The beginning to Zoran Zivkovic’s 1998 novella, Pisac (The Writer), is in many ways typical of his writing. There rarely are flashy, attention-grabbing moments in these introductory paragraphs. Rather, almost the inverse is true, as he frequently begins with the most mundane of events (here, the simple powering up of a computer) before some peculiar trait of the narrator sends the narrative careening off into something remarkable. Ambiance, as the anonymous narrator notes, is almost everything when it comes to Zivkovic’s stories and this is especially true for The Writer, the first of a triptych of stories that involves the writer-text-reader semantic triangle.
Plot may not seem to be a primary emphasis, yet The Writer depends heavily upon the intricate placing of narrative developments. As the writer tries to compose a tale, his dependency upon shades of light and darkness takes on several forms throughout the novella. His musings about his difficulties (a theme that Zivkovic would revisit in several other stories, each time with a different permutation) are stacked upon each other, creating a catalog of issues that somehow, in their seemingly digressive fashion, manages to suck the reader into considering them at hand. This meticulous assembly of the conundrums the writer faces may not appear at first to be akin to a crime novelist’s revelations of clues, yet there is a certain familial relationship in how each is presented to the reader. Zivkovic’s carefulness in parsing out of information related to the writer and his attempts to write pays dividends by story’s end.
Characterization is also surprisingly well-done, considering the paucity of characters (two) and the amount of time devoted to exploring the narrator/writer’s internal thoughts and actions. With precise wording (the English translation does a good job of capturing the essence of the Serbian original, although at several points the sentence structure had to be broken in order to preserve more of the narrative’s “ambiance”), Zivkovic creates quirky, obsessive characters whose occasional single-mindedness leads to some amusing scenes, such as the pseudo-Freudian interrogation of the writer’s childhood by the writer’s so-called friend (himself a writer of sorts, albeit a possibly deluded one). These oddball moments add a levity to the narrative that makes it as much a story about humanity as it is about the addictive art of literary composition.
As hinted at above, Zivkovic’s prose, in both the original and in translation, is nearly pitch-perfect. He is a writer who creates “atmospheric” settings that feel simultaneously plausible and utterly strange. He never rushes the development of setting, events, or characters, yet his narratives (and this is especially true here, as The Writer is around 30 pages in the omnibus The Writer/The Book/The Reader translation published by PS Publishing) are very compact, with almost no wasted space or energy. Yet there is a sense of grandness behind this intimate story that belies its brevity. The result is a story that is simple in its presentation and yet very nuanced in its details.
The Writer, as one of Zivkovic’s earlier works, can almost be seen as an ur-text of sorts for his later writings. The structure of the narrative, beginning and ending with simple, mundane actions, along with the character type of the narrator, is seen, at least in glimpses, multiple times in his latter works. Yet here (as well as in most of his other tales), these familiar elements do not equate to staid stories, as there is always some unique element (perhaps a different mental train of thoughts from a common point, or a more or less fantastical component) that makes each story different from each other. Certainly The Writer is a well-written story in its own right; it is merely a bonus to see certain connections between it and Zivkovic’s latter works that enrich both.
Other Larry Nolen’s reviews of Zoran Zivkovic’s books of fiction can be found here.