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Four Stories till the End

by Zoran Zivkovic

translated by Alice Copple-Tosic

(Polaris, £ not advised, 188 pages, paperback, first published 2004, this edition published 2004.)

Review by John Toon

Four Stories till the End by Zoran ZivkovicSomething clever is going on here, but I don't honestly know what. In each of four environments--a prison cell, a hospital room, a hotel room, and a lift--the narrator is interrupted in some recreational activity by a series of visitors who wish to tell him stories. There are four stories in each of the four sections of the book, and the stories in each section are closely linked and seem to have some bearing on the narrator. The visits are punctuated by intrusions from a relevant authority figure, who always stays to tell the fourth story. There is a final profound crisis--it seems to suggest the narrator has died, although it's all couched in symbolism--and the next section begins.

Is it about art, or death? Punishment, or redemption? I really don't know. I've found Zivkovic's work to be obscure before, so this wasn't entirely unexpected, but it's a bit hard to comment on a book I just can't fathom. The repetitive structure is obviously significant, although the narrator turns out not to be repeated in all four sections, with the first three narrators visiting the fourth. What the visitors' stories are supposed to tell us is anyone's guess--they're generally entertaining to read, and almost seem to add up to something, but their meaning remains maddeningly elusive. The story of the spiteful magician who smuggles unpaying audience members into a circus gave me a chuckle, and the various descriptions of the hotel facilities in the third section are ludicrously funny, but all the while I had the nagging feeling that the author was trying to say something, and I just couldn't quite hear what it was.

More by way of a fable than a straight story, this book is likely to appeal to the philosophers among you. All I can definitively say about it is that the prose has the slight stiltedness one may generally expect from translated works, but is lively enough to keep you reading. Tantalising, but not wholly satisfying.

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