The OF Blog: 2008 Shirley Jackson Award Finalist: Zoran Živković, Twelve Collections and the Teashop

Saturday, June 14, 2008

2008 Shirley Jackson Award Finalist: Zoran Živković, Twelve Collections and the Teashop

In a day and age where it seems that even speculative fiction writers aim to pack as much descriptive verbiage into their stories as possible (often with deleterious consequences), it is refreshing to read stories written by authors who go in the opposite direction; their stories place a premium on the readers' imaginative abilities to unpack meaning from just a few scant words.

Serbian author Zoran Živković is one of those blessed few authors. Ever since I read his first novel released in the US, The Fourth Circle, back in 2004, I have marveled over how much depth there is to be found in stories that rarely go past 20 pages. In Twelve Collections and the Teashop, a 2007 limited-edition UK release (no known US release date), Živković has written perhaps one of his best "story suites" to date.

In the introduction, Michael Moorcock discusses how Živković's writing reflects an older European fabulist tradition, one that was lost in the West with the rise of the Naturalists/Modernists and their (over)emphasis on verisimilitude. Moorcock posits that Eastern European authors such as Živković, who came of age during the police state mentality of the Iron Curtain years, learned that being too specific was a risky matter and that much could be done with everywhere cities and such-and-such people. While this deliberate vagueness might annoy those who prefer focusing on the facts and not the vision behind the story plots, others have found the dreamlike qualities of such tales to be intoxicating, sucking one into reading and then considering what might be transpiring rather than just what really is happening there.

Twelve Collections and the Teashop is a double novella, consisting of twelve thematically-linked stories on some rather odd (and sometimes sinister) collections and one that revolves around a teashop. In these stories, mundane features are transformed by just a few subtle foreshadowing clues, such as color or smell. Take for instance the opening story, "Days," and its Prince-like purple phase:

When I entered the pastry shop, a purple wave swept over me. Almost every surface was in some shade of this color: the wallpaper, curtains, rugs, tablecloths, chair covers. So were the shades on the lighted table lamps. The muted light gave even the air a purple tint.

I squinted and looked around. Not a single one of the six small round tables with three chairs was occupied. The pastry chef was standing behind the display counter, wiping a glass with a purple napkin. His apron was inevitably of the same tone as everything else. He seemed more stocky than stout, and a thick, cropped beard and mustache compensated for his shiny bald head. (pp. 3-4)
The repetitive mentions of purple suffused throughout the shop, when juxtaposed with the rather commonplace chef serves to point out a dissonance between the "realness" of the characters and the otherworldiness of the pastry shop itself. As this story progresses and the reason for the "purpleness" is revealed, there is a hidden commentary of sorts about the PoV character and his/her reaction to the revelation by the pastry chef regarding the specialness of his pastry skills and the reason why things are so purple. Živković does not beat the reader over the head with this; he merely insinuates more levels are to be found within a few words. It is up to the reader to consider things even further.

From this opening story, the remaining eleven collections deal with disparate things such as final stories, words, and dreams. These are some of the most "human" of collections and Živković illustrates these via the characters' desires, temptations, and moments of hope and/or despair. Often, as in the case of the story "Clippings," there is a focus on the struggle between order and disorder, on the things that unite and on the heralds of entropy:

After several weeks had passed with still no letter, Mr. Pospihal concluded dejectedly that a great conspiracy was at work and, alas, he alone could do nothing against it. Disorder had triumphed over order, and all he could do was stand by helplessly and watch.

Overcome by frustration, the first thing he did was destroy his collection. As with everything else in his life, he did it systematically. He took a large pair of scissors, sharpened them a bit and then cut all the articles together with their purple folders into small pieces of the same size. And then, for the first time in his life, he did something unreasonable. He ate this plastic-coated confetti slowly and determinedly, even though the taste was quite abominable. (p. 58)
In a very real sense, it is this conflict between the ordered natures of these collectors and the often-chaotic elements around them that makes these twelve stories a delight to read and then to ponder afterwards. In the final story in this book, "The Teashop," another facet of this conflict is revealed, as Miss Greta is choosing teas from a rather odd menu:

She didn't have to open the long, thin menu with a cover of the same green. In the afternoon she always drank chamomile tea. Suddenly, though, she decided to make an exception. The circumstances were unusual and there were so few deviations from daily routine in her life. She shouldn't have been there at all, but since chance had brought her to the teashop, why not make good use of it? An impish desire filled her to do something reckless in a place where no one knew her. She would order the tea that seemed the most unusual.

The menu had four densely-filled pages. She'd never heard of most of the teas and had tried only a few, even though she'd been drinking this hot beverage in the morning and afternoon regularly since childhood. Reading through the splendid selection, she wondered with a tinge of sorrow why she limited herself to the humdrum. This had once seemed a virtue, but now she could not remember why. She shouldn't be inhibited, at least as far as tea was concerned. Now was the chance to make up a little for what she'd missed, albeit belatedly. (p. 87)
Temptation can be quite a terrible thing to witness and in a great many stories, it begins the road to ruin, or at least to transformation. "The Teashop" is a fitting close to an excellent "story suite" whose stories and their conclusions will leave most considering things well after the final page has been turned. Most highly recommended.

Publication Date: April 2007 (UK), Limited-Edition Hardcover

Publisher: PS Publishing


Daniel Ausema said...

Aio's done such a great job with the design of Seven Touches of Music and Steps Through the Mist (and the forthcoming Impossible Encounters, it looks like). I wonder if they'll be releasing this as well--hope so!

Larry Nolen said...

Didn't see anything on their website about it, but that doesn't mean it won't be a 2009 release here. Hopefully so, since they put out great-looking books :D

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