into her dead neighbor and a fourteen-year-old girl chases her seventeen-year-old future son across town. And there is a mysterious bridge that connects them all…
The Bridge was short-listed for the most prestigious Serbian mainstream literary award—the NIN award.
Matt Denault: Congratulations! I believe that’s the second of your books to make the short-list for that award. The Bridge is your most recent work currently scheduled for publication; here in the USA though we are receiving your books out of the chronology in which they were published originally—and we’re still reading what Tamar Yellin has called the “first phase” of your fiction. Because this makes it difficult for us to judge, can you tell us: how do you feel you’ve grown as a writer, from the early 1990s when you first published The Fourth Circle to the present with stories such as Twelve Collections and The Bridge?
Zoran Zivkovic: It all started back in 1993 with The Fourth Circle that stands alone in my opus. It is a novel that summarizes my previous decades of dealing in various ways with science fiction. Although I don’t consider it an SF novel, at least not in the same sense in which the publishing industry tends to define the genre, it certainly contains many SF elements. For me, The Fourth Circle was the most appropriate way to say farewell to my science fiction sinful youth.
Then there are two books—a novella, The Writer (1998), and a novel, The Book (1999), (published in one volume in the USA)—that belong to the same thematic circle, not containing any fantastical elements. The first is a parable about the merciless clashes between two writers’ vanities, while the second is a satire about the final decline of books in the digitalized world.
The next five titles form the above-mentioned Impossible Stories cycle: Time Gifts (1997), Impossible Encounters (2000), Seven Touches of Music (2001), The Library (2002) and Steps through the Mist (2003). All these books share the same internal architecture. They are composed of seemingly stand-alone stories. At the end, however, it turns out that there is a unity among them, that each book isn’t a mere conglomerate, but an organic amalgam. For lack of a better term, I tend to describe the members of this cycle “mosaic novels.”
I have every reason to be pleased with the impact the Impossible Stories have had so far in the English-speaking world (and elsewhere too). I was first introduced to the American readership through Time Gifts (Northwestern University Press, 2000).
A story from Impossible Encounters, The Train, marked my debut on the BBC radio in 2005. (The book will be brought out in the USA in 2008 by Aio Publishing.) The US edition of Seven Touches of Music (Aio Publishing, 2006) is by far the most beautiful of about eighty various editions of my books that have appeared so far throughout the world. The Library (Leviathan 3 anthology, 2002) won the World Fantasy Award in 2003. Finally, a story (The Alarm Clock on the Night Table) from Steps through the Mist will also be broadcast on the BBC (on March 11, at 6:30 PM, UK time). This book will also appear in the USA as an Aio Publishing edition later this year.
Then comes Hidden Camera (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), a novel about a soon-to-be-retired undertaker who is desperately trying to oppose the necrophiliac forces surrounding and destroying him through a biophiliac quest for ultimate beauty. Hidden Camera was very well received by the critics. It got nearly thirty reviews, some of them in the most prestigious magazines (The New Yorker, Village Voice, Publishers Weekly…). The film option for this book was picked up by the British producer “Chocolate Films.”
Finally, my most recent six books—Compartments (2004), Four Stories till the End (2004), Twelve Collections and The Teashop (2005), The Bridge (2006), Miss Tamara, the Reader (2006) and Amarcord (2007)—form what I tend to see as “Impossible Stories 2” cycle.
What is the main difference between IS 1 and IS 2? To put it in a simplified way, the latter stories are less linear, more absurdist and generally more humorous (often in dark tones). I personally consider them my most mature literary achievements so far, but it remains to be seen how the critics will evaluate them.
Compartments and Four Stories till the End were published in the UK magazine Postscripts (2 and 4—7), while all others will appear as PS Publishing (UK) editions in 2007 and 2008. The only exception is my latest book, Amarcord, that has yet to be placed with an interested publisher, hopefully soon.
Matt Denault: Most of your book-length fiction has been in the form you mention, “mosaic novels” or suites of connected stories. Your interpretations of that form have a marvelous fractal quality, of a pattern that, repeated through several iterations, generates a larger, more complex version of the original. (Twelve Collections for example collects stories about those who collect.) Or, as you’ve put it, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
There seems to be something intrinsically optimistic in the idea that a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts; something a little irrational, a little magical; and also something very human, the quest to construct meaning from separate, seemingly isolated incidents. I’m curious what your thoughts are about the mosaic novel as a form of fiction: what do you like about it; what do you think gives it appeal to the modern reader; and what feedback have you received on the form?
Zoran Zivkovic: First of all, it wasn’t my humble self who invented the mosaic novel form. It existed even before its name was coined. I didn’t even apply it intentionally, as a narrative strategy. It came to me spontaneously as the most adequate form for what I was trying to express in my prose. It’s most appealing quality probably was precisely the fact that it represents a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I like very much your observation about its fractal quality. Although now, in hindsight, it seems obvious, I confess it never occurred to me…
I hope the main appeal of this form to modern readers is the fact that it requires reading almost like a detective. You are constantly aware that there is a broader picture, an invisible whole that alternates the more or less obvious meaning of its constituent parts. If you are not attentive enough all the time, you will certainly miss some subtle clues and all that reading will be useless. You will have to start all over again when you reach the end…
As for feedback, the only complaints so far about the mosaic novel structure have been from readers who require nothing from the ancient and noble art of prose than to be entertained in the most banal way. But I’m not writing at all for those lazy spirits.
Matt Denault: There is a directness and seriousness with which your stories use the absurd in dealing with laughter and tears, love and death, that is reminiscent other writers from Eastern Europe such as Kundera and Bulgakov. Is this coincidence, or are there similar aspects of Eastern European culture and experience that may have led you to similar storytelling mechanisms and themes?
Zoran Zivkovic: I would rather say that I basically belong to the Central European cultural tradition. The milieu of the vast majority of my stories has a strong resemblance to the major topograpgy of that area: Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Vienna. And my native Belgrade, of course. The outer appearance of my worlds is not dissimilar to those of Kafka, Bulgakov and Kundera. It is a great honor and a great responsibility to continue their heritage.
But there are other influences as well. I am also very much in debt to a number of Anglo-American authors, both contemporary and from the past, starting with the founding father of the modern art of fantastical literature—Edgar Allan Poe.
Matt Denault: Many of the characters in your stories share a set of personality traits: they are quiet, proper, compulsively (often eccentrically) orderly, and seem to fear embarrassment more than anything. Is there something about this sort of character that makes it a modern archetype that resonates with readers?
Zoran Zivkovic: I hope it does. They are diametrically opposed to the heroic figures so popular in the trivial literature the publishing industry keeps flooding us with. Fragile, insecure, full of doubts and internal controversies, obsessed with manias, the protagonists of my stories are nonetheless genuine inhabitants of our unique times. But above all, they are, I dare to say, convincing literary characters…
Matt Denault: A characteristic of your work is a certain optimism in the face of an uncaring, unfair universe. There are answers to life’s big questions in a Zoran Zivkovic story, but they will be shown at most once, and the character that experiences such revelation will typically be unable to remember it or share it. And yet, by reading this work of creative fiction, we the reader do share in those moments…
Zoran Zivkovic: If you the reader indeed share those moments, then I am more than rewarded. I haven’t written my stories in vain. There are truths that can be expressed only through literature. Actually, they are the main reason we write artistic fiction at all. It is in the nature of these truths to be fleeting, unsubstantial, ephemeral. And they require a very attentive, insightful empathic reader. It would be naive to expect shortcuts to great revelations of human life…
Matt Denault: Related to not expecting shortcuts, in your interview with Tamar Yellin, you mentioned your principle “never to explain or discuss” your fiction. Some writers will discuss their works and others will not; what prompted your decision?
Zoran Zivkovic: My distaste for any form of vanity. I happen to know not one but a number of writers who firmly believe that they themselves are the most authoritative—indeed, the only—competent interpreters of their own literary output. They alone are really able to penetrate all the secrets and perceive every delicate nuance. One of them even contemplated writing a long critical essay about his own novel.
As for my humble self, I think that everything I wanted to say is already between the covers of my books. If there were anything else I might wish to add to it, in the form of a comment or explanation, that would only mean that my work is not complete, that it needs assistance, that it can’t stand by itself, but needs a pair of crutches. Who would like, however, to read a book supported by crutches?
Matt Denault: You have an extensive literary education (including Masters and Doctorate degrees from the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade) but comparatively little formal education in the sciences that I’m aware of. Yet several of your books (The Fourth Circle and Seven Touches of Music to name two) brim with the latest scientific theories. Whence came your interest in science, and how do you see modern science informing contemporary literature?
Zoran Zivkovic: Although I have no formal scientific education, I am not scientifically illiterate. First of all, I keep reading popular science literature. I have also translated many popular science books. (Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan…) There is no contradiction in being a writer and being fond of science. How can anyone rightfully assert to be a real contemporary of the unique times that we are privileged to live in without an addictive curiosity about science that is the capital architect of our world? Besides, modern science is so exciting. No less so than modern literature…
Matt Denault: You have an interesting relationship with science fiction. You have studied it, translated it, started a company to publish it. You once wrote and hosted a Serbian TV show about science fiction in film (“The Starry Screen,” 1984). Yet your own stories are not science fiction and at least one of your characters (Mr. Adam, in Seven Touches of Music’s “The Puzzle”) is quite critical of current science fiction. Do Mr. Adam’s statements reflect your own views—do you think that there is something that science fiction needs to do better?
Zoran Zivkovic: I think that science fiction has been hopelessly trivialized by the publishing industry and its paraliterary standards. Nowadays, one can get rich by writing science fiction, but can’t possibly hope for a place in the history of literature. It all depends on what your ambitions are in writing…
Matt Denault: Since writing The Book (1999) and its satirical take on the publishing industry, your work has been published by a number of small presses, particularly in the USA (Ministry of Whimsy/Night Shade, Prime Books, the Dalkey Archive Press, and most recently Aio Publishing). Have your experiences with small presses altered your opinion of the industry, given you any more (or less) hope for readers?
Zoran Zivkovic: It’s very hard to generalize. I’ve had various experiences with various small presses. I believe, however, that I finally managed to find my ideal publishing companions both in the USA and UK. Aio Publishing and PS Publishing represent everything I always wanted from a publisher. A highly professional, devoted, reliable partner who not only produces beautiful books but takes proper care of them in every way. I don’t think I would have better treatment with any of the so-called majors. They just might make me richer, true, but it isn’t my prime ambition to get rich through writing. My literary soul is not for sale…
Matt Denault: Your latest book to be released in the US, Seven Touches of Music, is certainly beautiful not just as a work of fiction but also as a physical object of art. You’ve written that the two greatest threats to fiction right now are the publishing industry, which we covered above, and digitalization. Can you comment more on the danger you see from digitalization?
Zoran Zivkovic: As I said elsewhere, the physicality of the book was important because it meant that I could take it to bed with me. Some recent book-size “e-Ink” products, like Sony’s Reader, haven’t made me change my attitude. Taking them to bed would be like having a robot lover. I’ll remain old-fashioned and prefer a paper lover in my bed…
Matt Denault: In addition to the forthcoming books we discussed, 2007 will see the Serbian film “Two,” based on your stories “The Train” and “Confessional”; the complete 12-episode series “The Collector” will be broadcast on Serbian TV; and the BBC Radio will produce an adaptation of your short story “The Alarm Clock on the Night Table.” How involved are you in these productions? Are there differences in the level of interaction when reading versus listening to and/or viewing other media forms, and if so how do you adapt your material for these different media? And is there any hope that your work in Serbian TV and film may be made available some day with English subtitles?
Zoran Zivkovic: Again, there is no general rule. I was very much involved in creating “The Collector” TV series. Young director Marko Kamenica seemed quite content to rely on my experience and advice. On the other hand, I haven’t the slightest idea what Puriša Ðordevic, the veteran director of the feature film “Two,” made of my stories “The Train” and “The Confessional.” I will be going not without some trepidation to see the movie when it has its official opening at the forthcoming Belgrade film festival—Fest.
There is already an English subtitled DVD of the first five episodes of “The Collector.” The English version of the whole series should be available in late spring. As for the possibility of the film “Two” being distributed in the USA, I don’t think it’s very realistic. As we all know, the English-speaking world is almost impenetrable for foreign films. But as a consolation, there is also going to be an English subtitled DVD.
Matt Denault: That is consolation indeed—although we in the USA are getting better about receiving foreign films, and interestingly it’s often the fantastic films that fare best (Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is doing very well right now, before it Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films such as City of Lost Children, etc.).
You have recently finished your latest novel, Amarcord. What are your plans for its publication, and do you have any new projects in the works?
Zoran Zivkovic: As I said, my agent is still trying to find the right publisher for Amarcord. As for new projects, I am already deep into my first thriller titled The Last Book. Here is just a hint of what it is about. Visitors of a Belgrade bookshop suddenly start to die, seemingly without any cause…
Matt Denault: Can’t wait! In the meantime, in addition to your works, are there any up-and-coming Serbian authors you’re aware of who we should look for (or hope for) in English translation?
Zoran Zivkovic: Oh, certainly. David Albahari, for example, is already available in English translation. Then Goran Petrović, a superb novelist. And, of course, the old master with excellent new books—Milorad Pavić.
Matt Denault: You have used the phrase “humble writer” to describe yourself. This caught my eye, as I’m used to thinking of writers as being egoists-by-necessity in seeking the publication of their works. What does being a “humble writer” mean for you, and how is it reflected in your writing?
Zoran Zivkovic: In my value system being humble is a virtue. It is just the opposite of being vain. And I mentioned earlier what I think of vanity…
Matt Denault: Indeed; as a rule I’m a fan of books rather than of authors; however, it undeniably adds to the pleasure of reading a book when you know that the author behind the words is both humble and thoughtful, as you’ve shown yourself to be in answering all these questions (my computer tells me this interview would be 10 pages long if printed out!). Thank you again for this opportunity, and best wishes—I know I am looking forward to reading those works of yours that I have not yet had the chance to.
For readers interested in learning more, here at BSCreview we have reviews of several of Zoran’s books. Zoran’s own website, http://www.zoranzivkovic.com/, contains a complete bibliography and many excerpts from his work. Also, please note that this interview deliberately avoided the many good and interesting questions Zoran has already answered in past interviews, several of which are linked to at Aio Publishing. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Zoran will be a Guest of Honor at Eurocon 2007 this September in Copenhagen.
“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”
— Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)
It is a strange universe, one where the scientific respectability of general relativity contrasts with the maverick speculative theories of quantum mechanics; one where the literary respectability of the mainstream novel contrasts with the anything-goes nature of speculative fiction. What is science and what is magic?
Quantum theory shows that an action taken now, in the present, can produce changes in the past; a particle only actually comes into defined existence when it is observed by a conscious observer; and such observation can change that which is observed for any subsequent observers. It’s all enough to not merely blur, but erase the previously held division of science being impersonal and repeatable while ceding to magic the realm of the personal, the numinous. While other branches of fiction, even the most literary, cling to rational fables of cause and effect — rely on unknown or misunderstood causes for their pathos — a growing group of writers are turning speculative fiction into guidebooks for imagining our so very strange universe.
Zoran Živković is one such writer. Živković won the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for his “mosaic novel” The Library, a themed suite of connected stories on the joys and perils of bibliophilia. His Seven Touches of Music was first published in his native Serbian in 2001, serialized in English in the UK magazine Interzone, and has now been released in the USA as a gorgeous single volume by award-winning newcomer Aio Publishing. In each of the seven stories that make up this slim black volume, another mosaic novel, the playing of music triggers — as if by magic — an episode that subtly mixes science fact and the tropes of science fiction.
The protagonist of the first story, “The Whisper,” is a teacher of autistic children; he is shocked when that ancient magical combination of music and blood produces in one of his charges an outpouring of numbers of the hardest science. In “The Fire” a librarian dreams of the long-ago destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and the following day is granted brief access to that very Library via her computer before the arrival of musicians signals the destruction anew.
In “The Cat,” a widower buys a music box that when played gives him a glimpse at an alternate universe where he sees what might have been (complete with a cute nod towards Schrödinger’s cat). In “The Waiting Room,” the music of an organ-grinder at a train station gives a woman the ability to see visions of (wormholes into) the future. In “The Puzzle,” a retired employee of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project who wondered if aliens would necessarily communicate by electromagnetic waves is taken by the sudden urge to paint strange patterns when listening to music at the park.
He did not know what he had painted. Viewed from up close it looked just like random strokes of paint. He was convinced, however, that not a single stroke of the brush had been accidental, that everything was exactly as the music ordered, in spite of his inexperience. When he moved back from the painting a bit, he thought he could make out part of a larger shape, but he wasn’t sure. It suddenly crossed his mind that before him was just one piece of some larger puzzle.
Each of these first five stories, pieces of a puzzle, follows a pattern: the protagonist in each lives a life of solitude, of quiet desperation; a touch of music leads to an odd happening or vision; and when the music fades they go back to living their quiet life — changed, at least within the span of the story, only by the hidden, private knowledge they gain.
Only by their touch of music. Each story has none of the artificial “resolution” common in many stories, and while readers who need definite endings may be left with more questions than answers, each story nonetheless feels complete and satisfying.
The final two stories break the pattern, giving shape to the overall collection. “The Violinist” visits Albert Einstein on his deathbed, where a touch of music recalls a memory from his youth, how hearing a perfect violin gave rise to a vision of a black hole and may have aided Einstein in his understanding of gravity and light. Now a similar visitation by music inspires Einstein to new revelations as he dies.
The final story, “The Violin-Maker,” provides the history of the violin Einstein heard and its maker’s quest for perfection, while explicitly linking all the preceding stories through the character of the violin-maker’s apprentice. In both of these final two stories an attempt is made to communicate the wondrous knowledge gained, but in each case the communication is unsuccessful.
This concern with the personal nature of knowledge and experience, the inability to share it with others, pervades each story of the collection. There is a progression in Seven Touches of Music, from the teacher in “The Whisper” who is but a witness to magic, through those who are unwilling recipients of its gift, to the violin-maker at the end who has been consumed with seeking it out. Because of the inexpressible nature of these moments of revelation, the tragedy progressively increases with each story as well. In the hands of a lesser author this might be thoroughly depressing, and yet here the pattern that emerges is not without hope.
If these touches of music, of magic, can happen to individuals, and those individuals can never share the insights gained, then what is to say that such touches cannot happen to anybody, at any time? What is to say that they’re not happening all the time to people all around you? What is to say that you may not experience such a touch someday yourself? And perhaps, however inexpressible, the effects of those touches do serve to unite people in some equally inexpressible way.
These big ideas are achieved by minimalist writing — in the best sense of those words. Živković’s writing is sparse and graceful, with short sentences and carefully selected details. Tasked with describing five autistic children, for example, Živković spends but a single paragraph on each, and focuses the descriptions not on overt physical features or personality, but on how each child draws when given pencil and paper. As this is a translated work, credit must also be given to the translator, Alice Copple-Tošić — in all the book there not a word nor sentence that feels unnecessarily vague.
Necessary vagueness of course abounds: for Živković a degree of uncertainty is built into our universe. But while it may seem paradoxical to convey uncertainty with precise language, it is Živković’s great achievement here to make this paradox comprehensible
He had to confront its most disturbing characteristic: the whole and its parts were not in harmony. When he focused on the whole, the parts became fuzzy — and vice versa. He could not concentrate his internal eye on both at the same time. Once everything inside him would have rebelled at this imperfection, but not any longer; it was his preconceptions that had been wrong, of course. The world did not have to be orderly, at least not the way he had imagined it. The Violinist based his composition on completely different principles.
In both form and theme, Seven Touches of Music is most reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics or Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams — with just a dash of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. These novels span the gamut of magical realism and literary fiction, but no matter. While physics continues its search for a unifying theory, Živković works at unifying literature, showing the value of creativity and speculative imagination in understanding our world and universe. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the font used on the book’s cover makes “Seven Touches of Music” look very much like “seven touches of magic.”
There are fantasists and there are master fantasists; I’d like to suggest that the masters reveal themselves not only by their greatest works, but by what are — for them and them only — lesser volumes. Steps Through the Mist, the latest of Serbian author Zoran Živković’s novels to be published in the USA, is a revelatory volume of this later sort; it confirms Živković’s status as a master. The book’s chief flaw is that there is simply not enough of it, leaving us wanting more.
In the United States, Steps Through the Mist follows 2006’s Seven Touches of Music (both first appeared in English in the UK magazine Interzone several years ago, and were part of 2006’s Impossible Stories omnibus from the UK’s PS Publishing).
Like the previous American release, Steps Through the Mist is an exquisite slim black volume from Aio Publishing; like that earlier volume, Steps Through the Mist is a mosaic novel, a story suite of short fabulations linked both literally and in thematic concern. Here Živković’s concerns are predestination, fate and the future; in the five stories that make up his mosaic he builds a multifaceted view into how modern people might relate to having, knowing and choosing their own fates — and those of others.
Many of Živković’s best-known mosaic novels (the World Fantasy Award-winning The Library, Seven Touches of Music, Twelve Collections, etc.) have followed a similar pattern: a series of seemingly-independent short stories that are drawn together and into a greater aggregate by the concluding story. Steps Through the Mist however diverges from this pattern as a matter of artistic necessity given the themes of fate and future knowledge. Here the first story, “Disorder in the Head,” foretells the following four.
“Disorder” tells of Miss Emily, a teacher at a girl’s school, who is confronted with a teenage student who claims to have dreamed the dreams of three other students — and of Miss Emily herself. Emily, orderly and unimaginative, will have none of it:
The conversation had taken an unexpected turn and [Miss Emily] was no longer in complete control. She had to put an end to this nonsense as soon as possible.
“I think that’s enough for now,” she continued. “I must warn you that you won’t get very far with such stories. A rich imagination is not greatly appreciated here. Other virtues are fostered in this school.”
“Disorder in the Head” deftly encapsulates many of the thematic concerns that recur in Steps Through the Mist: the stubborn struggle for dignity — and control — of those faced with predestination; the burden on those who might know the future; a sly metafiction combined with the overarching, God-like consciousness of the writer over their characters, the dreamer over the dreamed.
Relying on dreams as a storytelling device can feel clichéd, but this is where Živković shows his mastery. The dream-nature of the stories is stated up-front: it is not used as a surprise, but as another layer, a symbol of fate. That Živković is able to generate such pathos for characters that we know are figments (even more than all fictional characters are) is a testament to his skill as a writer.
She bowed her head, resting her chin on her chest. Her hair was like a veil covering her face. From behind this came only the gentle sound of slow breathing. When she spoke, her voice was muffled and somehow far away. […]
“There was anger and despair behind what I did, and they are poor allies if you want to do a job properly. It was only later, after I’d calmed down a bit in here, that I started to think things over coolly and collectedly. […] As you can see, there’s an upside to being put in a straitjacket.”
Displaying or interrogating complex concerns such as fate from multiple angles is a core literary use of the mosaic novel form; Živković does this in the four remaining stories via a variety of situations, points of view, and perspectives. We have (in “Hole in the Wall”) a tale of a male psychologist’s meeting with a suicidal young woman who claims to be able to see, and choose, the future; a short vignette (“Geese in the Mist”) of a woman’s encounter on a ski-lift with a man who claims her choice of ski run may have significant, if not dangerous, consequences for the world; we have, inevitably in such a volume, the tale of a female fortuneteller (“Line on the Palm”), aged and jaded, who is hired by a man sure he is fated to imminently die.
And we have “Alarm Clock on the Night Table,” the longest story in Steps Through the Mist and a showcase for the style of symbolism that Živković relishes. An elderly woman, whose life for all intents and purposes ended with a choice made long ago, wakes to discover that her alarm clock has stopped during the night.
The woman, Miss Margarita, does not need the clock to tell time nor the alarm to wake up, but she has come to need the ticking of the clock to fall asleep. The neighborhood watchmaker is able to repair the alarm clock to this degree — it will tick, but no longer tell time — but no further. The questions to be asked seem clear, but then we remember: this story, and Miss Margarita, are the dream of Miss Emily the teacher, one in a collection of Russian Matryoshka doll-like layers of story. Suddenly the questions to be asked come into question themselves. What do the dreams mean to the dreamers, and how do they reflect the larger story?
Those looking for clarity of meaning will likely struggle with Steps Through the Mist, even more than in Živković’s previous mosaics. There is a deceptive simplicity to Živković’s characteristic stark settings, his ordinary if rather neurotic characters, and his elegantly mannered prose (translated impeccably as usual by Alice Copple-Tošić). We notice trends and patterns in the stories, how all those who encounter the mist of the book’s title, out of which knowledge of the future emerges, are women; ironic given women’s historic struggle to control their own fate.
We notice the descriptive focus on eyes, on seeing. We notice that the age of the mist-seers increases in each story, and we notice the corresponding shifts in how they view fate. We notice the interplay of the fabulous and the scientific, nods to chaos theory’s “butterfly effect,” and to the roles of observation and choice in quantum physics. Yet despite the patterns and the scientific references Živković’s works are to be felt more than known, as the stories themselves often remind us.
One judges these mosaics not by how directly they address their concern, but by how completely they encompass it. (And it is here that Steps feels somewhat slighter than most of Živković’s other mosaic novels. Bluntly: there are not enough stories.)
Steps Through the Mist is perhaps not the best introduction to Živković’s oeuvre, although it could certainly serve. Ideally though it would best be read after sampling some of Živković’s earlier mosaics, both because of the variance its front-loaded form represents, and because in tone it bridges those earlier mosaics — which often revolve around a certain natural order to the universe, even if it is unknowable to humanity — with the author’s later works that tend to be darker, more absurdist and abstract in their focus on human foibles.
Earlier I suggested Zoran Živković as a master fantasist. We know Živković is a true fantasist because his works use symbols and impossibilities to explore those human concerns that cannot be directly addressed by language. We know Živković is a master because his work is instantly recognizable as his own even as he varies and refines the forms of his work, as he does here; we know it because he makes common themes — like fate — his own; and we know it (now) because we now know a lesser work from Živković is still among the better novels we’re likely to encounter in any given year.
In the same way a puzzle with fewer pieces can feel less satisfying to complete, in reading the mosaic of Steps Through the Mist, especially initially, we are conscious that there seems a bit less to it than in Živković’s best work. And yet when the finished picture is considered, we realize that in completing the puzzle we have in fact solved nothing: we have reached a beginning, not the end. The puzzle has three dimensions, and Živković has woven complex layers of meaning that linger in the mind long after reading.
Matt Denault has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston.