Umro sam u snu.
Nije to bilo neko naročito umiranje. Gotovo da ga nisam ni primetio. Sanjao sam kako stupam nekim velikim hodnikom, punim vrata s obe strane na malom međusobnom rastojanju. Kraj hodnika nije se mogao sagledati u daljini, a u njemu nije bilo nikog drugog osim mene. Na zidu, pored svakih vrata, visio je oveći, uramljeni portret, obasjan svetiljkom postavljenom iznad njega.
Posmatrao sam likove u prolazu. Šta sam drugo mogao da radim? Portreti su ovde bili jedina stvar koja je narušavala nedoglednu jednoličnost hodnika. Koliko sam uspeo da procenim, postojao je približno jednak broj slika žena i muškaraca. Uglavnom je to bio vremešniji svet, povrmeno baš u dubokoj starosti, ali tu i tamo mogli su se videti i mlađi ljudi, pa čak i deca, premda sasvim retko. Likovi su delovali svečano, kako to već biva na portretima – doterani, pomalo uštogljeni, svesni svoje važnosti. Mahom su se osmehivali, ali bilo je i lica uz koja osmeh naprosto nije išao, pa je na njima stajao izraz stroge ozbiljnosti. (pp. 5-6)
I died in my sleep.
There wasn't anything special about my death. I hardly even noticed it. I dreamed I was walking down a long hallway closely lined with doors on both sides. The end of the corridor was invisible in the distance, and I was alone. On the wall next to each door hung a framed portrait, slightly larger than life, and lit from above by a lamp.
I looked at the paintings as I passed by them. What else could I do? Only the portraits disturbed the endless monotony of the corridor. There seemed to be male and female portraits in approximately equal numbers, but randomly distributed. The people were mostly of advanced age, and some were very old indeed, but here and there was a younger face, or even a child, though these were quite rare. The images were formal studio-portraits, and the people were all elaborately, even ceremonially dressed. They looked conscious of their own importance, and that of the occasion. Most of them were smiling, but some faces were simply not suited to smiling. They looked grimly serious. (p. 81, translated by Alice Copple-Tošić)
If time and the use of time's "gifts" was the overarching scene in Time Gifts, here in Impossible Encounters the "impossibility" of the encounters that the narrators experience (and the repeated mention of an eponymous book in each of the six tales) provides a narrative unity that builds upon each constituent story. Take for instance, the first tale, "The Window." Here we encounter the narrator after his death (which may or may not be a dream). He finds himself in a large gallery, filled with images of humanity. He discovers his own portraits and is struck by a mixture of surprise and bemusement at seeing his image there. The surrealness of this situation is not the only "impossibility," as he encounters a curator of sorts who offers the narrator a second life, with a permanent death at the end. It is in this offer that Živković explores not just our understanding of our life/death dreams, but also on conceptualizations of beauty that extend beyond our own limited, finite understandings. "The Window" concludes with a sly twist ending that causes the reader to reevaluate what she previously understood the story to be about.
The second story, "The Cone," is perhaps the closest Živković comes to telling a Borgesian tale. If anything, it is a clever inversion of Borges' "Borges and I," except here the story is told via the viewpoint of the younger self. It is a story of not just revisiting old memories and scenes of personal enlightenment, but of a true singular visiting again. It is a conceit worthy of a Pierre Menard and his attempt to not just recreate Don Quixote but to write the Don Quixote for a new age and yet Živković manages to pull this complex weaving of past/present together with aplomb.
The third tale, "The Bookshop," is more overtly SFnal than the other stories in the collection, as it concerns a connection between writers on two different planets somehow brought into contact with each other through the first author's seeming "conjuration" of the second's world. In reading this, I was reminded favorably of one of Ray Bradbury's tales from The Martian Chronicles, "The Summer Night," particularly the merging of thoughts and "reality" for the recipient group. Contained within is a subtle critique of science fiction and its influence on the shape of some people's dreams, although this element is subordinate to the larger theme of "impossible encounters." Despite liking the constituent elements of this tale, "The Bookshop" was perhaps the weakest story in Impossible Encounters, perhaps because it is too easy to separate one of the two characters into an "alien" role, depriving the story of the intimacy that is present in the majority of the other tales.
"The Train" takes one of the enduring questions of Christendom, "What would I ask God if I were to meet him?," and turns it into a small, almost quotidian event. A bank executive is traveling by train when he encounters a heavy-set middle-aged person in a dark suit who at first he confuses for a retired colonel until he strikes up a conversation and learns that this is God, who is offering him a no strings attached question that he may ask him. The nature of the question and the response reaffirm this twisting about of common expectations of such an "impossible" encounter (after all, would you dare ask God, if possible, a petty question?). This story's confounding of expectations causes its confusion to have a greater impact than it otherwise might have.
The fifth story, "The Confessional," inverts the preceding tale. Here is a priest having Satan himself as a penitent. Their conversion covers the nature of hell versus heaven, the guilt found in souls who do not themselves truly release their sins, and the troubles found within those who themselves are charged with the absolution of sinners. It works separately from "The Train," yet when read one after the other, the two tales complement each other and build upon elements found within each of them, making these two, along with "The Window" my personal favorites from Impossible Encounters.
The final tale, "The Atelier," binds the five preceding stories together. The title itself is a reference to the older form of artistic instruction, that of a true workshop in which the artist would train apprentices to produce elements of an artistic work which, when complete, would bear the master's name. In it, the stories preceding it, all of which contained references to an unnamed author's Impossible Encounters, are shown to have a "realness" that extends beyond the author's conception of that word. In it, the author enters into his own fiction and becomes a character, blurring the lines between what is "real" and "unreal." It is a fitting coda to a collection that challenges its readers to reconsider how they view the world, its beauties and dangers, and themselves in relation to the worlds they live and which they inhabit in their dreams. Impossible Encounters is a collection whose stories have haunted my thoughts for nearly a month since I last re-read it in both Serbian and English and it is perhaps slightly stronger than the preceding Time Gifts. Highly recommended.