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Time Gifts
Zoran Zivkovic
Northwestern University Press, 81 pages

Time Gifts
Zoran Zivkovic
Zoran Zivkovic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1948. In 1973 he graduated from the Department of General Literature, specializing in the theory of literature, Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade. He received his master's degree in 1979 and his doctorate in 1982 from the same school.

He is the author of the following books: Contemporaries of the Future (1983), Starry Screen (1984), First Contact (1985), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1990), The Fourth Circle (1993), Essays on Science Fiction (1995), Time Gifts (1997, 2000 US), The Writer (1998), The Book (2000), Impossible Encounters (2000), and Seven Touches of Music (2001). His short fiction includes: "The Astronomer" (1999), "The Bookshop" (2000), "The Cone" (2000), "The Confessional" (2000), "The Train" (2000) and "The Window" (2000). All were published in Interzone.

He lives in Belgrade.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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The work of Zoran Zivkovic typifies the loss readers face in the paucity of translated publications of foreign authors in this country. While available in translation in his native Yugoslavia, to date, of the six works of speculative fiction he has written, only Time Gifts, his second book of fiction, has found an American publisher, and that only through one of the university presses as part of an ongoing collection of work from authors of the former Soviet bloc countries entitled Writings from an Unbound Europe. While some of you may have been fortunate enough to have read the serialization of Impossible Encounters in last year's Interzone, for most this author's work will be unfamiliar, which is a shame as his novels and collections of short stories certainly deserve to join the ranks of Graham Joyce, Jonathan Carroll, or Jeff VanderMeer. Are any publishers out there listening?

This collection of four short stories, which together form a larger whole, at surface seem deceptively simple and direct. All tell the story of apparently different people in different circumstances -- an astronomer, a paleolinguist, a watchmaker and an artist -- separated temporally and by profession who are granted gifts of time by a mysterious stranger: opportunities to see into the future, verify beliefs lost in the far past, alter a tragedy or measure the span of their own mortality. And all are enacted within a setting and interaction that would have delighted Rod Serling. For their choices carry consequences, some of which cannot be anticipated. The astronomer, confined within the religious orthodoxy of the late Middle Ages, must choose between the heresy of his discovery and recanting, personal recognition or the saving of his life, the glimpse granted of the future revealing that neither choice will ultimately make any difference. The paleolinguist, at the end of a long and neglected career, is given the opportunity to return into the far distant past to verify her most long held and cherished theories, but without the chance to ever publish her findings, trapped in a past in which she cannot participate but only observe, without any certitude that her beliefs will be borne out, thus facing the possibility that her entire academic life has been spent chasing an illusion. The watchmaker is granted the chance to return in time to a moment of personal tragedy, altering its outcome only to find that he remains caught within its memory. The artist, at her own request, learns the moment of her death, thus discerning the end of her madness as well as the accompanying loss of an imagined lover.

These haunting vignettes weave together to present -- at the end quite literally -- four portraits of our inability to free ourselves from our own mortality and the inexorable constraints imposed by our perceptions of time, themselves meditations upon its nature, our measurements of its limits and the illusions of control or omnipotence. Yet these stories, for all their apparent and superficial directness, remain shadowy and only partially perceived, tied in part to the never fully resolved identity of the stranger who imparts these gifts. Seen variously as the devil, a tempter, an admirer, a magician and a writer, even at the end, when clearly identified with the author -- the protagonists of each tale simply characters in the author's own attempts to rewrite time and its influence upon the narratives -- there is a sense of outcomes unforeseen, his omnipotence flawed, like his characters unable to escape the "flutter of butterfly wings," the slightest vibration in time like a ripple in a pond radiating outward from the most insignificant act to influence events unanticipated and potentially disproportionate to their source. And while one is tempted, indeed at the end intentionally invited to identify the stranger as the author, the initial Z, the writer's features are never truly revealed, masked instead in the earlier tales by shadow, a voice alternately gentle, melodic, foreign or hoarse depending upon the listener, in the book's conclusion depicted as a writer by an artist herself portrayed as insane, and even then with features "distorted by the primordial sin of his art."

Within the context of time and the narrative's explorations of identity, existential experience, meditations including chaos equations and alternate time threads, are hidden deeper and less readily visible motifs. All four of the principal characters in each tale live essentially hermetic existences, for various reasons cut off from the outside world. The choices they make, the gifts they are given, do little, ultimately, to change their lives: the watchmaker, trapped by events in the past, remains so even when those events are altered; the paleolinguist, alienated within her environment, finds herself similarly unable to participate in the new world she joins. It can be argued that not one of the characters truly escapes their previous existence through the gifts they are given: only the temporal context becomes changed. And the author's confrontation of a writer's responsibility toward his fiction remains framed as a question, one might almost say abnegated at the end by his departure from his acknowledged participation within the narrative, a departure whose timing remains itself uncertain, coming through a madwomen's farewell, or perhaps even earlier, when the doctor's story ends? While it is implied that the last tale is one of redemption, has any true redemption taken place, or is it more a matter of absolution or possibly simple resignation? Nor should one forget the potential foreshadowing that occurs in the dream related at the opening pages to the book, any more than the manner in which the differing stories and characters variously reflect each other. While separate and distinct, each story within this volume is contributing to a much, much larger narrative.

Admittedly a slim volume, Zivkovic concisely yet densely packs this short narrative with more than one might expect from a far lengthier novel. Provocative and compelling, these are stories that will tease you long after the pages are completed, the questions raised eluding any definitive answer. An impressive work, and deserving of a larger and thoughtful audience. Hopefully, through the providential intervention of some perceptive publisher, we will soon be given the opportunity to read more of his fiction in the not too distant future.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.


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