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An Interview with Zoran Zivkovic

Compartments by Zoran Zivkovicby Tamar Yellin

Zoran Zivkovic is the author of eleven books of fiction and the recipient of the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for his novella The Library.

His most recent works are Hidden Camera, Compartments (in Postscripts #3, PS Publishing), and Four Stories Till the End (due in Postscripts #4-7, PS Publishing). Hidden Camera will be published by the Dalkey Archive Press later this year and his compendium of story suites, Impossible Stories, will appear from PS Publishing in 2006. His website can be visited at He lives in Belgrade.

The following interview was conducted by email in January 2005.

Hidden Camera by Zoran ZivkovicQ: You have said that there are only two themes in literature: love and death. I wonder if you would care to elaborate on this with reference to your own work? I'm thinking particularly of your novel Hidden Camera.

A: Paradoxically enough, there can't be Love without Death. They are inseparable. The other side of the coin of our greatest misfortune is our greatest fortune. No philosophical, religious or scientific system can cope with this ultimate duality. Only Art is capable of that, and among all the arts literature can penetrate most deeply into the greatest and most tragic secret of being human. Basically, these two themes are what we have been writing about for about five thousand years now, ever since literacy was invented. And they are still very far from being exhausted. Actually, they never will be and precisely that is the token of the eternality of literature.

The nameless protagonist of Hidden Camera is an undertaker who is desperately trying to find some refuge from the Death he is constantly surrounded by. The only sanctuary, however ephemeral and fragile, for him, as for all other mortal creatures, is Love, but Love can never be achieved easily, as he will discover -- sometimes dramatically, sometimes humorously, sometimes tragically -- during the most important evening of his life. Alas, I can't elaborate more on Hidden Camera since that would be against my principle never to explain or discuss my fiction.

Q: It seems to me that not only Love and Death, but Art itself is one of the key recurring themes in your novels and stories. They are almost like a continuing investigation into the mysteries of creativity. For example, without giving too much away, Hidden Camera itself is the story of its own creation. What do you feel you have learned through your years as a writer about the creative process?

A: I am not sure I have learned much. But I was certainly investigating. It was not the usual scientific investigation based on a rational approach. Just the opposite. I let my subconscious perform its irrational magic. Everything I have ever experienced, in the broadest sense, is permanently stored there, including all I once had known but have inevitably forgotten with the passing of time. My entire past is in the incessant turmoil somewhere beneath my conscious level, in the search for possibilities of bringing up a new quality. That is the creative mind at work, the most subtle and precious process in the whole universe. I am in no way in control of it, but I enjoy it no less for that. And the ultimate challenge is to try to write about it. But again not as a scientist who intends to explain the world. I would never try to explain the process of artistic creativity even if that were possible. It should forever remain in the impenetrable, but warm, soft and gentle darkness -- the darkness that is the brightest of all...

Q: Yes: darkness does seem to be a significant element The Writer and The Book by Zoran Zivkovicfor you in your creative process. (Your book, The Writer, is subtitled "A very short novel, without chapters, about writing and darkness.") Also sleep and dreams. Do you have a very vivid dream-life and is it sometimes the source of your ideas?

A: Sometimes I have, indeed, very intense dreams. Not only visually but acoustically and even olfactorily as well. And I remember them for a very long time. Certain dreams I dreamt as a little boy are still vividly with me, half a century later. But I don't think there is a linear correlation between what I dream and what I write. It is more complex than that. What happens occasionally is that I am suddenly awakened by a strong impulse that may have the shape of an image from or the first sentence of a future story. I don't rush to my computer then, as might be expected, because I never write at any time of the day or night except in the morning, approximately from 9 AM till noon. Instead, I stay in my bed, half-awake, trying to figure out what new story my subconscious is currently producing. These are rather exciting moments, when I am closest to the very source of literary creation, in the mute darkness of my bedroom, in that elusive no-man's-land between an active imagination and a passive reality...

The Fourth Circle by Zoran ZivkovicQ: You must have been a very imaginative little boy. Did you have any thoughts of being a writer then?

A: I was a little boy very long ago, back in the 1950s. I think that I first wanted to be a cosmonaut, like the majority of my contemporaries, which wasn't very surprising since at that time the first satellite was launched. My earliest writing attempts were a real disaster. I remember what one of my elementary school teachers prophetically told me once after having read a piece of my homework. "You are a hopeless case, Zoran. You will become anything but a writer..." The situation improved slightly in my gymnasium (high school) days when I, inevitably, started to write poetry, although my talents lay in a very different area. I used to be a gifted mathematician and chess player. I still have a couple of these teenage poems which were published in a school literary magazine. I am quite aware that you would be interested in reading them. Being a gentleman, I would have no alternative but to satisfy your justified curiosity. Mercifully, I am protected by the linguistic barrier: the poems are in my native Serbian...

Q: How very frustrating... However, it seems those early talents and interests have combined with your literary -- shall we say poetic -- abilities to create the unique flavour of your work. On the subject of language, though, I am very interested to know: how would you characterise your own style in Serbian? How closely does the English translation we read approximate to your native "voice"?

A: There is a peculiar paradox about my original "voice." A Serbian academic critic described it as "too English." I am not sure I fully understood what he meant by that, except, maybe, that my voice sounds somewhat discordantly in the chorus of contemporary Serbian prose. This is the main reason, I believe, that I am mostly neglected by the official literary establishment in my country. Although they don't deny some of the qualities of my fiction, they rather avoid taking me seriously, regardless of the certain degree of international success my books have achieved. On the other hand, for a native English reader I'll always be a foreign author whose works are more or less susceptible to being lost in translation. I am very fortunate, however, in having an excellent English translator, Ms. Alice Copple-Tošic, who has translated almost all my books of fiction and managed to find my perfect English "voice."

Q: What's more, your works have now been translated into a range of languages including Spanish, Russian and even Korean, in which your satirical novel about the publishing industry, The Book, has just gone into a second edition. Does the fact that The Book speaks to a culture so different from your own make you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of literature?

A: Very definitely -- optimistic. But that's probably because I am generally an optimist. Contrary to the gloomy ending of The Book, which was only metaphorical, of course, I am quite certain that Literature will eventually be victorious over its two latest powerful enemies: the publishing industry and digitalization. As a sublime art form, Literature should forever remain as elitist as possible and brought out in classic book form. Anything else would be the betrayal of its very essence.

As for my books finding readers in foreign languages and different cultures, I guess it's at least partly due to the fact that there are no localisms in my prose. Readers from various parts of the world have no problems in identifying with my nameless protagonists living in equally nameless cities. The fundamental dilemmas my characters are faced with are common to all human beings, regardless of their origin, religion, gender or cultural background. Although there is no doubt that great Literature can be made entirely of localisms, I proudly consider myself a cosmopolitan writer...

Q: Your latest work, Four Stories Till the End, Four Stories till the End by Zoran Zivkoviccontinues in a satirical vein but is directed at the artistic process itself, which is presented (albeit with an edge of humour) as a source of torment and morbid self-destruction. Artists are encouraged to seek inspiration by swimming in blood and being buried alive. There's a real dark side to your artistic universe, isn't there?

A: Of course there is. My artistic universe isn't an idyllic place, inhabited only by ideal beings. In some ways it's much more like Hell than Heaven. But Hell mostly for the artist himself. In 'Time Gifts' I tried to depict the infernal troubles of a writer, the diabolic limitations of his omnipotence, the unbearable burden of his responsibilities. In 'Impossible Encounters' a writer desperately seeks refuge from the ultimate void in what he has written. Elsewhere I played more humorously with the controversies of the artistic process. In The Writer that humour is subdued and discreet, intellectual; in The Book it's mostly burlesque; in Four Stories Till the End it's exaggeratedly satirical. It seems that throughout my artistic universe, despite its darkness, there is one sound that prevails in its many shapes: the sound of laughter.

Q: You make free use of the fantastic in your fiction. Do you feel that fictional realism is inadequate to convey the full complexity of human existence?

A: I would rather say that fictional realism is insufficient for that purpose. It is similar to classical physics in the sense that it adequately conveys only a part of the reality to which human existence belongs. And not a very large part at that. The fantastic in this analogy is similar to relativistic, or even more, to quantum physics. It opens up entire new, huge areas of higher realities that are possible only in the various arts. How important these areas are can be judged by the fact that almost 90 percent of everything that has ever been created in literature alone belongs to one or another type of the fantastic. I found that only in the spirit of that long and fruitful tradition could I properly express my literary being. And I am quite certain that without the fantastic our world would be a far poorer and duller place.

Q: And yet, on the other hand, you are a rationalist?

A: There is no contradiction in it. Let me again use the analogy with physics. When you are in the realm of classical physics (imprecisely called "reality," because the other two kinds of physics are no less real, only far from our everyday experience), it's only normal that you are a rationalist. The alternative is to be irrational which is only an euphemism for being more or less insane. But I joyfully accept becoming irrational as soon as I step into what's the literary equivalent of relativistic and quantum physics. It is not only normal behavior there, but very desirable too. Without being irrational you would never achieve anything in the art of the fantastic. As a matter of fact, the more "insane" you are in that other realm, the better. That "insanity," however, should be as controlled and coherent as possible in order to provide the best narrative results. And that is where the rational part of the mind helps enormously. So, it is only on an intensive cooperation of the two opposite poles, the rational and irrational, that the process of fantastical literary creativity is properly based.

Q: That is a wonderfully coherent summary. Do you remain confident, then, that there are always new things to be done in literature -- that you will continue to do new things?

A: As for my humble self, the moment I realize that I have no more new things to offer in the area of the fantastic, I'll quit writing. That would be the wisest and most honest thing I could do. The fate worse than death for a writer is not that she or he isn't able to write any more, but to keep on stubbornly writing and publishing even when it's all too evident that she or he has nothing more to say in literature. One of the main virtues of the great literary masters was that they knew when to stop. Fortunately, while individual authors are sadly limited in this regard, literature itself is quite unlimited. A comparison with physics could again be illustrative. The cosmos of literature, like the physical cosmos we are part of, will be expanding forever. The fact that the entity responsible for the eternal cosmic expansion is called by physicists "dark energy" is of supreme metaphorical value in this context. Since the source of the literary dark energy emanating from authors' subconscious is absolutely inexhaustible, we have no reason whatsoever to be concerned about the future of the ancient and noble art of prose writing.

Tamar Yellin is the author of numerous short stories whose first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, was published by The Toby Press in March 2005. Her website can be visited at

© Tamar Yellin 2005.

Compartments by Zoran ZivkovicFour Stories till the End by Zoran ZivkovicThe Fourth Circle by Zoran Zivkovic
Hidden Camera by Zoran Zivkovic The Writer and The Book by Zoran Zivkovic

The Fourth Circle was first published in 1993, with an English language edition published in 2004 by Nightshade Books.
Hidden Camera (2003) is published in an English language edition in 2005 by the Dalkey Archive Press.

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