Why isn’t Zoran Zivkovic better known in this country? He possesses an imaginative ingenuity and charm similar to that of, say, Paul Auster or Italo Calvino, with bits of Kafka, Borges and Beckett mixed in. His body of work, superbly translated (mainly by Alice Copple-Tosic), has even grown substantial enough that Cadmus Press is bringing out a multi-volume “Zoran Zivkovic Collection,” which already includes “Impossible Stories I,” “The Papyrus Trilogy” and “The Five Wonders of the Danube.” Certainly anyone who loves to read will love reading this Serbian fabulist’s entrancingly bookish stories and novels.
Consider, for instance, “The Library,” included in the omnibus “Impossible Stories I.” Winner of a World Fantasy Award, this mosaic-like novella relates a half dozen stories about unusual libraries. In “Virtual Library” a writer clicks on an email that leads him to a site devoted to his career. All the biographical details are correct, even those that he had thought were deep secrets. But, far more unsettling, nine different death dates are listed. What does that mean? The site ends with an impressive 21- volume bibliography. As the perplexed narrator explains:
“The three books I had actually published appeared in black type, while the other eighteen works appeared in white. These other titles were presented in chronological order. The first dated from the following year, and there were forty-five years to go until the last date.”
Suspecting a prank, the narrator shoots off an irate note to “Virtual Library.” Almost instantly, he receives an email reply headed “Highly esteemed sir.” In it, he is politely assured that all the data is correct, that he alone can gain access to the site and that only a single visit is ever permitted. Further email exchanges ensue. In the last the writer learns that any one of his nine death dates is theoretically possible, and chance alone will decide which of his futures comes true. His bibliography actually comprises everything he might possibly write, though “at most eleven and at least six books.”
The subsequent mini-stories of “The Library” further commingle obsession, mystery and the occult: An apartment dweller gradually fills every bit of his living space with copies of the same book, a solitary bachelor discovers his city’s unsettling “night library” and a damned soul learns from Hell’s weary check-in clerk that he will spend eternity reading soppy poetry. In “Smallest Library” a blind peddler unexpectedly tells a blocked novelist, “I have what you’re looking for” and gives him, gratis, exactly what he needs. In the very last story, a bibliophile’s collection of elegantly bound volumes is invaded by a tatty paperback, which — it turns out — is entitled “The Library.”
Zivkovic’s “Papyrus Trilogy” contains three cases featuring police inspector Dejan Lukic: “The Last Book,” “The Grand Manuscript” and “Compendium of the Dead.” In the first of these, Dejan investigates several inexplicable deaths at the Papyrus Bookshop. Is there a hidden connection among the victims? What actually killed these seemingly ordinary readers? Could they possibly have been murdered by a method adapted from Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”? While Dejan ponders these questions, he finds himself increasingly attracted to the bookshop’s proprietor, Vera Gavrilovic.
Before long, the country’s National Security Agency noses into the case, suspecting that the Papyrus deaths might be a test run for some kind of terrorist initiative. Could this possibly be right? One of the bookstore’s many eccentric patrons, a retired mathematician, incautiously reveals that he has spent his entire life searching for traces of “the last book,” which is no easy task since the book is “different every time” and “you don’t recognize it until it’s too late.” Its appearance may herald the end of the world.
Meanwhile, Dejan keeps experiencing nightmares — of long corridors lined with doors — that seem to bear on the murders, as does his overwhelming sense of “déjà vu” or, more accurately, “déjà lu.” As this onetime university student of literature tells Vera, everything occurring around him seems to replicate something he has read and can’t quite recall. What, the reader of this eerie absurdist mystery wonders, will happen when Dejan finally remembers?
In “The Five Wonders of the Danube,” Zivkovic returns to his favored form of the mosaic novel. In this instance, he relates a handful of tales of the grotesque and arabesque linked by their titles, that is, “First Wonder, Black Bridge, Regensburg,” “Second Wonder, Yellow Bridge, Vienna” and so on up to “Fifth Wonder, Blue Bridge, Novi Sad.” In the Vienna story, Zivkovic interlaces the peculiar destinies of five radically disparate characters who are crossing the Danube just before midnight: a theater prompter, a superstitious contract killer, a nearsighted prostitute, a nun and a thief who steals books. Sudden death is on all their minds.
Besides being the author of 21 works of fiction, the 68-year-old Zivkovic also teaches creative writing at the University of Belgrade. In his youth he was active as a science fiction fan, running a small press, translating English books and eventually earning a PhD with a dissertation titled “The Appearance of Science Fiction as a Genre of Artistic Prose.” Appropriately enough, among Zivkovic’s many literary honors is an award named after Stanislaw Lem , the great Polish science fiction author, whose works are similarly inventive, playful and enigmatic. However, the narrative seductiveness of Zivkovic’s “impossible stories” remains distinctly his own. Open one of his books and prepare to be enchanted.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
By Zoran Zivkovic
Translated from the Serbian by
Cadmus Press. 422 pp. $34
By Zoran Zivkovic
Translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic and Vuk Tosic
Cadmus Press. 600 pp. $41
By Zoran Zivkovic
Translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic
Cadmus Press. 190 pp. $26