“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”
— Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)
It is a strange universe, one where the scientific respectability of general relativity contrasts with the maverick speculative theories of quantum mechanics; one where the literary respectability of the mainstream novel contrasts with the anything-goes nature of speculative fiction. What is science and what is magic? Quantum theory shows that an action taken now, in the present, can produce changes in the past; a particle only actually comes into defined existence when it is observed by a conscious observer; and such observation can change that which is observed for any subsequent observers. It’s all enough to not merely blur, but erase the previously held division of science being impersonal and repeatable while ceding to magic the realm of the personal, the numinous. While other branches of fiction, even the most literary, cling to rational fables of cause and effect — rely on unknown or misunderstood causes for their pathos — a growing group of writers are turning speculative fiction into guidebooks for imagining our so very strange universe.
Zoran Živković is one such writer. Živković won the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for his “mosaic novel” The Library, a themed suite of connected stories on the joys and perils of bibliophilia. His Seven Touches of Music was first published in his native Serbian in 2001, serialized in English in the UK magazine Interzone, and has now been released in the USA as a gorgeous single volume by award-winning newcomer Aio Publishing. In each of the seven stories that make up this slim black volume, another mosaic novel, the playing of music triggers — as if by magic — an episode that subtly mixes science fact and the tropes of science fiction.
The protagonist of the first story, “The Whisper,” is a teacher of autistic children; he is shocked when that ancient magical combination of music and blood produces in one of his charges an outpouring of numbers of the hardest science. In “The Fire” a librarian dreams of the long-ago destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and the following day is granted brief access to that very Library via her computer before the arrival of musicians signals the destruction anew. In “The Cat,” a widower buys a music box that when played gives him a glimpse at an alternate universe where he sees what might have been (complete with a cute nod towards Schrödinger’s cat). In “The Waiting Room,” the music of an organ-grinder at a train station gives a woman the ability to see visions of (wormholes into) the future. In “The Puzzle,” a retired employee of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project who wondered if aliens would necessarily communicate by electromagnetic waves is taken by the sudden urge to paint strange patterns when listening to music at the park.
He did not know what he had painted. Viewed from up close it looked just like random strokes of paint. He was convinced, however, that not a single stroke of the brush had been accidental, that everything was exactly as the music ordered, in spite of his inexperience. When he moved back from the painting a bit, he thought he could make out part of a larger shape, but he wasn’t sure. It suddenly crossed his mind that before him was just one piece of some larger puzzle.
Each of these first five stories, pieces of a puzzle, follows a pattern: the protagonist in each lives a life of solitude, of quiet desperation; a touch of music leads to an odd happening or vision; and when the music fades they go back to living their quiet life — changed, at least within the span of the story, only by the hidden, private knowledge they gain. Only by their touch of music. Each story has none of the artificial “resolution” common in many stories, and while readers who need definite endings may be left with more questions than answers, each story nonetheless feels complete and satisfying.
The final two stories break the pattern, giving shape to the overall collection. “The Violinist” visits Albert Einstein on his deathbed, where a touch of music recalls a memory from his youth, how hearing a perfect violin gave rise to a vision of a black hole and may have aided Einstein in his understanding of gravity and light. Now a similar visitation by music inspires Einstein to new revelations as he dies. The final story, “The Violin-Maker,” provides the history of the violin Einstein heard and its maker’s quest for perfection, while explicitly linking all the preceding stories through the character of the violin-maker’s apprentice. In both of these final two stories an attempt is made to communicate the wondrous knowledge gained, but in each case the communication is unsuccessful.
This concern with the personal nature of knowledge and experience, the inability to share it with others, pervades each story of the collection. There is a progression in Seven Touches of Music, from the teacher in “The Whisper” who is but a witness to magic, through those who are unwilling recipients of its gift, to the violin-maker at the end who has been consumed with seeking it out. Because of the inexpressible nature of these moments of revelation, the tragedy progressively increases with each story as well. In the hands of a lesser author this might be thoroughly depressing, and yet here the pattern that emerges is not without hope. If these touches of music, of magic, can happen to individuals, and those individuals can never share the insights gained, then what is to say that such touches cannot happen to anybody, at any time? What is to say that they’re not happening all the time to people all around you? What is to say that you may not experience such a touch someday yourself? And perhaps, however inexpressible, the effects of those touches do serve to unite people in some equally inexpressible way.
These big ideas are achieved by minimalist writing — in the best sense of those words. Živković’s writing is sparse and graceful, with short sentences and carefully selected details. Tasked with describing five autistic children, for example, Živković spends but a single paragraph on each, and focuses the descriptions not on overt physical features or personality, but on how each child draws when given pencil and paper. As this is a translated work, credit must also be given to the translator, Alice Copple-Tošić — in all the book there not a word nor sentence that feels unnecessarily vague.
Necessary vagueness of course abounds: for Živković a degree of uncertainty is built into our universe. But while it may seem paradoxical to convey uncertainty with precise language, it is Živković’s great achievement here to make this paradox comprehensible
He had to confront its most disturbing characteristic: the whole and its parts were not in harmony. When he focused on the whole, the parts became fuzzy — and vice versa. He could not concentrate his internal eye on both at the same time. Once everything inside him would have rebelled at this imperfection, but not any longer; it was his preconceptions that had been wrong, of course. The world did not have to be orderly, at least not the way he had imagined it. The Violinist based his composition on completely different principles.
In both form and theme, Seven Touches of Music is most reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics or Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams — with just a dash of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. These novels span the gamut of magical realism and literary fiction, but no matter. While physics continues its search for a unifying theory, Živković works at unifying literature, showing the value of creativity and speculative imagination in understanding our world and universe. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the font used on the book’s cover makes “Seven Touches of Music” look very much like “seven touches of magic.”