Introduction by Paul Di Filippo
Afterword by Tamar Yellin
(PS Publishing, 389 pages, signed (by Zoran Zivkovic), numbered, limited
edition hardback; also available as signed (by Zoran Zivkovic, Paul
Di Fillippo and Tamar Yellin), numbered, limited edition, deluxe, slipcased
hardback; published March 2006.)
nice people at PS Publishing have collected five of Zoran Zivkovic's
mosaic novels into a very attractive limited edition hardback. Many
of the short stories of which the novels are composed first appeared
in Interzone but it is good to have them gathered together in
a more durable form.
So what is a mosaic novel? It is more than just a themed collection
of short stories. To my mind, 'story cycle' would be a fairly accurate
translation. The individual stories within a particular cycle may be
very different but they share certain themes, motifs and possibly characters.
And the final story in each cycle tends to be a recapitulation of those
themes and motifs. Zivkovic's use of the term 'mosaic' is suggestive:
each story is a complete entity in itself, but when the various stories
in a cycle are fitted together they constitute a unity that is greater
than the sum of its parts.
The first cycle in the collection is 'Time Gifts'. In each story the
devil offers someone a time-related gift. An astronomer facing possible
execution is offered a vision of the future and with it the choice between
posthumous fame and a long life of obscurity. A palaeolinguist facing
retirement and obscurity is given the chance to visit the distant past
as a disembodied spirit and hear for herself the languages about which
she has speculated. A watchmaker is given the chance to change a tragic
event in his past, thus creating a very different present. Finally,
an artist in an asylum learns the stories of the other characters from
the devil. But, as you might expect since the devil is the source of
the gift, each gift hides a curse.
As the title suggests, 'Impossible Encounters' relates a series of
meetings: a narrator recounts a post-death meeting, a young man meets
his Doppelgänger on a mountain top, a science fiction writer meets
a character from his latest novel, a businessman meets God on a train
journey, a priest with a guilty conscience is absolved by the devil.
Finally, the author meets a character from 'Impossible Encounters'.
Tying the stories together are the themes of death, loss and forgetfulness.
'Seven Touches of Music' explores the revelatory impact of music on
the lives of seven characters: a teacher, a librarian, a widower, a
spinster, a painter, a dying scientist (hints in the story imply that
Zivkovic had Einstein in mind) and a luthier's apprentice. In each case,
the central character has an unusual or extraordinary experience that
is connected with music, and in each case the experience leaves them
more isolated from their fellows than before. Perhaps because of my
love of music, I found these stories particularly evocative.
'The Library', which won a 2003 World Fantasy Award, examines the nightmares
that can be created by misplaced or excessive love of books. Perhaps
the scariest one for writers is the story 'Virtual Library' in which
an author discovers a website on which he can read all his future works.
Zivkovic has chosen to use the first person in all the stories in this
cycle, which makes reading through them in succession a bit of challenge
as you have to remind yourself that each 'I' is a different narrator.
Finally, 'Steps Through the Mist' presents five women of different
ages each confronting in her own way the hand of Fate. However, you
might only discover that all the stories are about women by reading
the dustjacket, since the central three stories are written in the first
person. Again Zivkovic uses a variety of tools to tie the stories together
into a satisfying whole, not least the mist of the title, which appears
throughout in one guise or another.
Not content to see five of his mosaic novels merely juxtaposed in a
single book, Zivkovic has supplied an epilogue for the entire collection.
'The Telephone' draws together the central themes of each story cycle
into a final autobiographical fantasy (or should that be fantastical
autobiography?) in which a writer receives a phone call from the devil.
Zivkovic's characters are simply drawn, perhaps even bland, but nonetheless
effective. Often they are unnamed. Most of the time they seem very ordinary
but they do tend to be neurotic, even obsessive-compulsive. Likewise
the settings of these stories are unembellished, almost generic, though
almost invariably claustrophobic: dingy mid twentieth-century Eastern
European cities (no, they are never identified as such, but that is
what his urban descriptions evoke in my mind's eye), small (often rather
shabby) rooms, fog-bound hilltops. Even when he describes an abundance
of light, it seems to be blinding, imprisoning.
I can't say that Zivkovic's work makes for comfortable or enjoyable
reading. It is too dark and claustrophobic to be either. But it is certainly
one of the most compelling things I have read in a long time.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: