Zoran Živković, The Ghostwriter (2009; 2010 English translation)

January 30th, 2013 § 0 comments

It should be no secret that Serbian author Zoran Živković is, in my opinion at least, one of the best storytellers writing today.  Over the past few years, I have reviewed several of his short fiction “story suites” (such as Steps Through the Mist and Twelve Collections and the Teashop) and his novel-length works (the most recent being the just-released UK edition of Escher’s Loops).  Almost without exception (leaving a bit of room for subjective “rankings” of books within that I shall never reveal to others openly), his stories have belied their short, simple appearance, divulging depths of theme and characterization that can pleasantly surprise a reader wanting merely a quick read and instead discovering an absorbing read that rarely fails to inform as well as entertain.  This is certainly the case with Živković’s most recent short novel, Pisac u Najam (English translation being The Ghostwriter), a fiction that is only available in Serbian editions (although I believe PS Publishing will be releasing the UK edition either late this year or sometime in 2011).

The Ghostwriter begins rather simply:  the Writer, whose real name is never expressed in the book, receives an interesting proposition from a pseudonymous Admirer:  write a novel for the Admirer and sign the rights over to the Admirer.  While one might wonder at first just how such a seemingly simple affair can be the basis of a novel that’s 127 pages in the original, as one reads on, that reader will discover a cleverness to the story that promises a resolution before looping into something far deeper and more moving than someone trying to hire out the Writer (I should note that the Serbian title, Pisac u Najam, literally means “writer for hire”).

Živković fleshes out this story by utilizing a mixture of emails and breaks to his feline companion, Felix.  As the mystery behind the Admirer grows, the Writer finds himself interrupted, first by Felix (whose feline foibles are recounted fondly by the Writer) and then from four email regulars, each of them with his or her own agendas.  At first, these interruptions seem to distract from the mystery of the Admirer and just why s/he would want the Writer to write a novel and sign it off to that pseudonymous Admirer.  However, Živković artfully imbues each succeeding email and the persons behind them with his or her own quirky and fascinating personas.  Just why is a jealous fellow writer emailing the Writer so much?  Why is a half-crazed woman detailing her dreams to the Writer, who she refers to by his email pseudonym (and his cat’s name) of Felix?  Why is another aspiring writer composing pastiches of the Writer’s works and signing them off as the Writer himself?  Why is another woman begging the Writer to compose a story that would cheer her ailing dog Albert?

As the Writer struggles to keep pace with their demands and to figure out more about their increasingly odd demands, not to mention still trying to suss out who this Admirer might be, the reader perhaps has shifted his or her focus away from just the issue of the startling proposal from the Admirer to that of the Writer’s life and those who flit and move about through it.   Živković manages to not just delay the payoff to the entire angle, but to create new webs that are interwoven with this first, seemingly central mystery.  This narrative tension rises until the final two paragraphs in the novel, when the clues to not just the Admirer’s identity, but also to the real subject of this tale, are revealed in a way that surprised me and yet made the entire story all the more meaningful for how adroitly Živković managed to delay me finding out if my suspicions were correct (in fact, they were wrong and yet in hindsight I should have known better, which is a testimony to the author and not a condemnation of my abilities as a reader).

The Ghostwriter, although it is more narrow in its focus and not as all-encompassing as was Escher’s Loops, was yet another enjoyable read.  The characters were developed through their words and not their actions, but yet there was this sense that behind the words, much was transpiring that had to be imagined more than just discovered from reading the text.  The prose was in some fashions similar to that of Živković’s Hidden Camera, with each having their own quirky, mildly obsessive protagonists.  However, The Ghostwriter contains allusions to certain quasi-Faustian deals that writers have to make that part of the fun here was seeing just how (or if) the Writer would ever break and give in to the desires of those surrounding him.  I suspect a re-read will reveal even more layerings here.  As it stands, The Ghostwriter was a great read and should be sought after whenever the English-language editions become available in the non-Serbian market.  Highly recommended.

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