Every philistine who questions what art is for should be hit over the head with a book by Zoran Zivkovic and then made to read it. The blow won't do much damage -- Zivkovic is a master of concision who never wastes words or pages -- but the reading might do some good. It might not, of course (philistinism is the most intractable of bigotries), but it's always worth a try, and Zivkovic himself is nothing if not an optimist.
Of course, one could make use of his fat compendium, Impossible Stories, due out in February 2006 from PS Publishing. A lusciously beautiful edition with an introduction by Paul Di Filippo and cover art by Hawk Alfredson, it contains his first five collections, Time Gifts, Impossible Encounters, Seven Touches of Music, the World Fantasy Award-winning The Library and Steps Through the Mist. Its appearance is cause for celebration, not only among Zivkovic's existing devotees but for those who will now have the opportunity to enjoy his wonderful storytelling for the first time.
Those earlier collections, or story-suites, or mosaic novels (the latter term is probably the most appropriate, since in each case the stories are deftly linked to create a narrative and thematic whole), produced in a rush of inspiration after the completion of his first novel, The Fourth Circle, between 1997 and 2003, together form what I would call the first phase of Zivkovic's fiction. Teasing and clever, fantastical, witty and dark, they get the reader thinking but wear their deep themes lightly; they are mysterious, sometimes even enigmatic, but always accessible. With his later works -- Hidden Camera (just out from Dalkey Archive Press), Compartments, Four Stories Till the End and Twelve Collections and The Teashop (the first two of these being available in PS Publishing's Postscripts magazine, and the last forthcoming in 2006) he has entered a new phase -- more surreal, more elusive, more challenging and more strange.
Hidden Camera is a love story, a story of love and death; it is also a parable of creativity. The hero, a morbidly self-conscious undertaker, lives alone except for his fish and seems incapable of connecting with life through the rigid cage of his paranoia. When a mysterious invitation is delivered to his door, he sets off on a journey of education initiated by obscure powers which he believes are out to ridicule and humiliate him but which, by the miraculous epiphanic climax, are revealed as benevolent spirits leading him toward self-knowledge and the artistic fulfilment he has always sought. A great deal of excruciating embarrassment and slapstick predicament has to be endured along the way -- the novel at times reads rather like Norman Wisdom starring in a script by Kafka -- yet the protagonist is repeatedly lured by glimpses of the beautiful woman who, it becomes apparent by the end, is in fact his muse. The painful journey the hero must undergo -- from the bookshop where he finds himself hanging from the stacks to the zoo where he gets stuck in the bear-cage to the underground sewer into which he plunges -- is analogous to the often laborious and baffling pursuit of inspiration: of that magical moment where the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and the work flows, seemingly, from some source beyond oneself. That the work to be created is, in fact, Hidden Camera itself, is typical of Zivkovic's circular narrative style: like a serpent swallowing its own tail, the last sentence of the story draws one straight back to the first.
With its sly allusions to the "death which precedes birth" and "prenatal eschatology," the novel is hinting not only at the cosmic mysteries of existence but at the equally mysterious birth of a work of art. The beautiful and transcendent scene in which the image of his beloved, carved out of ice, melts down from a woman to a young girl to a child, to a baby, and, ultimately, to rivulets of water streaming over the plinth like tears, is one of both horror and hope, for the hero now realises that not only is his muse about to be born (quite literally, in the maternity hospital where the novel ends), but that he must also begin the task of re-creating her. For Zivkovic, the act of creation is an act of love. It is only through love that the undertaker can emerge from his previous death-in-life and begin to live.
Hidden Camera is a substantial novel; the next work, the brief and startling novella Compartments, belongs to it in the same way a satellite moon belongs to a larger planet: it is made of the same stuff. And yet it is like the concentrated essence of the previous book: more strange, more dreamlike, even more surreal. A man catches a train and pursues, through six compartments, a mysterious and powerful female presence who has left her indelible mark on the inhabitants of each one, stolen something from them and then moved on. In each case the scenario has the absurd logic of a fevered dream. Monks who have taken a vow of silence challenge the protagonist to a game of backwards chess; a group of girl cadets sit with their feet in bowls of water, reciting haikus and paying penance for the loss of "the chocolate basin." Between encounters the conductor (who nurses a grand passion for the mysterious she-being) variously gives the man a shave, a manicure, a dental polish and measures him up for a suit. What does it all mean? Precise interpretation is elusive and indeed spurious. The point is that Zivkovic's fictional world is one in which absolutely anything can happen, and that is (he seems to be saying) the whole point of fiction. Fiction has the power to set us free. He is what one might call, in his own words, a "talented dreamer" who has the curious knack of opening doors to the universal unconscious. We may not have dreamed these dreams precisely, but we feel an uncanny awareness that we have had dreams like this. What Zivkovic enables us to do is to dream with our eyes open -- to dream through reading.
As with the interpretation of dreams, what matters is not merely the symbols presented but the feelings they evoke. Just as in Hidden Camera, there is a sense of eager bafflement, of reaching towards the solution of some puzzle. The reader longs for the denouement. Yet the very mild and accommodating hero, unlike the undertaker, accepts with good grace everything he encounters; like Zivkovic himself, perhaps, (he is, after all, the narrator, and hence the creator of his own story) he is caught by the flow of the narrative and simply floats downstream. While everyone else on the train has been visited by the muse and left frustrated, he alone is privileged to enter the final compartment and there, through a series of deft touches, to achieve a consummation as satisfying as that of any conventional narrative. Obliquely, by the power of sheer storytelling (I don't know of any other writer who has been able to do this) Zivkovic replicates in the reader the feelings of perplexity, effort, pleasure and, ultimately, liberating joy which go into the writing of that very story.
With his next book, Four Stories Till the End, Zivkovic continues his meditation on the nature and process of becoming an artist, but this time from a much darker and more satirical point of view. This is the most complex of all his story-suites, put together with the teasing intricacy of an Escher drawing. Structures and motifs repeat themselves, making the whole both elegantly symmetrical and highly allusive. In each of four settings -- condemned cell, hospital room, hotel room and elevator -- four stories are told to the protagonist, who himself then "disappears" into the narrative. (Zivkovic is deeply conscious of the constructed nature of his characters: while the story alone is what lends them life, the end of the story is for them, quite literally, a form of death.) Again, the tales are enigmatic and ambiguous, with a sort of depthless symbolism which leaves one puzzling. The elusive and beautiful bird described in 'The Cell' -- is it art or is it death? The two are dangerously twinned for Zivkovic. The lawyer, prosecutor, judge and guard who visit the condemned man in turn, are like storytelling phantoms which haunt the mind of the artist, who exists with a constant awareness of his own mortality: imprisoned in life as if in a prison cell, with death his sole prospect and art his sole means of escape.
In 'The Hospital Room' we again meet a narrator on the brink of extinction who appears in the dreams of each of his four visitors, fleeing from mortal danger toward a door beyond which lies a blazing light. Again, the creative act is an escape from death, for from the desperate plight of mortality only art can rescue us. As always in Zivkovic's work, however, the dark fable is leavened with comedy: when the sick man does emerge into the brilliant light it is as a circus performer who must write for the entertainment of the vast crowd waiting in the ring.
'The Hotel Room' is the most mordantly satirical of all the stories, with its tale of four artistic suicides, one by loud music, one by immolation in a bath of books, one by falling marble bust and one by drinking a dissolved painting. As we learn later, "art offers a profusion of first-class reasons to do away with oneself." Meanwhile the hotel staff offer the guest a succession of bizarre facilities: the hotel zinc mine where artists go to seclude themselves and find inspiration; the meat-packing plant with its spa and blood-filled "artists' swimming pool" -- "One really needs to have a stomach for artistic extravagances" -- and its weapons factory, military training camp and artists' firing range -- "after only a few direct hits into flesh the writers resume writing as though they'd never had any block." This trenchant satire on artistic psychosis culminates in the theme park-style cemetery where the bought or stolen remains of various writers, sculptors, painters and musicians lie buried, with its option of personally burying an artist or of being buried alive oneself -- "If you feel you need to come face to face with yourself and make a reckoning of your life ... a grave is the best place to do it."
In the last of the Four Stories, the protagonist of 'The Elevator' attempts unsuccessfully to consume a four-course meal while, in a reprise of the previous three, the elevator takes him from the "killer floor" to the "critically ill floor, "next to the "suicide floor" and finally the "bad luck floor." Each tale he is told -- beautifully surreal and absurd fables in themselves -- carries a moral warning about artistic folly, which might be summed up in the statement: "Did you know that the arts can be very detrimental to your health?" When the protagonist emerges, it is, inevitably, into the darkness beyond the last sentence and his own extinction.
The subject of folly is germane to the last of these books and the most recent -- Twelve Collections. In this terse mosaic novel, Zivkovic, whose touch is as light as ever, dissects in twelve brief fables the tragic absurdity of human existence.
As ever, we are presented with characters living on the extreme margins, whose bizarre and obsessive behaviour crystallises deep truths for us. In 'Fingernails,' for instance, a man collects and stores his own fingernail-clippings in silver cigarette cases lined with purple plush, while in 'Photographs' the protagonist compiles albums of self-portraits taken on the fifth of every month. In such stories as these, ridiculous comedy is juxtaposed with the deep sadness of our mortal predicament. When the photographs begin to fade Mr Palivec is "horrified at the thought that all trace of three years of his life could disappear just like that. As though he'd never lived them." (The truth is, he's so narcissistically obsessed with his photographs he never really has.) Mr Prohaska, realising that his fingernail collection will not be preserved for eternity after his death, "firmly decide[s] that he will never die." Though Mr Pospihal, the rigidly bureaucratic retired post office manager who collects newspaper clippings, is thrilled to discover that he is made of stardust, he is horrified to learn that the universe itself will eventually unravel: "Had he made a supreme effort his whole life through to keep the post office in impeccable shape just to have it finally turn into scattered atoms ... regardless of how far in the future?" The ultimate futility of existence has rarely been expressed so comically.
Collecting, then, is about fear: the fear of losing something and above all, the fear of dying. Like Mr Pospihal, who literally falls to pieces, not a single one of these protagonists, desperately attempting to hold themselves together, can avoid disintegration. Nor can we find refuge in an escape from death. As the story called 'Deaths' demonstrates, the alternative -- the prospect of never losing and never dying -- would in fact be impossible to endure. While life as it is may be unbearable, existence on any other terms would be a nightmare.
It might be considered a most depressing theme, except that each tale is a gem of ironic humour and, as always, Zivkovic redeems everything at the eleventh hour with a climax of revelatory beauty. The short novella at the end of this collection, The Teashop, is a delightful bonus, a sort of distillation of the storytelling principle honed throughout the previous four books: endless storytelling as a form of redemption, even, for its protagonists, as a kind of immortality.
Zivkovic's fiction is, above all, always readable, always entertaining. To read these books in succession is akin to dreaming a sequence of vivid dreams, from which one awakes with a heightened perception of life's beauty and strangeness. Their deceptive simplicity masks an attention to small details, like the precision of each setting described in Hidden Camera, or the thread of purple which runs through the stories in Twelve Collections, linking them together and hinting at the thematic whole. Each scene is constructed like a piece of literary marquetry. The fantastic element is used for the best purpose possible: in order to pose the most daring and ultimate questions. One of those questions might well be: What is art for? The answer is, as ever: Read and find out.