Fantastika and the Literature of Serbia: A Conversation with Zoran Živković
Zoran Živković (b. 1948) is the author of nineteen works of fiction. Translations of Živković’s prose books have appeared in more than sixty translated editions. Živković is professor of creative writing at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade. In this interview, the author discusses Middle-European “fantastika,” the development of his oeuvre, and his own creative process.
Fantastika and the literature of Serbia
Michael Morrison: You have allied your fiction with the literary tradition of Middle-European “fantastika.” How do you define this tradition? Which of its authors have influenced your work?
Zoran Živković: The literary and geographical areas of “Mitteleuropa” (“Central Europe”) don’t coincide. The former is much wider, encompassing the European part of Russia. In the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century, it was culturally, intellectually, and artistically rather united, particularly when it comes to literature. Valery Bryusov’s novel The Fiery Angel (1908) is very illustrative in this regard. It is set entirely in sixteenth-century Germany, but if you didn’t know that it was written by a Russian, you could never have guessed it: the novel seems so authentically German.
The term “fantastika”—used in slightly different ways in many European languages—doesn’t seem to have a satisfactory English equivalent. It could have been “fantasy” if that term hadn’t been reduced to a marketing label that means “Tolkienesque” fiction. Fantastika is by no means limited to that narrow section of the spectrum. It is, in fact, the spectrum itself—all nonmimetic prose. Nearly 70 percent of everything written during the past five thousand years is nonmimetic and belongs to one of many forms of fantastika: folklore, oneiric, fairytale, epic, and so forth.
“Middle-European fantastika” was never a literary movement amalgamated by a common poetics. It was, rather, a tradition that shared some traits but was otherwise heterogeneous. Its most common trait was its minimal fantastic content. It features only slight deviations from reality, never large-scale dramatic events. Its protagonists are not heroes, but marginal individuals trying to find their way in a changed world.
I owe various debts to grand masters of Middle-European fantastika. From E. T. A. Hoffmann I learned how to discreetly introduce fantastical elements, from Gogol how to increase the symbolic value of a fantastic story, from Bryusov how to achieve authenticity, from [Mikhail] Bulgakov how to make the most of the humor in a fantastic context, from Kafka how to handle absurdity, from [Stanisław] Lem how to search for new paths of fantastika.
MM: You have described what you learned from previous writers regarding technique. I’d like now to turn to the content of your fictions, which I think of as “metaphysical fantasias.” What writers, if any, have influenced the conceptual aspects of your fiction?
ZZ: I agree that most of my fictions could be considered “metaphysical fantasies” in that they deal with so-called ultimate questions. Although it might seem that ultimate questions are the exclusive concern of philosophy, it is only apparently so. Other disciplines and arts can substantially contribute to their pursuit. Among the arts, fiction probably has the greatest potential in this regard. One might say that dealing with ultimate questions is its ultimate challenge.
It is by no means a simple task, however. The trap of turning a work of fiction into a tedious tract is always there, threatening an inexperienced, careless, or simply untalented writer. Such a work betrays the very essence of the art of prose: that it is the art of storytelling.
A reliable way to avoid this trap is to master various fictional techniques. This was the reason I emphasized, in my answer to your previous question, the technical aspects I have learned from the masters of Middle-European fantastika. These aspects are essential. In my creative writing course at the University of Belgrade, I spend the first three out of four semesters teaching my students basic prose techniques. Only the final semester is devoted to content.
Although necessary, prose techniques are not sufficient for dealing with ultimate questions in the art of fiction. Many writers who mastered these techniques never consider ultimate questions. I suppose one has to have a special inclination toward them. Besides, it isn’t always pleasant and inconsequential to deal with ultimate questions. There are much safer and less demanding types of fiction.
Many teachers shaped my approach to ultimate questions. In fact, almost everything I have read contributed to some extent to my becoming an author of “metaphysical fantasies.” But if I had to choose one writer who influenced me most fundamentally, I would pick without hesitation Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky. I have spent the last year and a half rereading his entire fiction opus for the third time. It was as if I had never read him before—as if only now, in my early sixties, I have proper eyes for his magnificent work.
MM: During the twentieth century, the Balkans suffered political upheavals, ethnic dislocations and violence, and economic hardships on a scale difficult for an outsider to imagine. Many Yugoslav and Serbian writers have addressed these and other historical events in their fiction, such as The Houses of Belgrade by Borislav Pekić, Knife by Vuk Drašković, In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijević, and, in the fantastic, Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars. By contrast, the characters in your work seem largely detached from history, politics, and society at large. How, if at all, has the tumultuous situation in Serbia influenced your fiction? To what extent was the decision to not address such matters premeditated as opposed to a consequence of the process of creation?
ZZ: The simplest answer would be that I am not a mimetic writer and therefore my books are not fictional “comments” on reality, even when reality is literarily very stimulating, as it certainly was in the twentieth century in the Balkans. But how is it possible, one might wonder, to be a nonmimetic writer under such circumstances, to neglect the strong historical challenges to which almost all other Serbian writers responded?
I have often faced this question, locally and internationally. For quite some time the Serbian literary establishment didn’t really know what to do with my humble self. It still sticks to a century-long tradition of favoring realistic over fantastic fiction, although this goes against the very roots of our national literature: our folklore, which is so abundant with fantastic elements. Even in the early twenty-first century, a Serbian author must write about themes from our national history to be taken seriously by the establishment.
At first, they simply ignored my books or, if pressed, labeled them as science fiction (in their vocabulary, a synonym for trivial literature), which showed that they actually hadn’t read my work at all. But then I gradually became by far the most widely translated contemporary Serbian author (at the moment, sixty-one foreign editions in twenty-one languages) and could no longer be ignored, for few Serbian writers manage to reach the world. A major part of the establishment finally accepted my fantastika as serious literature. For another, smaller, nationalistic part, however, precisely the fact that my books are so widely translated implied that I had turned my back on what they see as Serbian national literary interests.
Similar dilemmas occasionally appeared abroad. Some foreign critics found it rather curious that a Serbian author wasn’t recognizable by what he wrote about—Serbian themes (usually narrowed to the Balkan civil wars of the 1990s). Moreover, had they not known where I came from, they would never have been able to figure it out from my stories and novels. I had the impression that they implicitly reproached me for betraying a strange literary canon.
I believe this whole misunderstanding originated in a misconception of the act of literary creation. To put it simply, a writer doesn’t choose a theme; a theme chooses an author. At least, this is the case with me. I don’t start working on a new piece of fiction by asking myself what I am going to write about this time. When I come to my desk to begin a new story or a new novel, I know very little about it, at least on a conscious level. It is in my subconscious that the work is already fully formed, waiting to be transferred to my monitor via my keyboard. While I am writing I am little more than a typist—and a reader curious to know what his subconscious will come up with this time. So far, for some mysterious reason, it has delivered only nonmimetic fiction . . . to my satisfaction as the reader.
MM: Does the Serbian public share the attitudes of the literary establishment? More broadly, how healthy is fantastika in Serbia and southern Europe today?
ZZ: The reading public doesn’t share these attitudes. The majority have no prejudices whatsoever toward fantastic fiction. People read what they like. Some dislike fantastika, which is quite normal and legitimate. The influence of the conservative part of the contemporary Serbian literary establishment is limited mostly to the highest literary circles—institutions like the Academy of Sciences and Arts, some faculties and institutes.
There is continuing interest in books of the fantastic throughout Serbia and southern Europe. But this is largely limited to foreign works in translation. Even if there were excellent local writers of fantastika, their books could hardly compete with imported best-sellers, no matter how poor these might be. Print runs of my books in Serbia rarely exceed two thousand copies, while a typical product of the publishing industry—a vampire novel, for example—sells up to ten thousand copies, which is a lot here. But this is only natural. It would be pointless for me to fantasize about having as many readers as an author of trivial fiction. Readers of vampire novels have no ears for my music, nor have I music for their ears.
Considering the sad fact that the local literary establishment doesn’t favor fantastika, it is no wonder that professional writers of the fantastic are very rare here. At the moment, I am probably the only author with a certain international reputation. Works by the few amateur writers of the fantastic are not considered “official” literature, although some of their books are rather good.
MM: Beyond the obvious fact of your nationality, to what extent do you consider yourself a “Serbian writer”? What role, if any, does your national identity play in the dominant concerns of your fiction?
ZZ: I certainly consider myself a Serbian writer. I am a Serb writing in my mother tongue, Serbian. On the other hand, I am aware that I am not a typical Serbian writer. Of my nineteen books of fiction so far, in only one, The Last Book, do characters have Serbian names. Otherwise, there appear to be no Serbs in my fiction. This fact, probably even more than my writing fantastika, turned the literary establishment against me—particularly the nationalistic part, which was rather influential during the 1990s, in the Milošević era, and is still present, although not as strong.
Just as there are no Serbs in my fiction, neither are there other nationalities. No Americans, no Russians, no Chinese, no Croats, no Eskimos. . . . For the characters of my stories and novels, national identity is irrelevant. Also, they are either nameless or have “international” names used in many languages. Finally, their whereabouts are mostly vague, not determined.
These aspects of my protagonists follow from the themes I write about: Love and Death. These are the two pivotal themes of the art of fiction. We write fiction in the first place because this is probably our best way to approach the two major determinants of our lives: our greatest sentiment and our mortality.
Paradoxically, it appears that there can’t be love without death. They seem inseparable. The other side of the coin of our greatest misfortune is our greatest fortune. No philosophical, religious, or scientific system can cope with this ultimate duality. Only art is capable of that, and among all the arts literature can penetrate most deeply into this most tragic secret of being human. Basically, these two themes are what we have been writing about for roughly five thousand years, ever since literature was invented. And they are still far from exhausted. They never will be, and in precisely this lies the eternal importance of literature.
In these highest registers of the art of fiction, we are all just human beings; our ethnic, religious, social, or any other contexts play no role whatsoever. On the other hand, although my protagonists are not explicitly Serbs, they could be, or any other nationality. This absence of nationality is the quality that has enabled readers throughout the world to identify with my characters, to understand their situations and dilemmas. My loyalty in literature belongs to a much larger group, humanity, of which my fellow countrymen are just a part—a not very big part and certainly in no way special.
A career in transition:
From scholar, translator, and publisher to author of fantastika
MM: You devoted the first part of your career to scholarship on science fiction. This period culminated with the publication in 1990 of your Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Three years later your first novel, The Fourth Circle, was published in Serbian. Since then you have published a total of nineteen books of fiction, none of which can meaningfully be considered science fiction. The Fourth Circle seems a transitional work, in that it prominently uses science fictional devices absent from your later work. What role did writing this book play in your career change and in your subsequent realization that science fiction was too limiting a storytelling mode?
ZZ: The writing of The Fourth Circle was in many ways a new kind of experience for me. First, although literature was an essential part of my life—my constant and insatiable reading ever since I became literate at the age of six, my university education (in comparative literature), both my academic theses, my activities as translator (more than seventy translated books, mostly from English), editor and publisher (more than three hundred published titles), and, finally, my nonfiction writing—I had never been tempted to try my hand at writing fiction. Actually, the idea never occurred to me.
I began when I was forty-five, but not as a consequence of premeditation. I wrote my first fiction sentence (“The circle.”)—there can hardly be a shorter one—quite spontaneously, in February 1993, in a mountain resort in southern Serbia. My wife, Mia, was (and still is) a passionate skier, and we went each winter to her favorite Kopaonik mountain. Since, however, I was never a skiing fan, I spent my mornings and early afternoons first in long walks and then mostly reading in the large and conveniently empty lobby of the Grand Hotel.
I still vividly remember the urge to write that suddenly came upon me on a brilliantly sunny day, while reading. I closed the book, went to a nearby bookshop, and bought a notebook and a pen. As soon as I returned to the hotel, I started to write. By the time Mia returned from her skiing session, the first chapter of what became The Fourth Circle was completed.
The fact that I was writing fiction quite astonished me, but what amazed me even more was my lack of any rational control over it. The process was very different from composing my nonfiction texts, when I knew precisely what I wanted to do and how to do it. When I wrote fiction, sentences kept flowing, apparently out of nowhere, as if someone was inaudibly dictating them to me.
Only four months later, after The Fourth Circle was completed, did I realize the nature of this unique experience, the true source of my first piece of fiction. Somewhere beneath my conscious level, quite unknown to my rational self, a critical mass was gathering. My knowledge of literature, accumulated over previous decades, gradually transformed into something new. When the moment came to be released, it erupted almost like a volcano—quite appropriately, on top of a mountain.
What I went through while writing The Fourth Circle was almost a personality split. I was simultaneously a writer, rather unconscious of what he was doing, and a reader, impatient due to the slowness of the writer’s typing. (I type using only my right hand index finger). It became particularly frustrating during the closing chapters of The Fourth Circle, the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, when I could hardly wait to see whether and how the novel’s several seemingly unrelated structural threads would merge to form a consistent tapestry.
Since The Fourth Circle was in a way a recapitulation of my previous forty years of intensive living with literature, it inevitably contained traces and reflections of science fiction. After all, I was closely involved with this genre for about a decade and a half. But I don’t see it at all as a science-fiction novel. And it certainly isn’t SF by the standards of the English-language publishing industry. Actually, it doesn’t fit any marketing category. This is one reason it appeared—in a very nice small-press edition—only a decade after I started submitting it to US and UK publishers.
The science-fiction elements are far scarcer or even nonexistent in my eighteen fiction books written after The Fourth Circle. That isn’t because I consider science fiction less valuable than I used to. That would be betraying that long and fruitful period of my life. I still think science fiction is, at its best, one of the two major forms of fantastika in the second half of the twentieth century (the other is, of course, magic realism). But it seems to me that science fiction has passed its zenith and can no longer contribute to fantastika in any substantial way. We are currently in the process of defining a new form of the fantastic for the twenty-first century. I would be truly honored if my fiction could be a brick in this new wall.
MM: Clearly, writing The Fourth Circle was a very intuitive process. Would you briefly describe your creative process now? How do stories originate? How do you develop the seed of a story? How extensively do you revise your works?
ZZ: As a professor of creative writing, I am often asked by my students to tell them more about how I write fiction. I assume the real motivation behind this question, apart from their natural curiosity, is rather practical. Their reasoning goes like this: If our professor, who also happens to be a successful author, tells us the secret of how he creates fiction, and if we follow his steps, we might also produce good stories.
I do explain to them, as best as I can, my creative process, but I hasten to add at the end that it would be pointless to imitate me (or any other writer). First, there is nothing special about my way of writing. In fact, there isn’t any privileged way of writing. Any method is as good as its final outcome: a new work of fiction. It doesn’t matter whether you have reached that goal by a shortcut or a very roundabout route. Every author has his or her unique manner of composing fiction. Instead of following my steps, my students should try to find their own way of writing. Only if they succeed in this endeavor can they hope to become good writers.
All my books of fiction originated in exactly the same way. A sort of critical mass gathers in my subconscious—a place where everything I have ever felt, heard, seen, experienced, read, or learned is permanently stored. My entire past is there, in incessant turmoil, seeking something new. At least, this is how I imagine it—the creative mind at work, the most subtle and precious process in the universe. Consciously, I am in no way in control of it. Nor can I penetrate any deeper into how it works. But as long as it works, I don’t mind being blissfully ignorant.
Once the critical mass is reached, I get a clear signal from my subconscious in the form of an image from or the introductory sentence of a future story or novel. This usually happens in the morning, when my mind is in its best shape. At first, I hurried to my computer to start writing right away, anxious that the “inspiration” might disappear. But eventually I became experienced enough to know that this isn’t just a brief, temporary state. A work of fiction, fully formed in my subconscious, forever remains there, patiently waiting to be written down.
I am aware that this might sound quite unlikely, but I do not revise my fiction. Apart from some typos, the first version is also the final one. Initially this rather confused even me. All my education in literature insisted that some revisions would be required, but I couldn’t find any way to improve my initial manuscript. Now, after nineteen books, I would know for sure that the time has come to stop writing fiction if I ever had to do any revision.
It is fortunate that I have a reliable witness in this regard—my English translator, Alice Copple-Tošić, who has translated seventeen books of mine, starting with Time Gifts. From the very beginning we stuck to the same routine: the writing and translating went on simultaneously. As soon as I completed a chapter from a novel or a story from a mosaic novel, I emailed it to her. While she was translating it, I was writing the next chapter/story and so on, till the end. I never asked her to do any revisions simply because none were necessary.
MM: The process you’ve described strikes me as quite remarkable. The narrative structure of many of your works is very elaborate, often containing networks of leitmotifs and subtle, sometimes multileveled intertextual connections. Moreover, at a sentence-by-sentence level, your fiction is exceptionally precise. Nary a word is wasted; the only details present are those required to evoke clear images and clarify character and theme, and many sentences are quite lyrical. How do you understand this ability? Might your proficiency with mathematics and chess somehow play a role?
ZZ: I would say that your intuition is quite right. Although, as I mentioned, I lack full insight into how my creative process works, I am rather convinced that, in a certain way, it must be related to my inclination toward both mathematics and chess. In my younger days, I was considered very talented in both these areas. It was mere chance that I didn’t become a professional mathematician or chess player, but a writer. Sometimes, when I am feeling at odds with myself, I wonder whether chance is not culpable.
MM: Over the years you have made trenchant comments about the effects of market forces on literature. What are your views of the current state of and future prospects for literary fiction? What recent developments seem particularly auspicious or worrisome?
ZZ: I am quite aware that the market is the best regulatory mechanism in many human endeavors. But not in all. If there were only the publishing industry—focused entirely, like any other industry, on profit at all costs—we eventually would end up with almost nothing but the most trivial of literature. The situation is governed by a simple equation: triviality equals popularity equals marketability equals profit. There is definitely something fundamentally wrong with a system in which the decision makers—those who, in the final analysis, determine what we read—are my favorite villains: marketing directors and literary agents. Anna Karenina would have absolutely no chance with these guys. (The world of the publishing industry is the subject of my satirical novel The Book.)
My prime ambition is by no means to become a best-selling author, to get rich. My kind of fiction will always have a limited readership, and I have no intention of changing it to make it more “marketable” or to increase the number of my readers. (Actually, even if I wanted to do that, I doubt I would be able.) Much more than quantity I am interested in quality when it comes to readers. My ideal is to have only quality readers, and they are, by definition, a rare breed.
It is no wonder then that all my attempts to find a major US or UK publisher have failed. My fiction simply does not fit the requirements of the publishing industry, at least not in the English language. Besides, I am a foreign author. But I have no reason to complain. Nearly all my books have been published in the US and UK by small presses. These are mostly beautiful editions of which I am very proud. My three Aio Publishing books are, as graphic products, real objets d’art. Also, my seven PS Publishing books are exquisite limited editions.
I see small, independent presses as a sort of resistance movement. The enemy they are resisting is strong and merciless, but not without certain weaknesses. The more trivial books the publishing industry produces, the more small presses can publish quality literature, including translations. And small presses are very fortunate not to have marketing directors and not to need the services of literary agents. They could even bring out Anna Karenina.
MM: How do you think technology—especially the Internet and the e-book—will affect the evolution of serious fiction? How do you view the imminent republication (by PS Publishing) of several of your works as e-books?
ZZ: The introduction of digital books is revolutionary in many ways. There is no doubt that an e-book has many advantages compared to its paper ancestor. This step is much bigger than the previous revolution, when printed books replaced handwritten ones. The possibility of having a huge library in a device smaller than an average paper book is truly amazing. Besides, the revolution is far from over yet.
But although revolutionary, this development is basically a change of form, not essence. Regardless of its numerous excellent features, a digital book is still a book. A container for text. The quality of the container is very welcome, of course, but it’s useless if the content is worthless. The essence is the quality of text—what we read, not what container we use for reading. A cheap secondhand paperback edition of Anna Karenina is far superior to the most sophisticated digital edition of a trivial piece of fiction.
By the time this interview appears, all seven of my books that PS Publishing brought out in the previous decade, plus The Fourth Circle and The Ghostwriter, will be available from them in digital editions. (Only Hidden Camera and The Five Wonders of the Danube are not included.) It remains to be seen how digital readers will respond to my e-books, but in any case I am glad I made this step into the future. I am still not old or conservative enough to believe that all good things are in the past.
Živković on Živković
MM: In all previous interviews, when asked to comment on individual works, you have demurred. Would you now, at this point in your career, be willing to discuss briefly the role your works played in your development as a writer of fiction?
ZZ: My fiction books didn’t originate in what one might define as a “natural” order—from simpler to more complex. In my opus there isn’t, in fact, any linear development. I didn’t start with the simplest and least ambitious works and advance toward the other end of the spectrum as I became more skillful and experienced. In such a linear spectrum, I couldn’t have possibly begun with The Fourth Circle—in many ways still the most complex of my books.
Considering the complexity of The Fourth Circle, it is no wonder that it took me so long to take the second step. It seemed that nothing less ambitious and comprehensive would have been appropriate. During nearly four years (1994–97), I was eager to start working on a new book—all the more so since I seemed to be getting occasional signals from my subconscious that a new critical mass had almost gathered. But all these signals proved to be false alarms. It was very fortunate that I was able to recognize the real nature of these apparent inspirational signs. If I hadn’t, I would have turned into one of those numerous authors who keep writing basically the same book all their life. For four years, everything new I was tempted to start writing was basically a continuation, in one way or another, of The Fourth Circle, so greatly was I influenced by my first book.
I embarked on a genuinely new fiction voyage only after I had managed to fully detach, to “decontaminate” myself, from The Fourth Circle. It was a long process that required a lot of patience and determination. I was, however, constantly aware that I had to go through it if I wanted to be an author. Many people manage to write their first book, but one truly becomes a writer only after the second book, which doesn’t happen very often.
Although, not being clairvoyant, I couldn’t have known it when Time Gifts appeared in late 1997, this tiny book was in many ways a landmark in my opus. First, it taught me that complexity is not the only virtue a writer should aim at. Equally virtuous is its exact opposite: simplicity. If The Fourth Circle was like a baroque cathedral, Time Gifts was like a Doric temple. I was so enchanted by its elemental architecture that it would be more than a decade before I returned to the baroque with Escher’s Loops (2008).
Second, Time Gifts was the beginning of a long series of books, more or less of the same modest size, now known as Impossible Stories. It comprises ten titles (Time Gifts, Impossible Encounters, Seven Touches of Music, The Library, Steps Through the Mist, Four Stories till the End, Twelve Collections, The Bridge, Miss Tamara, the Reader, and Amarcord), containing a total of sixty-five stories. I introduced the title Impossible Stories in 2004 when the first five parts were collected in one volume for a Serbian publication. The only complete edition of Impossible Stories so far appeared in 2010, published by the Belgrade-based publisher Zavod in two editions, one in Serbian, the other in English.
In an ideal world, Impossible Stories should be considered a single work, which brings me to the third important feature of Time Gifts—its composition. To put it simply, its whole is larger than the mere sum of its constituent parts—an amalgam, not a conglomerate. Each of the four stories in Time Gifts can be read as a stand-alone story, but only in the context of the whole book, especially the final segment, do they acquire full meaning. The same is valid for the entire series. Each of the ten titles can be published as a separate, stand-alone volume (how they mostly appear in various languages), but one gets the sense of completeness only after reading them all.
The fourth trait that made Time Gifts a landmark in my literary opus was the introduction of one of my pivotal motifs: the encounter and crossing of two realities, the world of the author and the world of his books. This was already hinted at in The Fourth Circle, in which a book is the first “object” to penetrate the barrier between parallel worlds. Books and their authors featured as protagonists in many of my subsequent fiction works—The Book, The Writer, Impossible Encounters, The Library, Hidden Camera, Four Stories till the End, Miss Tamara, the Reader, The Last Book, and The Ghostwriter—more than half of what I have written so far.
The two books that followed Time Gifts were important for their general humorous tone: satirical in The Book (the decline of the Gutenberg era) and ironic in The Writer (the clash of two authors’ vanities). It was essential that humor already appeared in my early books because it is probably the greatest challenge for an author. One either passes that exam or fails as a prosaist.
There is a curiosity related to each of these books. Although my third published, The Writer was my second written piece of fiction. It was completed in a mere two weeks, while I was on vacation on the Mediterranean island of Malta, in summer 1996. It was so hot there that—unlike my wife and twin sons, who can stand almost any heat and even enjoy it—I spent most of my time in a well-air-conditioned hotel lobby. It happened to be a rather convenient environment for writing this brief novel—so brief that I published it only after Time Gifts because I was unsure it could be considered a stand-alone work, even by my standards, which are far more flexible than those of the publishing industry. When eventually it did appear, I decided to add a subtitle, just in case: “A very brief novel, without chapters, about writing and darkness.” The Writer is unique in a more technical way. I wrote it entirely by hand, in a notebook. The laptop era was then more than a decade in the future.
I wrote The Book on my computer in spring 1999, during occasional intervals when there was electricity, between air raids in Belgrade. That was the time of the NATO campaign against my country that lasted nearly three months. I remember my frustration when I couldn’t use my computer during blackouts (still no laptops then). I tried to write with a pencil on paper, but for some reason I wasn’t able to repeat what I managed to do so easily on Malta.
It might seem paradoxical that my most humorous book originated in the least humorous circumstances. But there isn’t actually any paradox. Writing The Book was my vital response to the threat of death that, quite literally, constantly hovered above us. (I almost got killed, together with my family, when the Chinese Embassy, just across the street, was bombed, allegedly by mistake. . . .) The biophilic forces in me were strongly opposing the thanatotic ones.
It was also between air raids that I got an offer from Northwestern University Press for publication of Time Gifts. In any other circumstances this would have been a cause for celebration, but at first I was totally confused, not knowing what would be a proper reaction. A U.S. publisher was interested in my book at the same time U.S. bombers were fatally active in the skies of Serbia. Elemental patriotic imperative required that I decline the offer, but after a careful consideration I realized that this situation was not that elemental. At Northwestern they were certainly aware not only of my position but also of their own. They risked being accused of lack of patriotism even more. If in that situation they decided to extend their hand, I simply had no moral right to refuse it. I accepted—and never regretted it.
In quick succession, in just over three years after The Book (2000–2003), I wrote four more mosaic novels: Impossible Encounters, Seven Touches of Music, The Library, and Steps Through the Mist. With the exception of The Library, they all originally appeared in English in the UK monthly magazine Interzone, the only place for my fiction in the English language during that period. With as many as nineteen published stories, I was one of its most frequent contributors at that time. The Library had a privileged position in the third issue of the Leviathan series of anthologies, which were brought out in the United States: each of its six parts began with one of the stories in The Library. It was that edition of The Library that won the World Fantasy Award in 2003 in the novella category.
Although I consider each of the first five Impossible Stories significant in its own way, The Library is probably the most important. It is my most widely translated book, with fourteen foreign editions so far and several more forthcoming. The second of its six parts, “Home Library,” is, I believe, exemplary of my idiosyncratic approach to the art of the fantastic. All the essential keys of my poetics are contained in it.
After Steps Through the Mist I took a welcome break from writing mosaic novels. Although I was certain that the series was far from complete, if I had continued to write it, I would have become a far too “specialized” author. The time had come to show some versatility. Again, two humorous books ensued—Hidden Camera and Compartments.
With its specific humor of the paranoid, Hidden Camera inaugurated another pivotal motif: the idea of art and love as our ultimate line of defense against mortality. Eros and thanatos perform an intricate dance in this novel. Without humor, its choreography would be too macabre, not, as seemed to me far more proper, a delicate ballet.
Compartments is based on a different kind of humor—the humor of the absurd. The progress of an innocent passenger through a train coach (the word “train” is never used in the book), full of bizarre and absurdly comical travelers in their six compartments, with the conductor as a modern-day Virgil, was meant to be a metaphor for life and our uncertain and unreliable quest for its meaning, which is often full of absurdities. The most we can hope for when we leave the final compartment is hope itself.
The second half of Impossible Stories (Four Stories till the End, Twelve Collections, The Bridge, Miss Tamara, the Reader, and Amarcord) is founded on two elements pivotal in Hidden Camera and Compartments. Thematically, these books are variations of the dance of eros and thanatos, although humor is their dominant tone. I used mostly darker shades of humor, as appropriate for the context of the stories. The only exception is probably Amarcord, which is more akin to the first five mosaic novels, thus closing the entire series in a circle.
I am not supposed, of course, to have favorites among my own books, but were I to do so, it would be Miss Tamara, the Reader. In this book I believe I came as close to my ideals of a mosaic novel as falls within my abilities.
The four novels published after the Impossible Stories series was completed are rather different among themselves—a quality important for an author whose opus consists of close to twenty titles, by which point certain similarities between books seem more or less inevitable. The Last Book is a kind of metafictional thriller. Although the finale—with its intersection of two realities, that of the writer and that of the characters—probably betrays the expectations of fans of the classic detective novel, it is by far my best-selling book. In Italy alone it sold nearly twenty thousand copies in a mere year and a half—quite an achievement for a writer whose natural print runs are rather smaller.
Escher’s Loops is—as discreetly pointed out in its dedication—an experiment in what I call “nonlinear narrative geometries.” This book is not about Escher (his name is mentioned only in the title), but its structure is based on his non-Euclidean geometries. Its complexity requires a very attentive and patient reader. I tried to do in fiction what Escher did in his paradoxical weird drawings. Who knows? In the long run, this might be my principal contribution to the art of literature.
The Ghostwriter is my second novel to contain some autobiographical elements (the first is The Writer). I simply had to pay a huge debt to my tomcat Buca (“Fatty”) who, since 2001, has always been somewhere in my vicinity, mostly on my desk, while I was writing my fiction. With time, Buca became sort of my literary alter ego. The Writer and The Ghostwriter are also my only two entirely realistic novels. In both of them I tried to penetrate as deeply as I could into one of the greatest mysteries of all—the mystery of literary creation. Curiously, I didn’t need any fantastical elements for that purpose.
I was convinced that The Ghostwriter appropriately concluded my literary opus. The more so since a year after it was published (2009) my collected fiction appeared in two volumes (Novels and Impossible Stories) in both Serbian and English editions. Besides, at that time I had a strong impression that I had said what there was for me to say in literature. As I teach my students, one of the greatest virtues of an author is to know when to stop writing. Alas, only the rare ones choose the right moment.
I did, however, continue, and in the most unusual way. As if, by a miracle, I found myself in the world of The Ghostwriter, I got an offer to write a novel about the Danube River. A member of the Serbian government approached me in early June 2010 and told me that they were supposed to provide a Serbian cultural contribution to a big international project called “The Danube Initiative.”
At first I refused. Not because I thought I was not a writer for hire, but for a simpler reason—I knew I wouldn’t be able to write anything that wasn’t already fully shaped in my subconscious. But about two weeks later I called the minister to accept their offer. I didn’t go into detail. How could I explain to a politician that it was actually my subconscious mind that had decided to accept the challenge?
Writing The Five Wonders of the Danube in a mere 164 days nearly killed me. Quite literally. Under the terrible tension of a very tight deadline, the necessity of coordinating its translation into four languages, as well as my numerous professional and other obligations, my blood pressure soared dangerously high. It took me a long month and a half, in late December 2010 and January 2011, to get it back under control. Had it killed me at that dramatic time, I could think of only two consolations. First, it wouldn’t be entirely in vain because I was aware I had written a novel I had no reason not to be proud of. Second, such an ending would be very seemly for a writer. Indeed, what more can an author hope for but to die for his art?
Fortunately, I survived the ordeal. My rational self now warns me that I should learn a lesson from what I went through. Writing a new book could easily be counterproductive. I can’t hope to create good books forever. No one can. A poor book, however, would cast a shadow over my entire opus, and it could well be the next one. Also, I have to be very careful about my writing circumstances. I am not getting any younger. Deadlines or similar technical restrictions could be rather hazardous to my health. No benefit, however lucrative, is sufficient compensation for ruined health, let alone for the worst outcome.
Unfortunately, I have another, dark, irrational self that shares the same space from which my fiction originates. It very rarely, if ever, listens to the voice of reason. If it decided to accept a new challenge, to awaken me one morning with the initial sentence of or an image from a new literary work, I would have no alternative but to obediently accept its gift. For better or worse.