Živković: Review of “The Five Wonders of the Danube” in Foundation No. 123

Zoran Živković, The Five Wonders of the Danube, trans. Alice Copple-Tošić (Belgrade: Zavod za udžbenike, 2011, 308pp; RSD1760; ISBN: 978-86-17-17494-9)

Reviewed by Paul March-Russell (University of Kent)

Longlisted for the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Zoran Živković’s remarkable book is sadly still only available from Serbia (which is why, contrary to customary practice, both the price in Serbian Dinar and ISBN have been included above). Over and above the fantastical tales that Živković relates, the book is an object of beauty. Published in hardback with dimensions of 28.5cm x 21cm and beautifully illustrated throughout by Boris Kuzmanović in what I take to be ink and pen drawing, it demands to be held, weighed and studied. Each of the five sections is colour-coded to match the respective bridges — black, yellow, red, white and blue — with extra-large borders both at the top and the sides of the printed text. Furthermore, each section is prefaced by a series of drawings that not only refer obliquely to the next story (or chapter) but are also placed sequentially under successive layers of tracing paper. The effect resembles that of a palimpsest in which the drawings are at first glimpsed one under another, only to be fully revealed as the reader turns the page, or are obscured altogether. The evanescent quality of the drawings and their gradual or sudden revelation perfectly complements the mysterious effect of Živković’s text.

The overlapping of the boundaries between form and content, text and image, strikes deep at what Živković has attempted to do in this book, although frequent readers of his will see thematic and structural similarities with his previous fiction. For one thing, it is hard to say whether it is a collection of short stories or a fully-fledged novel, a problem of taxonomy that has persisted since his first short fiction work, Time Gifts (1997). ‘Short story cycle’ or ‘short story sequence’ might be better descriptors but neither quite captures the combined effect of Živković’s text since both over-privilege formal unity at the expense of readerly pleasure. This is not to suggest that the book is disorganized but that, in keeping with its setting, it takes a less denotational form as its structural template: the Viennese waltz. If the opening illustrations form an introduction to the whole piece, we then have five sections that vary the basic themes in increasingly complex patterns until the final section offers a recapitulation of the entire work. This structure, although lending coherence to the whole, does not round it off in any simple terms. Instead, as the final quartet of questions imply, alongside (in Walter Pater’s terms) the more general aspiration to the condition of music, the text is constantly attempting to slip its own generic boundaries; to become an indefinite process rather than an easily categorized product.

Following Pater’s argument in his essay, ‘The School of Giorgione’ (The Renaissance [1873]), artworks may be decipherable in themselves but the greatest examples are always straining at their generic limits to merge with the conventions of other media. It is no coincidence, then, that Živković’s stories revolve around other artforms: painting, drama, sculpture, literature, cinema, music. Like the intimacy of the waltz (and is it by chance that one of the characters reads Anna Karenina with its celebrated waltz sequence?), the prose fiction touches each of these forms: the sensual sub-text of which is made manifest in the final story where the river rushes the reader back from Regensburg to Novi Sad in a euphoric revisitation of the overarching narrative. Such sensuality — the jouissance or ecstatic bliss favoured by French poststructural critics such as Roland Barthes — is not only complemented but also given hands-on, tactile pleasure by the book itself. Above all else, this is a text that delights both in its own creation and in its remaking by the reader.

Representation, then, is part of the text’s active production of meaning. The first story describes the mysterious appearance of a large painting on the Black Bridge at Regensburg. (It may be that real-world counterparts can be found — there really is a yellow bridge in Vienna — but, as the last story indicates, Živković’s use of the bridges is for imaginative rather than allegorical purposes.) A succession of ever more senior and sinister officials attempt to decipher and lay claim upon the painting, but as the bridge guard realizes early on, its depiction of the natural world is indivisible from its location on the bridge: ‘The scene beyond the railing on the canvas was the same as that beyond the real railing’. Like René Magritte’s The Human Condition (1933), the painting transgresses its mimesis to become the very thing it represents. The inability of the officials to even detach the artwork from the bridge — something which the persistent gulls effortlessly do — embodies their failure to extract an understanding of the external world from their own preconceptions. In contrast to the absurd logic of officialdom, Živković suggests that the artistic imagination has the capacity to go beyond the surface representation of things.

The second story, which might or might not be set on the same Sunday as the other stories, features five characters — a theatre prompter, a contract killer, a prostitute, a thief and a nun — who each momentarily stop at the same time on the Yellow Bridge. Their individual back-stories suggest that they have each simultaneously paused because of some connection with death. In, what the reader assumes to be, a series of dream-sequences, they each revisit their anxieties but drawing upon details known only to the other characters. A final pay-off suggests that these might not have been dreams after all but could be related to the objective world; even so, the story suggests that there has been some kind of telepathic understanding between the characters at the level of a collective unconscious. As with the first story’s foregrounding of mimesis, this theme is revisited in the final tale’s bravura performance.

In this respect, Živković reveals himself to be a true surrealist by piercing the veil of manifest reality to expose the latent content of the dream-world. The third story, in which two homeless people, just so they can keep warm, burn not  only the works of Dostoevsky but also the manuscript that one of them has been writing, begins in existential angst but ends with an injunction to the beauty of the marvellous. The barrels that the characters sleep in evoke similar receptacles in the plays of Samuel Beckett (Endgame [1958]; Play [1963]). But the story also invokes Mikhail Bulgakov’s statement that ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’ and, true enough, once the fictions have been destroyed passers-by continue to see patterns in the water ‘as though reflecting a gigantic manuscript from above.’ The power of art to illuminate dull reality is also seen in the carvings that the homeless Isaac makes and scatters to the river.

The fourth story counterpoints its predecessor by focusing upon a composer and conductor whose inspiration for music comes directly from the White Bridge in Budapest, but which also arrives at the expense of those closest to him. Although the tale poses the worthwhile question as to the moral value of art, this conundrum is set into the context of another riddle: to what extent are the bridges that have been described sentient? The Blue Bridge of the final story is fully anthropomorphized and, here, the focus is not on the living characters of the earlier stories but upon the dead and the animal world. The hero is a dog, driven by instinct to bark at birds, and just as well he is since the gulls from the first story now make their reappearance. Throughout the collection, however, there have been varying levels of reality — the representation of art, the dreamworld, the materiality of language, the ‘time windows’ in the fourth story — and a preoccupation with the lives of animals as sentient, alien intelligences. In this final story, the folly of human accomplishments is offset by the naivety of the dog, whose innocence not only permits him to save the day but to also pass between the barriers of art and life. Paradoxically, it is the dog rather than any of the human characters who embodies both Živković’s ideal of the artist and a quintessentially Surrealist defence of the naÏf, the outsider or dispossessed.

As with the best of Živković’s prose, The Five Wonders of the Danube resists easy categorization, but its ironic amusement at the complexities of truth and perception should entertain readers of sf and experimental fiction alike. It is a sumptuous book, not only in the pleasure of its storytelling but also in the enjoyment of its own physicality. U.K. and U.S. publishers, please take note, and make this book more widely available.