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Saturday 9 February 2002

The Fiction of Zoran Zivkovic

A Review by Rich Horton

  • Time-Gifts, by Zoran Zivkovic
    (Polaris, Belgrade, 1998, no ISBN, 145 pp.; Northwestern University Press, Chicago, 2000, ISBN 0810117827, 81 pp., $14.95)
  • Impossible Encounters, by Zoran Zivkovic
    (Polaris, Belgrade, 2000, no ISBN, 131 pp)
  • Seven Touches of Music, by Zoran Zivkovic
    (Polaris, Belgrade, 2001, no ISBN, 162 pp)

Regular readers of the excellent UK magazine Interzone will have noticed in the past few years a pronounced attempt to publish SF in translation. Interzone has featured fine stories by Hiroe Suga (Japanese), Ayerdahl (French), and Jean-Claude Dunyach (also French). But their most prolific non-English Language contributor is the Serbian writer Zoran Zivkovic, who lives in Belgrade. Approximately a dozen of his stories have graced the magazine since "The Astronomer" appeared in #144, for June 1999.

Zivkovic's work is marked by a quiet and graceful style (smoothly translated by Alice Copple-Tošic with the editing assistance of Chris Gilmore), by an interest in time, in the effects of knowledge of the future and the past on people's lives, and by a pronounced tendency towards metafictional effects. Almost all his work is nominally SF (or fantasy), but the basic thrust is often more allied with the "mainstream" — the stories look closely at ordinary characters, as their lives are affected by curious fantastical incursions. But some few of these stories take a more directly SFnal tack — for instance "The Puzzle", one of my favorites, is at the same time a look at a man entering a lonely retirement, and a metaphor for the difficulty of communicating with the alien — or, perhaps, with anybody.

I've received three of Zivkovic's books in English translation. Each book is a subtly linked series of short stories. The links are both thematic and metafictional — each book closes with a story in which the other stories are wryly alluded to. The oldest of these books, Time-Gifts (1997, tr. 1998) is available from Northwestern University Press, and through The other two books might be available from the publisher, Polaris, email polaris@eunet.yu; or one could read the stories in the various issues of Interzone in which they appear. (To the best of my knowledge, each story in Impossible Encounters and Seven Touches of Music will have appeared in Interzone by early 2002, though only one of the parts of Time-Gifts appeared there.) The books are very slim paperbacks, on high quality paper with nice covers — they are rather short, between 20,000 and 30,000 words each, I estimate.

Time-Gifts consists of four stories. "The Astronomer" concerns a medieval astronomer awaiting his execution for heresy. He entertains a mysterious visitor in his cell, who allows him to travel to the future, there to learn what effect, if any, his heroic opposition to the rigidity of the Church might have. He is left with an agonizing decision. The title character of "The Paleolinguist" is instead offered a trip to the distant past, where she can learn for herself whether or not her radical speculations about the origin of language were correct — but once again, such knowledge, and the means of gaining it, may be a decidedly mixed blessing. And "The Watchmaker" is vouchsafed the ability to alter a tragic event in his own past, but even there his happiness with the outcome is hardly guaranteed. The concluding story, "The Artist", features a woman in an asylum, who is painting a picture — apparently of the mysterious visitor with the "Time-Gifts" in each of the preceding stories. This story, then, serves mainly as a vehicle for commenting on each of the other stories, and for tying them up in a metafictional knot. The whole thing is effective and thought-provoking.

Impossible Encounters tends just a bit more towards being a jape, and is more strongly metafictional still. The shadow of Borges looms over this book. Each story features a character meeting an "impossible" other character — it might be God, or himself, or an alien, or the author. And the book, Impossible Encounters, appears as well in each story. They all satisfy, but there is perhaps a sense of cleverness, and a sense that the stories are a touch too cute, and a touch too much about each other, and not enough about character or metaphysics. But that is to quibble — they are fun to read, witty, and at times quite beautifully written.

Finally, Seven Touches of Music, published only last year, and with component stories still appearing in Interzone this year, is perhaps the most impressive of these three books. The seven stories all feature music, not surprisingly, usually as a catalyst for some strange message, or curious intrusion. The links between the stories are a bit subtler (mainly confined to a hint that two stories share a setting, and to the trademark appearance in the last story of the characters from the previous ones — something which occurs, one way or another, in all three of these books). Thus, I feel, the individual stories work somewhat better read separately. Perhaps most impressive is "The Puzzle", one of the better SF stories of 2001, which I have already mentioned. It's about a man who has retired from a job working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In his retirement, he organizes his life rather obsessively in patterns. Most striking is a series of paintings he is compelled to make while listening to music in the local park. The paintings seem to be parts of a puzzle — but how to find a meaning? Zivkovic has no answer, but his means of asking the question invites us to think about SETI, and about communication in general — it's a subtle, evocative, piece. "The Cat" deals engagingly with another elderly man, and his cat (complete with sly nod to Schrödinger) — and with another of many Zivkovician looks at the effect on our lives of contingency, and of knowledge of the effects of choices, past and future. Thus it resonates both with "The Watchmaker" from Time-Gifts, and with "The Waiting Room" in this collection — about an old woman apparently granted visions of the upcoming deaths of several people. "The Fire" is a striking story about a woman who dreams of the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and who is perhaps vouchsafed a chance to read a lost volume — much as the dying scientist in "The Violinist" hears, in a beautiful passage on a violin, the secrets of the universe for which he has long searched. In "The Whisper" the music of Chopin seems to spark in an autistic child some insight into the deep structure of the universe, while in "The Violin-Maker", we perhaps learn something about the origin of the violin played in "The Violinist". In all these stories, the gift of secret knowledge is ambiguous, in that it seems impossible to reliably transmit this knowledge to anyone else — perhaps this is the overriding theme to this collection. At any rate, the seven stories, separately and together, are again quite thought-provoking.

Zoran Zivkovic is revealed here as one of the more interesting voices in contemporary SF. His fiction is at one level clearly informed by a knowledge of SF, but it remains separate from the main currents of the contemporary field. It is indeed worth your while to see what sort of work is coming from non-English Language practitioners, and how their stance, as it were, outside the US/UK/Canada/Australia "center" of the field (at least to our perceptions) affects their work.

Rich Horton now contributes a monthly short fiction review column to Locus Magazine. His other reviews of short SF and novels can be found on Tangent Online and SF Site. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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