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Miss Tamara, The Reader
Zoran �ivković
Kurodahan paperback �6

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

Miss Tamara is not just a reader; she is 'the reader'. It is a bold claim, but the more one investigates it, by reading the eight stories in this collection, the more puzzling that claim becomes. What does it actually mean?

It might mean that Miss Tamara is the ne plus ultra of readers, the very best of them, and indeed there is a certain sense of that about her in the way she conducts her reading activities. For her, reading is a performance; I have very little sense of her actually enjoying what she reads, or indeed the act of reading itself. She eats fruit while she reads; fruit that is carefully cut up, neatly arranged on a plate, and consumed to a precise pattern. This is, according to her, 'healthy reading', a virtuous activity rather than a pleasure. Miss Tamara has particular daily reading hours, and her friends know not to disturb her during those times.

One begins to wonder whether reading isn't so much a pleasure to Miss Tamara as a job of work. She is punctilious about her reading, rather than careless in the way that most avid readers seem to be, grabbing reading time wherever and whenever they can. Miss Tamara does not live to read, but if she reads to live, the precise nature of the arrangement remains obscure. Miss Tamara seems to float free in fictional space, unattached to any particular narrative arc. Which is not to say that Miss Tamara is a lonely, embittered woman with no friends; she apparently has friends, good ones on whom she can call for help when she needs it, and she clearly has a life away from the story's page - there is one slight, mysterious mention of her reading aloud on radio; is this what she does for a living? - But trying to piece it together requires almost forensic attention to details that may not even really exist.

The best way to look at Miss Tamara's situation, perhaps, is to see it as a series of adventures with books, maybe in books as well, for I harbour a suspicion that Miss Tamara doesn't so much have her own story as she constructs one, using elements from the books she reads. How else to account for the very peculiar set of experiences she undergoes during this collection of stories. There is an overarching theme of 'fruit' - each story-chapter is named after a different fruit, and Miss Tamara consumes barrow-loads of the stuff throughout the collection - but I think the fruit is more of a distraction than an actual help to the reader, although I equally think that author Zoran �ivković is poking some gentle fun at the contortions some writers put themselves through in order to structure a collection of stories around a theme.

This, though, is by the way, and in fact I think �ivković pushes the element of contrivance slightly too far. What I think is really happening here is that �ivković is using these stories to show the reader the bizarre worries that comprise Miss Tamara's interior life, while asserting his authority as writer to present her with a mysterious set of external events which may distract her from those concerns. Thus, stories such as Apples, Blackberries, Apricots, and Melons focus on the anxieties of the reader, but pushed to the extreme. Imagine, for example, becoming seized with the notion that all your books contain a toxic virus, and that the only way to deal with it is to destroy them all? Or suppose your new reading glasses actually obliterate the text upon the page rather than making it easier to read? Or that you are beset by a loss of memory so severe you cannot remember anything you have ever read? How can a committed reader cope with such deep fears? �ivković has the answer and guides Miss Tamara gently towards it.

The other stories, Lemons, Bananas, Gooseberries, and Fruit Salad, carry Miss Tamara out into the world, to meet and engage with other readers. Nonetheless, her anxieties follow her, manifesting themselves through a series of peculiar events. She is, for example, paid to read aloud a portion of a book and drink a glass of lemonade, several days running, for no seemingly sensible reason. She contracts blindness from a book she is asked to read. And she receives a mysterious set of instructions to be in certain places at certain times, to read, and to receive objects. We begin to wonder if Miss Tamara herself isn't a character in a particularly obscure detective novel. She is of course already a work of fiction, but is she a fiction within a fiction? It is not clear, but �ivkovi? obviously takes great delight in playing with his audience's expectations and preconceptions about fiction, and about readers, too.

When we read, he seems to ask, what is it we do, and what effect does it have upon the world? What is the power of the reader to keep a fictional work alive, or to bring it actually into being? As the reader, Miss Tamara both reads the text and also enacts it, inhabits it even, leading to an unnerving reinvention of the relationship between book and reader, when the imagine somehow becomes real.

These are tricky stories, literally. �ivković lays a skilful trail of connections between the individual stories, frequently catching the reader unawares. He works in the fantastika tradition, his stories echoing the tone of Kafka, the ideas of Borges, but �ivković's concerns are very much his own, and presented in a very distinctive way. It seems odd to say that I am enjoying writing about these stories a little more than I enjoyed reading them, but it is true. This, I suspect, reflects to some extent �ivković's intention for them. Stories live, Miss Tamara lives, as one starts to ask questions and explore the stories in great detail. They are not finite but respond to re-reading, to being questioned again.

Miss Tamara, The Reader by Zoran Zivkovic



copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press