The OF Blog: Zoran Živković, The Five Wonders of the Danube

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Zoran Živković, The Five Wonders of the Danube

Када му је најзад пажњу заокупила слика, поново је споредно однело превагу хад главним.  Прво је помислио на оно што га чека на рапорту код старешине Обласне управе за мостове.  Свакако ће бити оптужен да је спавао у чуварској кућици, а такав преступ није могао да прође без строге казне.  Можда ће чак остати без посла.  Неће му ништа вредети што ће се заклињати да није ока сллопио целе ноћи.  У прилог му неће ићи ни то што ниједном није заспао за тридесет седам година службе.  Као да је већ чуо громовни глас старешине:  ”Како је, онда, поред вас будног, неко подигао толику слику наврх моста?”
Није имао одговор на то питање.  Збиља, како?  Па још нечујно и неприметно?  Бар он ништа није ни чуо ни видео.  Мост је био осветљен, а ноћ готово без саобраћаја.  У сваком случају, нико се није зауставио.  Уз то, ово свакако није могао да иѕведе само један човек, нити би биле довољне једне дугачке мердевине, а био би неопходан и алат да се слика причврсти.  Горе нема кука, па да се сама закачи. (p. 4)
When the painting finally caught his attention, once again a further consideration prevailed.  His first thought was of what awaited him when he reported to his supervisor at the District Bridge Administration.  He would certainly be accused of sleeping in the guardhouse and such an offence would have to be severely punished.  He might even lose his job.  It would do no good to swear that he hadn't had a wink of sleep all night long.  The fact that he had not fallen asleep in the thirty-seven years he'd been on the job would also be of no help.  He could almost hear his supervisor's thundering voice:  "If you were awake, how could someone have hung such a big painting on top of the bridge?"
He had no answer to that question.  How, indeed?  And without being heard or seen?  At least, he hadn't heard or seen anything.  The bridge was illuminated and there'd been almost no traffic that night.  In any case, no one had stopped.  And this couldn't have been the work of just one person.  One tall ladder wouldn't have been enough, plus tools would be needed to attach the painting.  There were no hooks up above from which to hang it. (p. 4)
Zoran Živković's 2011 novel, The Five Wonders of the Danube, is perhaps best described as a true mosaic, as it is comprised of five sections, each correlating with famous bridges (Regensburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Novi Sad) over the Danube River.  With the exception of the final section (the Blue Bridge of Novi Sad), each of the first four sections (the Black, Yellow, Red, and White Bridges) can be read independently of one another, yet when joined together with the final section, each part forms a whole much greater than its constituent elements.  Each section possesses its own sets of mysteries and wonders, with both representing one of the arts.  In them, we see people baffled by mysterious events, some of which are among some of Živković's most weird creations yet, with each event being associated with an art such as painting, sculpting, literature, or music.

The wonders begin with Regensburg's Black Bridge.  An elderly bridge night watchman encounters a large painting of a bridge that somehow has become attached to the bridge.  From whence did this painting come and to what could it refer?  A growing number of inspectors, from the watchman's supervisor to members of the state secret police, try to delve into its mysteries (and into those of the people who have stumbled upon the painting).  As in much of his previous work, Živković's characters are not quite the non-comprehending people that they appear to be, but instead possess their own little pieces to the puzzle.  As the series of investigators grows, like a set of Matryoshka dolls in reverse, the significance of this bridge painting (attached to a bridge, no less!) grows as well, until it seems that there may be a nefariousness about it.  Then there are some pesky river gulls intruding upon the scene and their own purposes add to the suspense.

Then suddenly, things shift away from Regensburg and go downstream a bit to Vienna's Yellow Bridge, where there are dreamers and sculptors and even a talking, literate squirrel.  Here time itself seems to be in a state of flux and creatures are not what they appear.  The descriptions feel more detached from "reality," yet paradoxically there's more "realness" to the irreal scenes occurring than if the story had been more mundane.  Yet night, like dreams, disperses in the light of day and the strange events of one Viennese night seem to fade like morning mist.

The third section, Bratislava's Red Bridge, was perhaps my favorite of the five.  Here appear two homeless men living under the bridge and trying to keep warm.  One, Isaac, is a talented carver and his likenesses of people and things that he carves into flotsam and jetsam is marveled at by his new companion, a mysterious man who carries around six printed volumes of Dostoevsky's fiction and who receives the moniker of "Fyodor" as a result.  This section, one of the shortest in the book, covers Fyodor's books and his mysterious green folder, which contains a manuscript from which he would read from time to time.  Yet no matter how literate the homeless may be, night's chills can bring about the need to abandon the material of literature for the ephemeral comforts of fire.  It is in this clash between necessity and art that a marvel occurs, one that baffles later visitors.

If the previous sections consist of arts created by the hands of their creators, then Budapest's White Bridge is devoted to the dulcet sounds of music.  An old composer returns to the scene of his greatest inspirations and greatest tragedies, hoping for one final symphony before he retires.  The flashbacks between past and present, interlaced with music and tragic events, creates a poignancy here that was largely absent from the previous sections.  The conclusion is perhaps the saddest and most moving of the book and its end sets up thematically the events of the final section.

By the time the story reaches Novi Sad's Blue Bridge, four mysteries have been established, none of which yet possess any real sort of satisfactory conclusion.  In contrast, this section opens with a very real event, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia's bridges in 1999.  However, Živković (who incidentally survived a very close call when the infamous bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade occurred) quickly departs from this event in that one of Novi Sad's four Danube bridges manages to uproot itself and take it and a bird-dog on a magical flight away from the attacking "birds" and up the Danube, visiting each of the previous four sites in succession.  Here the connections between the sections are made explicit and several of the mysteries are solved.  By itself, the Blue Bridge section is not as fascinating as the others, but when read after them, it builds upon the previous four's wonders, creating something moving and magical. 

The Five Wonders of the Danube works well because Živković has carefully developed the situations and the thematic elements specific to each section so that when the final pages of the Blue Bridge of Novi Sad are read, each element/scene flows directly into one another, widening the reader's understanding.  In a metaphoric sense, it is like a river itself, with tributaries emptying their contents into the main stream, creating something vaster and more awesome to behold.  The same holds true with this story, as the ruminations and mysteries surrounding artists, sculptors, writers, and composers flow into each other, creating a series of dialogues on the arts and the arts' influences on people.  The Five Wonders of the Danube may be one of Živković's two or three best works, as it showcases not only several of his thematic concerns but also his ability to weave seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive and memorable whole. 

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