Review of Zoran Živković - The Bridge

This is a difficult book to fully describe. If you'll indulge me I believe I know the best way of summarising The Bridge.

Imagine a drunken conversation between Franz Kafka and Salvador Dali, one in which Dali challenges Kafka to write a book based on a few compulsory elements suggested by the painter. Firstly each of the three linked stories must start with an impossible encounter (a man meets himself, a woman meets a dead former neighbour and a teenage girl meets her future son). Each story must feature an antagonist with red hair, a mismatched item of clothing, a pursuit (mostly on foot) and all must end at the same place - on the bridge of the book's title. Oh, and nothing in any of the stories must make any real sense, although the main characters must, in the end, accept everything.

That just about sums this book up. It gives a better overview than a direct explanation of the plot could.

For all its weirdness it is beautifully written - Zoran Živković's prose is always elegant. Even when his plot is this obscure his narrative flows wonderfully well. There are few authors who could sustain your interest when each tale can be viewed as a series of increasingly bizarre, random events. A man entering a brothel to eat flowers, playing a version of ten-pin bowling in a church with wine bottle for pins and a young man in a bath full of shoes are typical of the scenes you will encounter in this book. There are stranger.

He is also playing with the structure of the short story in this book. His are not the traditional tales of exposition into conflict rising to climax then denouement. He often begins his tales somewhere in the middle of nowhere, then meanders through a surrealistic fantasy analogue of our own world before dropping us off at a point some time later, not necessarily at a recognisable end point, having allowed us to share his unique world.

Don't start reading a Živković book expecting to be told the "whys" of the situation. You will rarely get the answers you want. In this book the encounters just happen - treat the fact a man can meet an alternate version of himself as reasonable and don't go looking for an explanation. Go with it!

It's worth the effort. Because if you can accept the variation from traditional story structure you will feel enriched by your visit, and you will certainly marvel at the writer's imaginings - even when you are struggling to understand how someone who dreams this stuff up is not in an asylum. But for all his flights of whimsical fantasy Živković's tales are very grounded.

The tales work so well because of their focus - the involvement and motives of the lead characters. The man in the first story follows himself for purely selfish reasons - he is afraid that the copy might cause him embarrassment. The woman in the second follows her dead neighbour out of a feeling of concern, the girl in the third out of a bizarre maternal instinct.

Živković has made these people real and, through them and their bafflement at the events they witness, we can connect with the story. Also when the tales end - usually abruptly - their acceptance of events allow us to accept them also.

This is the kind of fiction fans of David Lynch's more offbeat moments would enjoy. This is Twin Peaks on acid, dream-sequence style fiction - all overlaid with a very European sensibility. In short it is extraordinary. To anyone who has read Živković before this probably comes as little surprise. He is like a modern gritty urban Lewis Carroll.

His Alice is less likely to fall down a rabbit hole to find her fantasy world than enter through a shabby looking doorway in a seedy brothel. But for its extra dimension of edginess over Carroll's work, Živković has the same innocent whimsy. His characters may live in a world of murder, theft and deception but it's seemingly kept at arm's length - it never touches them directly.

Okay it might not be the best idea to be a friend of a Živković lead character - they can have a high mortality rate but their grisly, and usually bizarre, ends are remote from the action and not described in excessive detail. For his protagonists Life will just carry on getting slowly more and more unreal.

Živković has been an active writer in his native Yugoslavia / Serbia since the 1980s and has been a publisher, academic and even written and hosted a television show. Outside the Balkans though he has remained unknown. Thankfully in recent years translations of his work have seen publication both in the USA and UK from a variety of speciality presses.

The nature of these presses though results in his books being published in limited editions so few people will be reading his work in English. His work deserves to be read, but it is likely his books only ever see publication in the small presses and Zoran Živković will remain the greatest writer you've never heard of.

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