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Impossible Stories cover

PS Publishing have done the world an immense favour by releasing, between one set of covers, five of Zoran Živkovi?'s story cycles, plus one more story to end with, all topped and tailed with explanatory pieces by Paul Di Filippo and Tamar Yellin. His writing draws from that magical realist tradition whose most frequently dropped names include Mikhail Bulgakov, Salman Rushdie, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isabel Allende, not forgetting his geographical neighbour Ismail Kadarë; but he brings to his work a humane, humanist, European perspective, creating images and experiences through his prose which remain with the reader for a long time.

The five story cycles here have each been published separately before, both by Živkovi?'s own publishing house in Belgrade and in a couple of cases by other small presses; and of course many of the stories first saw the light of day elsewhere (19 of the 29 in Interzone). There is little to specifically mark the author's nationality (with one or two exceptions, mentioned below). In most of the stories, the setting is a generic city in a temperate and often rainy climate, with few specific details given—apart from one story, explicitly about the death of Albert Einstein. A recurring theme is that of the author's relationship with his works, and with the act of creativity; is it a supernatural ability, perhaps even stemming from an infernal source? The Devil is frequently invoked; God appears once (to a banker in a railway carriage).

In the four stories that make up Time-Gifts, a supernatural visitor—perhaps to be identified with the Devil, or perhaps with the author—offers a very limited gift of time travel to each of the four protagonists. An astronomer persecuted by the Church is taken to the future, to discover that his prison will eventually become an observatory: if he does not recant his research, he will be executed, but it will be named after him. A scholar of ancient languages is taken to the past to find out if her theories are correct. A watch-maker is offered a second chance to prevent his wife's death, an alternative present rather than a future or a past. And finally a woman tries to persuade her psychiatrist that they, too, are in one of the stories, which a mysterious visitor has been telling her. This approach—taking a simple theme and exploring it in several different ways, with a final story which wraps up the cycle, usually referring back to the earlier pieces and reflecting on the overall theme—is typical of Živkovi?.

But these four stories seemed to me to have a particular symbolism in the names of the characters, which I did not find elsewhere in the collection. The astronomer's name is Lazar, reminiscent of course of Lazarus from the Gospel of St John, but even more of the medieval Serbian king of the same name killed at the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, having—according to legend—been offered the choice between victory and rule over an earthly kingdom, or defeat and a heavenly kingdom. The paleolinguist, Eva, is returned to a state of paradise at the dawn of humanity. The watchmaker and his wife are Joseph and Mary, though they have no divine offspring; however, Joseph was also the middle name of the late Roger Zelazny, whose short story "Divine Madness" has a similar plot. Finally, we are left to decide for ourselves if Magdalena in the last story has had encounters with demonic forces, like her New Testament counterpart, or with someone or something else entirely. (Names are slippery things, of course; a completely different person called Zoran Živkovi? was prime minister of Serbia for a few months in 2003. I am probably one of the few people outside Serbia who has met both of them.)

Of the other sequences, I particularly like The Library, six stories in which books take on a life of their own. These are the only stories told in the first person, and the protagonists are clearly different people. An author finds that his entire oeuvre—in fact, his past works and all his possible future works—is online, briefly. A book collector gets an unending supply of world literature. A library user finds his past life on record in the local library after hours. Hell turns out to be compulsory reading, for eternity. A book bought by chance from a market stall has magical contents which can only be exorcised by writing them down. And finally, the entire cycle of stories proves impossible to mislay by accident, and must be digested. The cycle allows Živkovi? to explore and fantasise about the relationship between author, text, and reader—but where a lesser talent would slip into self-indulgence, Živkovi? combines authentic modesty and memorable imagery to create a set of worlds that linger in the reader's memory.

The other cycles each have highlights—the riff in Impossible Encounters on a Borges story about meeting one's younger self, except that in Živkovi?'s case it is the younger self who tells the story; the child who discovers the number at the centre of the universe in Seven Touches of Music; and the alarming alarm clock in Steps through the Mist. But I will leave readers to discover these delights for themselves. The final story sees the author telephoned by the Devil, and offered the same choice as the astronomer of the first story (and indeed as the medieval Prince Lazar was, before the Battle of Kosovo)—success in this life, at the cost of literary integrity, or posthumous fame. Which does he choose? Well, we are not told, exactly; but then again, perhaps we are.

Nicholas Whyte works in international politics in Brussels, Belgium, and reads SF unashamedly.

Nicholas Whyte (email Nicholas) works in international politics in Brussels, Belgium, and is an unashamed Doctor Who fan.
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