There are fantasists and there are master fantasists; I’d like to suggest that the masters reveal themselves not only by their greatest works, but by what are — for them and them only — lesser volumes. Steps Through the Mist, the latest of Serbian author Zoran Živković’s novels to be published in the USA, is a revelatory volume of this later sort; it confirms Živković’s status as a master. The book’s chief flaw is that there is simply not enough of it, leaving us wanting more.
In the United States, Steps Through the Mist follows 2006’s Seven Touches of Music (both first appeared in English in the UK magazine Interzone several years ago, and were part of 2006’s Impossible Stories omnibus from the UK’s PS Publishing). Like the previous American release, Steps Through the Mist is an exquisite slim black volume from Aio Publishing; like that earlier volume, Steps Through the Mist is a mosaic novel, a story suite of short fabulations linked both literally and in thematic concern. Here Živković’s concerns are predestination, fate and the future; in the five stories that make up his mosaic he builds a multifaceted view into how modern people might relate to having, knowing and choosing their own fates — and those of others.
Many of Živković’s best-known mosaic novels (the World Fantasy Award-winning The Library, Seven Touches of Music, Twelve Collections, etc.) have followed a similar pattern: a series of seemingly-independent short stories that are drawn together and into a greater aggregate by the concluding story. Steps Through the Mist however diverges from this pattern as a matter of artistic necessity given the themes of fate and future knowledge. Here the first story, “Disorder in the Head,” foretells the following four.
“Disorder” tells of Miss Emily, a teacher at a girl’s school, who is confronted with a teenage student who claims to have dreamed the dreams of three other students — and of Miss Emily herself. Emily, orderly and unimaginative, will have none of it:
The conversation had taken an unexpected turn and [Miss Emily] was no longer in complete control. She had to put an end to this nonsense as soon as possible.
“I think that’s enough for now,” she continued. “I must warn you that you won’t get very far with such stories. A rich imagination is not greatly appreciated here. Other virtues are fostered in this school.”
“Disorder in the Head” deftly encapsulates many of the thematic concerns that recur in Steps Through the Mist: the stubborn struggle for dignity — and control — of those faced with predestination; the burden on those who might know the future; a sly metafiction combined with the overarching, God-like consciousness of the writer over their characters, the dreamer over the dreamed.
Relying on dreams as a storytelling device can feel clichéd, but this is where Živković shows his mastery. The dream-nature of the stories is stated up-front: it is not used as a surprise, but as another layer, a symbol of fate. That Živković is able to generate such pathos for characters that we know are figments (even more than all fictional characters are) is a testament to his skill as a writer.
She bowed her head, resting her chin on her chest. Her hair was like a veil covering her face. From behind this came only the gentle sound of slow breathing. When she spoke, her voice was muffled and somehow far away. […]
“There was anger and despair behind what I did, and they are poor allies if you want to do a job properly. It was only later, after I’d calmed down a bit in here, that I started to think things over coolly and collectedly. […] As you can see, there’s an upside to being put in a straitjacket.”
Displaying or interrogating complex concerns such as fate from multiple angles is a core literary use of the mosaic novel form; Živković does this in the four remaining stories via a variety of situations, points of view, and perspectives. We have (in “Hole in the Wall”) a tale of a male psychologist’s meeting with a suicidal young woman who claims to be able to see, and choose, the future; a short vignette (“Geese in the Mist”) of a woman’s encounter on a ski-lift with a man who claims her choice of ski run may have significant, if not dangerous, consequences for the world; we have, inevitably in such a volume, the tale of a female fortuneteller (“Line on the Palm”), aged and jaded, who is hired by a man sure he is fated to imminently die.
And we have “Alarm Clock on the Night Table,” the longest story in Steps Through the Mist and a showcase for the style of symbolism that Živković relishes. An elderly woman, whose life for all intents and purposes ended with a choice made long ago, wakes to discover that her alarm clock has stopped during the night. The woman, Miss Margarita, does not need the clock to tell time nor the alarm to wake up, but she has come to need the ticking of the clock to fall asleep. The neighborhood watchmaker is able to repair the alarm clock to this degree — it will tick, but no longer tell time — but no further. The questions to be asked seem clear, but then we remember: this story, and Miss Margarita, are the dream of Miss Emily the teacher, one in a collection of Russian Matryoshka doll-like layers of story. Suddenly the questions to be asked come into question themselves. What do the dreams mean to the dreamers, and how do they reflect the larger story?
Those looking for clarity of meaning will likely struggle with Steps Through the Mist, even more than in Živković’s previous mosaics. There is a deceptive simplicity to Živković’s characteristic stark settings, his ordinary if rather neurotic characters, and his elegantly mannered prose (translated impeccably as usual by Alice Copple-Tošić). We notice trends and patterns in the stories, how all those who encounter the mist of the book’s title, out of which knowledge of the future emerges, are women; ironic given women’s historic struggle to control their own fate. We notice the descriptive focus on eyes, on seeing. We notice that the age of the mist-seers increases in each story, and we notice the corresponding shifts in how they view fate. We notice the interplay of the fabulous and the scientific, nods to chaos theory’s “butterfly effect,” and to the roles of observation and choice in quantum physics. Yet despite the patterns and the scientific references Živković’s works are to be felt more than known, as the stories themselves often remind us. One judges these mosaics not by how directly they address their concern, but by how completely they encompass it. (And it is here that Steps feels somewhat slighter than most of Živković’s other mosaic novels. Bluntly: there are not enough stories.)
Steps Through the Mist is perhaps not the best introduction to Živković’s oeuvre, although it could certainly serve. Ideally though it would best be read after sampling some of Živković’s earlier mosaics, both because of the variance its front-loaded form represents, and because in tone it bridges those earlier mosaics — which often revolve around a certain natural order to the universe, even if it is unknowable to humanity — with the author’s later works that tend to be darker, more absurdist and abstract in their focus on human foibles.
Earlier I suggested Zoran Živković as a master fantasist. We know Živković is a true fantasist because his works use symbols and impossibilities to explore those human concerns that cannot be directly addressed by language. We know Živković is a master because his work is instantly recognizable as his own even as he varies and refines the forms of his work, as he does here; we know it because he makes common themes — like fate — his own; and we know it (now) because we now know a lesser work from Živković is still among the better novels we’re likely to encounter in any given year. In the same way a puzzle with fewer pieces can feel less satisfying to complete, in reading the mosaic of Steps Through the Mist, especially initially, we are conscious that there seems a bit less to it than in Živković’s best work. And yet when the finished picture is considered, we realize that in completing the puzzle we have in fact solved nothing: we have reached a beginning, not the end. The puzzle has three dimensions, and Živković has woven complex layers of meaning that linger in the mind long after reading.