The OF Blog: Zoran Živković, Vremenski darovi/Time Gifts

Monday, January 21, 2013

Zoran Živković, Vremenski darovi/Time Gifts

 Morao je da pobegne iz manastira.

Uopšte nije trebalo da se nalazi tu, nikada nije želeo da se zamonaši, kazao je to ocu, ali ovaj je bio neumoljiv, kao i uvek, a majka nije imala smelosti da mu se suproststavi, iako je znala da su sinovljeve naklonosti i nadarenosti na drugoj strani.  Kaluđeri su se od početka ophodili prema njemu rđavo, zlostavljali ga, ponižavali, terali da radi najprljavije poslove, a kada su počele njihove noćne posete, nije više mogao da izdrži.

Dao se u beg, a za njim je krenula čitava bulumenta zadrigle, razularene bratije, sa podignutim bakljama i zadignutim mantijama, skaredno podvriskujući, sigurna da im ne može umaći.  Noge su mu postajale sve olovnije dok se upinjao da se domogne manastirske kapije, koja kao da je hotimice uzmicala, bivajući mu svakim korakom sve dalja (p. 5)

He had to escape from the monastery.

He should not be there at all; he had never wanted to become a monk. He'd said that to his father, but his father had been unrelenting, as usual, and his mother did not have the audacity to oppose him, even though she knew that her son's inclinations and talents lay elsewhere. The monks had treated him badly from the beginning. They had abused and humiliated him, forced him to do the dirtiest jobs, and when their nocturnal visits commenced he could stand it no longer.

He set off in flight, and a whole throng of pudgy, unruly brothers started after him, screaming hideously, torches and mantles raised, certain he could not get away. His legs became heavier and heavier as he attempted to reach the monastery gate, but it seemed to be deliberately withdrawing, becoming more distant at every step. (Impossible Stories, p. 3.  Translation by Alice Copple-Tošić)

It is difficult to determine what would be the ideal starting point for reading Serbian writer Zoran Živković's fiction.  For some, the few novels that he has written may be appealing because of the space afforded for him to explore in greater depth the themes that interest him, but others might argue that his "story suites," the thematically-connected story collections that comprise the majority of his fiction, might be more representative of his work.  I myself first read Živković in translation back in 2004 when the American edition of his first novel, The Fourth Circle, came out, but as much as I enjoyed reading that novel, it wasn't until the following year, when I read the Prime Books edition of The Book/The Writer that I made a point of trying to track down any available copy of his work in a language that I could understand.  A few years ago, after someone related to him a story I had posted about a former student of mine who has severe autism and the reaction that student had when I read aloud to his class (after I learned of a classmate bullying him) the story "The Whisper" (from Seven Touches of Music), Živković contacted me by email to talk about the impact that story had.  Although we have been in touch infrequently over the years, a few years ago he offered me a set of his books in Serbian after hearing of my desire to learn how to read that language because of the many fine writers that country has produced over the past half-century.  Although I am a bit late (three years!) in truly resuming my study of the language, I am using the books he so graciously offered me as part of my language study.  Although it would be crass to say the reviews are "payment," I do think it is past time that I review more of his fictions and explore the ways in which the stories themselves appeal to me a few years since I last read them.  Hopefully these series of reviews, which will begin with the "story suites," will appeal to a wide range of readers who may not be familiar with his work.

Vremenski darovi (Time Gifts in English translation) is Živković's second book of fiction after The Fourth Circle.  Published in the late 1990s in both Serbia and the United States, Time Gifts serves as the prototype for Živković's subsequent short fiction collections, as the four stories contained within ("The Astronomer," "The Paleolinguist," "The Watchmaker," and "The Artist") share a form and approach that can be found in later collections such as Steps Through the Mist or Seven Touches of Music (both collected, along with Time Gifts, Impossible Encounters, The Library, and the stand-alone story "The Telephone" in the UK collection Impossible Stories).  Events that transpire in one story often find a hidden resonance in another, with surprising results.

The first story, "The Astronomer," begins with a single individual and a strong, almost overwhelming desire.  A simple "he" (we do not learn his identity until later in the story) wants to escape from a monastery.  This monastery, which may be in Italy, Spain, or near Mount Athos, or any other secluded holy retreat in-between, appears to be inhabited by seemingly nefarious monks who are chasing this wannabe escapee.  The reader's attention is drawn immediately to the action of the story with only the barest framework of a plot established.  We only know he is there unwillingly, that his family opposes his wishes, and that he is on the run from a band of monks who are after him.  It is not until he eludes capture that we are given insight to his story and it is one that involves time and space, science and religion, and the pride within the titular astronomer.  As is often the case in Živković's fictions, choices are laid out in an overlapping fashion.  Does this astronomer choose to live by denial of what he has observed, or does he die in denial of what others hold to be true?  Although it might be suspected that such a weighty choice would be important to the story, it surprisingly isn't.  This is not due to carelessness on Živković's part, but rather it is a purposely open-ended question that forces the reader to engage what is transpiring around the astronomer's choice.  What would we choose in such a situation?  How does the viewing centuries forward into time affect what occurs afterward?  The reader is left to ponder this at story's end.

"The Paleolinguist" begins with a lonely, somewhat befuddled expert in old (and likely "dead") languages confused and startled by a sudden knock:

The knock echoed loudly in the hollow silence, making her start.

She had not heard the steps approaching the door to her office.  She must have dozed off again.  Her head bowed, chin upon her chest, her round, wire-rimmed reading glasses had slipped to the tip of her nose.  The book remained open in front of her on the desk in the lamplight, but she was still drowsy and could not remember its title right away.  These catnips were becoming more and more frequent, causing her to feel very ill at ease.  Not because someone might find her in that unseemly position.  She was not afraid of that; almost no one visited her anymore, not even her students, let alone her colleagues.  She was an embarrassment to herself. (p. 22)

Although certainly less threatening than having a bunch of monks chasing you at night across a field, "The Paleolinguist" too opens with a sudden intrusion into the protagonist's life.  Like the astronomer, the paleolinguist is confronted by a mysterious personage, one who offers not a vision (real or not) of the future, but instead a chance to visit the past, to see if her theories on ancient languages are true, perhaps with the opportunity to change the past.  It is something that is too good to be true, perhaps, and that precisely is the point around which the story revolves.  What "butterfly effects" could occur?  Is there something nefarious about these "gifts of time," which appear in this story (and the others) in a variety of forms and metaphors?  This awaits the third story for more development.

"The Watchmaker" builds upon one of the time metaphors, that of the glass-encased watch, and it explores the ways in which we attempt to control time (and in turn are controlled by it).  The titular watchmaker, like many of Živković's characters, is in turns meticulous and oblivious to the outside world.  Timekeeping is fraught with dangers:  the smallest particle can delay the gear turning "just so" after enough turns that time is "lost" or no longer as accurate as before.  Here the mysterious visitor of the previous stories reappears in a different guise, this time with the conversation moving from simply a movement forward or backward in time toward that of paradoxes, of choices that can paralyze those who have foreknowledge or emboldened those who are ignorant of what comes before or after.  It is not an original concept, but Živković's deceptively simple prose recasts these as a series of idle musings that yet feel as though they are anything but simple musings.

By the time the final story, "The Artist," appears, the concept of time and the fantasies that we often have about the "what if" of our seeing our futures, changing our pasts, or revisiting the choices that we continually make in our lives have been developed along several lines.  The frame character appears here in his most straightforward guise.  If the astronomer seeks to capture the movement of celestial time, the paleolinguist the linguistic river along which human concepts have flowed over time, the watchmaker the encapsulation of time within a machine, the artist's conception of time encompasses each of these.  This artist, a she, knows what happens to the other three after their "time gifts" have been granted.  Furthermore, she knows the consequences that follow them, not to mention the sort of apparent omnipresence that flows through these stories.  Here metaphor and plot fuse into a almost seamless (seemless?) conclusion in which the events of the four constituent stories meld together to form a larger metanarrative that informs each individual story and makes them more meaningful than perhaps they were when each reached their conclusions. 

The overall effect is akin to that of a daydreamer awakening from her state of semi-consciousness.  The river of thoughts and images, before drying up in the harsh heat of wakefulness, leaves a residue behind for that daydreaming soul.  So too do the stories of Time Gifts leave behind traces of the storyteller's musings.  The language of these tales, simple, direct, and yet containing a profundity of thought that most complexly-crafted narratives fail to achieve, loses little in translation.  Although I am still a novice in reading Serbian, I could understand the gist of the narratives and Copple-Tošić's translation does an excellent job in capturing the tone and feel of Živković's prose.  Readers familiar with the stories of the Argentine great Jorge Luis Borges will find in Živković a kindred storyteller, as each seems to translates the idle thoughts of their lives into stories that gently probe those interstices between lives and deeds that make stories so appealing to so many.  Time Gifts is a collection that shows the writer just beginning to explore these connections, yet there is rarely the sense that anything is underdeveloped or overplayed.  Highly recommended.

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