The OF Blog: Zoran Živković, Escher's Loops

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Zoran Živković, Escher's Loops

For the past six years, ever since I picked up a copy of his The Fourth Circle, I have always had great pleasure in reading anything that Serbian author Zoran Živković has written.  In previous reviews of Steps Through the Mist and Twelve Collections and the Teashop, I discussed how Živković's less-is-more approach toward storytelling appeals to me as a reader.  I enjoy being allowed the freedom to approach stories at cross-angles, without the author intruding too much into the text that s/he has created.  In virtually all of Živković's stories, whether they be part of his "story suite" mosaics or more traditional novel-length tales, he leaves plenty of gaps through which an imaginative reader can delve further into the mysteries hinted at but often never directly stated within the texts.

One device that Živković utilizes in several of his stories (and one that José Saramago uses to great effect in his Blindness and Seeing novels, among others) is labeling the characters by profession rather than by name.  This creates a sort of "everyman" type of character; could be me or you or that guy or gal across the street.  It also allows for a subtle distancing of the characters from the settings, creating a sense of "otherness" cohabiting with mundane existence.  But does this sort of storytelling approach, which owes much to centuries' worth of Central European fables, hold up when expanded to a 330 page novel?

When I learned that Escher's Loops would combine the elements that Živković employs in his story suites with the length of a novel, I worried that the result might be somewhat of a mess to follow.  After all, when there are bifurcating stories that are designed to loop around and back into a broader narrative, patterned on Escher's most famous illustration, there is a real risk for the inattentive reader becoming lost in what is unfolding.  However, this was far from the case for me, as these "loops," broken down into four main movements/sections, actually augmented the joy I had while reading the narrative.

To best illustrate what Živković is doing, let me quote from the very beginning of the story:

The surgeon had just dried his hands in a stream of hot air from the hand dryer next to the wash basin, pulled on his gloves and headed for the operating room, when a sudden recollection made him stop in front of the double glass door.  Even though he was urgently awaited inside, the thought disconcerted him so much that he was rooted to the spot.

Those who knew him better would certainly have assumed that he'd remembered the incident he most wanted to forget.  It was the only stain on his career.  He'd left surgical tweezers inside a patient.  There was no excuse for this oversight.  What could he say in his defense?  That he'd been captivated by her face and couldn't keep his eyes off her?  The anesthesia had seemed to bestow an angelic quality on the beautiful young woman.  Mentioning this enchantment as the cause of his distraction would only have aggravated his position. (p. 5)
As I noted above, there is no wasting of time giving this character a name.  The surgeon has had something unusual (and embarrassing) happen.  There is a moment of thought and recollection and then the story branches from there, seeking out others in the environs who have had experiences, both good and bad, and how each of their lives, whether they be the Dylanesque priest who plays pinball or the priest who takes pictures of birds, of the failed suicide who has attempted suicide seventeen times before having an epiphany, or of the beautiful actress and her admirer, are interconnected with one another's.  Živković is not heavy-handed in this.  He introduces (and re-introduces) these characters in different forms and it feels so casual that the reader at first may wonder where s/he had read about that particular character before.

The overall effect is like a woven tapestry of images.  The life threads that run through our own lives are put through the warp and woof before being re-thread back into our life journeys.  The same holds true for Živković's characters.  Although failure, frustration, and death greet several of his characters, there is this sense of optimism that pervades this story.  Živković does not focus as much on suffering as much as on how experiences end up enriching the lives of the characters involved.  This sense of optimism makes for a suitable ending to these interconnected life threads that constitute Escher's Loops.  Certainly one of the more enjoyable reads I have had this year and on par with Živković's other fictions.  Very highly recommended.


Paul said...

Really glad to hear you enjoyed this Larry, as I have been saving it for a special time. Zoran's work is wonderful, a real pleasure to read, and he is definately one of my personal favourite writers. And he's a really nice guy too to boot. :)

anything to add about the translation? I'd be interested to hear what you think as I have only ever read him in English.

Larry said...

Well, outside of one very minor mistake (womens instead of women), there were no problems that I could find with the translation; his translator usually does a great job with his works. Although I'm learning Serbian and did read the Serbian text in parallel, I haven't yet progressed enough in the language to say with any confidence just how closely the translation followed the original.

And yes, Zoran is a great guy. He emailed me a few years ago to thank me for sharing a story where I read his story on autistic children to a class with an autistic child and that child had a minor breakthrough communication moment afterward. I believe hearing that story meant a lot to him and my already high opinion of him increased even more after that email exchange :D

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