Kurodahan paperback �6
review by Maureen Kincaid Speller
Once, in a second-hand bookshop, I found a book with a small hole neatly punched all the way through it, a hole made by a bookworm that had
eaten its way from one cover to the other. Like most habitual readers I have been called a 'bookworm' more times than I care to remember. It
seems so difficult for people to understand that as we need to fill our stomachs with food, so too we need also to fill our eyes and minds
with words and ideas. I wear the description as a badge of honour, of course; I read in the same way as I breathe. However, when I think of
that small hole, drilled so precisely through the text, I wonder whether I shouldn't be more careful about the labels I give myself. While
the book was meat and drink to the bookworm, it could hardly be said to have 'read' the book. A consuming passion is all very fine but it
surely blinkers one's judgement.
What does that say about the bibliophile, the human bookworm who is supposed to have entered into an all-consuming relationship with books?
There are degrees of loving, and a great difference between always having books around one, and loving them so intensely that they take over.
The library, even more than the bookshop, is the symbol of ultimate bookish availability - books on tap, no money to pay - as well as offering
security and certainty, something which all the narrators of Zoran �ivković's six thematically linked stories seem to crave. Yet all of
them seem to teeter on the brink of a madness brought about by their engagement with books and �ivković gently but persistently probes the
defences of his characters, as if testing them, to find out how much a person really can stand when gripped by a love of or craving for books.
�ivković's narrators are already an odd lot. They are solitary by nature, living routine lives in sparsely furnished apartments, barely
sufficient to contain their occupants. One character lives in a flat so small he dare not have bookshelves, for, as he says, "books devour
space." They seem not to have friends or family; their only interactions are with booksellers or librarians or faceless correspondents online.
Some are writers, others readers, but either way they leave little trace of their passage through the world. Furthermore, as they are all
first-person narrators, their accounts are not to be relied upon, even if they seem quite matter of fact about the events they experience,
and indeed punctilious to a fault in describing them.
Some of the events begin in the most matter-of-fact ways. In The Virtual Library, the narrator, irritated by the spam email he cannot
seem to get rid of, accidentally reads one and finds himself confronting his life's work as a bibliography, filled with the books he might
write, and the times at which he might die. What can one do with such knowledge? The narrator himself seems uncertain; the ending is, for him,
unsatisfactory. The theme of self-knowledge resurfaces in Night Library, when an anxious narrator, who has just spent two fidgety hours
in the cinema, wishing he'd gone to the library before the film, wondering how he will survive a long weekend without fresh books if the library
is closed, reaches the building, as he thinks, just in time, only to find himself shut in for the night.
This is, of course, the ultimate dream of the young and avid reader but �ivković's storyteller is displeased, until he finds that he has
stumbled into a completely different library which contains the biography of everyone who has ever existed, dossiers which are bound when the
individual dies. One thinks inevitably of totalitarian states, a point the narrator himself makes. Even when he is reassured that this is not
the library's purpose, the narrator is overwhelmed by the wealth of mundane detail in his file, down to the number of the ticket he bought at
the cinema earlier that evening, and this throws open questions for the reader, about biographical writing, about the library's role as a
container for information - who will ever make use of all this? How can a life be compressed between the pages of a single book?
The Home Library addresses this information overload again. Here, �ivković's narrator, the one with no bookshelves, suffers from
obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He dusts the interior of his mailbox once a week, although he barely receives any post. He counts the steps
up to and down from his apartment; the tallies are different, depending on which way he is going. When he discovers a volume of 'World Literature'
in his mailbox, and then another, and another, his condition drives him to constantly check the mailbox every few seconds. His struggle to cope
with the flood of words is reminiscent of the attempts of the sorcerer's apprentice to stem the flow of water, and all of this is carefully,
excessively described. When, thousands of volumes later, he is confronted with the sum total of world literature, and his life has become
literally made of books, the reader can only wonder how he will cope.
The power of books to take over one's life resurfaces in Smallest Library, when a stalled writer receives a book entitled 'The Smallest
Library'. Every time he opens it, it offers him an entirely new story, and the narrator becomes obsessed with saving these novels until he
realises that there is only one way to do so, which in turn invites the reader to consider what it means to write a book. Is it an act of
imagination or something altogether different? What is creativity? Is it really just another form of copying?
Even beyond the grave, the reader is not safe. In Infernal Library, Hell has become a reading therapy centre in which the perceived
capacity of literature to do one good is pushed to its furthest extremity, with the Devil dishing out reading tasks to people who arrive at
his door. Finally, the bookworm turns, as the owner of the Noble Library, composed entirely of hardback books, tries to dispose of a
rogue paperback which will not go away. The reader comes to realise it is the book that she is currently reading. How the narrator succeeds
in getting rid of it, I leave to the imagination but it seems appropriate in the circumstances.
�ivković works in what is described as the "European tradition of fantastika" and comparisons are drawn with Kafka and Borges. But �ivković
is not writing magical realism as it is nowadays understood, nor indeed working in a surrealist idiom. His stories are akin to those of Borges
insofar as he takes a metaphysical rather than a magical approach in his writing. His stories are almost hyper-realistic in their attention to
detail, and the elements of the fantastic insinuate themselves silently into the story rather than irrupting noisily and unexpectedly. It's a
quiet form of storytelling, but extremely effective and, slim as this volume is; it repays careful re-reading, because so much is going on below
the surface. After reading them, it will be impossible to look at a book or visit a library without wondering just what is really going on.