A review of Impossible Stories by Zoran Živković (PS Publishing, 389 pages, limited edition hardback, 2006)
The nice people at PS Publishing have collected five of Zoran Živković’s mosaic novels into a very attractive limited edition hardback. Many of the short stories of which the novels are composed first appeared in Interzone but it is good to have them gathered together in a more durable form.
So what is a mosaic novel? It is more than just a themed collection of short stories. To my mind, ‘story cycle’ would be a fairly accurate translation. The individual stories within a particular cycle may be very different but they share certain themes, motifs and possibly characters. And the final story in each cycle tends to be a recapitulation of those themes and motifs. Živković’s use of the term ‘mosaic’ is suggestive: each story is a complete entity in itself, but when the various stories in a cycle are fitted together they constitute a unity that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The first cycle in the collection is ‘Time Gifts’. In each story the devil offers someone a time-related gift. An astronomer facing possible execution is offered a vision of the future and with it the choice between posthumous fame and a long life of obscurity. A palaeolinguist facing retirement and obscurity is given the chance to visit the distant past as a disembodied spirit and hear for herself the languages about which she has speculated. A watchmaker is given the chance to change a tragic event in his past, thus creating a very different present. Finally, an artist in an asylum learns the stories of the other characters from the devil. But, as you might expect since the devil is the source of the gift, each gift hides a curse.
As the title suggests, ‘Impossible Encounters’ relates a series of meetings: a narrator recounts a post-death meeting, a young man meets his Doppelgänger on a mountain top, a science fiction writer meets a character from his latest novel, a businessman meets God on a train journey, a priest with a guilty conscience is absolved by the devil. Finally, the author meets a character from ‘Impossible Encounters’. Tying the stories together are the themes of death, loss and forgetfulness.
‘Seven Touches of Music’ explores the revelatory impact of music on the lives of seven characters: a teacher, a librarian, a widower, a spinster, a painter, a dying scientist (hints in the story imply that Živković had Einstein in mind) and a luthier’s apprentice. In each case, the central character has an unusual or extraordinary experience that is connected with music, and in each case the experience leaves them more isolated from their fellows than before. Perhaps because of my love of music, I found these stories particularly evocative.
‘The Library’, which won a 2003 World Fantasy Award, examines the nightmares that can be created by misplaced or excessive love of books. Perhaps the scariest one for writers is the story ‘Virtual Library’ in which an author discovers a website on which he can read all his future works. Živković has chosen to use the first person in all the stories in this cycle, which makes reading through them in succession a bit of challenge as you have to remind yourself that each ‘I’ is a different narrator.
Finally, ‘Steps Through the Mist’ presents five women of different ages each confronting in her own way the hand of Fate. However, you might only discover that all the stories are about women by reading the dustjacket, since the central three stories are written in the first person. Again Živković uses a variety of tools to tie the stories together into a satisfying whole, not least the mist of the title, which appears throughout in one guise or another.
Not content to see five of his mosaic novels merely juxtaposed in a single book, Živković has supplied an epilogue for the entire collection. ‘The Telephone’ draws together the central themes of each story cycle into a final autobiographical fantasy (or should that be fantastical autobiography?) in which a writer receives a phone call from the devil.
Živković’s characters are simply drawn, perhaps even bland, but nonetheless effective. Often they are unnamed. Most of the time they seem very ordinary but they do tend to be neurotic, even obsessive-compulsive. Likewise the settings of these stories are unembellished, almost generic, though almost invariably claustrophobic: dingy mid twentieth-century Eastern European cities (no, they are never identified as such, but that is what his urban descriptions evoke in my mind’s eye), small (often rather shabby) rooms, fog-bound hilltops. Even when he describes an abundance of light, it seems to be blinding, imprisoning.
I can’t say that Živković’s work makes for comfortable or enjoyable reading. It is too dark and claustrophobic to be either. But it is certainly one of the most compelling things I have read in a long time.