There are innumerable over-used comparisons that lie temptingly at the finger-tips of literary reviewers. One of these is "Kafkaesque." Another is "Borgesian." This review will resolutely refuse to mention The Trial or The Aleph, in an attempt to give Serbia's leading writer of the absurd, Zoran Zivkovic, some deserved space to breath unaided.
Zivkovic's latest novel to be translated into English, Hidden Camera, was published in Serbia and Montenegro in 2003. Of course, several of the book's themes reflect concerns more immediate to Zivkovic's home culture than to our own: the pronounced distrust of rampant commercialism (churches hired out to the highest bidder, talented actors taking bum jobs for the cash), the mostly uncontrolled excesses of new and independent media, and a concentration on the marginalised and the weak. But Hidden Camera is something grander and rather more universal: a meditation on existence, and how we perceive, interpret, and categorise it.
The unnamed narrator, a self-conscious and accident-prone undertaker who spends his days with corpses and his evenings with his pet fish, becomes embroiled in what he assumes to be a hidden camera show, one of those examples of modern reality television that exhibits neither morality nor empathy. At first, his involvement is fairly innocuous: an invitation to a movie theatre which is showing a short film starring the narrator and the cinema's only other occupant, a beautiful but mysterious young woman. But as the narrator continues along the absurd road paved for him by his hidden tormentors, the situations in which he finds himself embroiled become increasingly hard to explain or dismiss. Indeed, the novel makes no attempt to illuminate the fantastical and impossible scenes in which the narrator finds himself—they simply are, and the reader is asked to adjust his or her lens for interpreting the real.
There is a sinister quality to these episodes which is heightened by Zivkovic's simple prose. The short, basic sentences convey not just the narrator's own fastidious sense of what is proper and acceptable, but also heighten the tension by underplaying the spectacle. The fantastic here slowly becomes an accepted part of reality—the narrator's conceptions of what is and is not explicable shift, and with them so too do the reader's. It must be said that the translation is a little unimaginative: whatever the Serbian phrases or idioms, we must assume there are less bathetic English variants than "gift horses" being looked in the mouth, or water shooting from a showerhead like "hot needles." More baroque prose could perhaps get away with such commonplace similes, but Zivkovic's spare style requires a little more imaginative seasoning, and from time to time the reader is left disengaged by the commonplace verbiage.
This is a pity, because Hidden Camera is otherwise a work of unexpected beauty and surprise. If the image of a man running around a dark and deserted city in pursuit of some unknowable, omnipresent organisation is not exactly innovative, what Zivkovic does with the concept remains philosophically interesting. In this novel meaning really does matter—it is not the senselessness of modern living which Zivkovic seeks to satirise, but the way in which modern living obscures sense and meaning. The surreal and unexplainable in Hidden Camera are far from pessimistic or hopeless—indeed, they open up new ways of thinking. The book asks us why we so rarely question our most basic assumptions, and seeks to show how a relatively simple shift of perspective can alter our entire picture of reality. The motives of the "hidden camera team" are never revealed, but that is because they are beside the point: the novel is aiming for something more important than that. Zivkovic is seeking to communicate something about the nature of life and death, of existence and non-existence, which bends perception into new and challenging shapes.
In doing so, he marries the comic to the melancholic with an enviable balance and lightness of touch. Our narrator is equal parts amusing buffoon and clumsy outcast, a tension that has the reader catching themselves indulging in precisely the amoral voyeurism to which the "hidden camera show" caters. For a book with so few characters—it has five, if one counts non-speaking parts and ones that last for a few pages—it is essential that Hidden Camera succeeds in involving us in the narrative, and it achieves this with some panache. The experience of reading the novel is much like watching "reality television", except with the limitations of "reality" stripped away: how will the protagonist react to this latest artificial obstacle, and what will he learn of his inner character and fortitude as a result? And isn’t it funny when he falls over or gets thrown around in the back of a speeding taxi?
The essential mysteries of life—where are we before we are born, and what happens to us once we are dead—are no more easily explained than the workings of the "hidden camera show", and neither the materialism of an undertaker, or the religion of the churches he visits on his rounds, provide completely entirely satisfactory explanations. But they are tackled in Hidden Camera with a calm, entertaining, and humble authority. Kafka and Borges would be proud.
Dan Hartland is a freelance creative thinker figuring out what to think. A writer and musician of the inverted commas variety, he splits his time equally between these two things and procrastination. He comes to science fiction from outside the genre, and is a little too happy to remain a gadfly.