‘Compartments’ by Zoran Živković (Review)

Over the past couple of years, the nice people at Cadmus Press have regularly sent me the latest additions to their series of books by Serbian writer Zoran Živković.  And, just as regularly, I have admired the covers, put the books on my shelves, promised to find some time to try one and then done nothing about it.  Recently, though, the guilt finally got to me, and I decided to give one a go – and very good it was too.  Let’s take a look at a book that gives everyday life a twist, but always with a smile on its face 🙂

Compartments (translated by Alice Copple-Tošić) is a short collection of stories that (I suspect) might act as a nice introduction to Živković’s work.  Ranging in length from a seven-page vignette to a fifty-page novella, the six pieces gathered here are connected by a sense of light-hearted whimsy and an acknowledgement that the world is an unusual place, where common sense is often thrown out the window.  In Copple-Tošić’s translation, the stories zip by, with most featuring a warm, avuncular narrator or protagonist, and most readers will be happy to suspend their disbelief for the hour or two it takes to get through the book.

The shorter stories are entertaining experiments in playing on a single concept.  In ‘The Telephone’, a writer struggling for ideas receives a phone call late at night, one that presents him with an interesting dilemma, while ‘First Photograph’ takes a picture of a baby as its starting point and then has the grown-up narrator explain the unusual pose he can be seen in.  In both stories, the writer takes a fairly ordinary occurrence and turns it towards the fantastic, stretching the bounds of what is possible.

The idea of the fantastic is emphasised further in the final story, ‘Rendezvous in front of the House’.  Here, the writer abandons all pretence of realism, recounting an encounter he has with himself, a reward for all his years of writing about the fantastic.  It’s a clever, tongue-in-cheek piece of meta-fiction, with the narrator bemoaning the limitations of word length and altering real life as he sees fit:

There is no park across the street from the house, but I used the prerogative of a writer, particularly when they are in their own work, and put one there temporarily, just as long as the story lasts, which won’t be long – there, we’ve just passed the one-third mark.  As a citizen well along in years, waiting on my feet, even briefly, would tire me out.  It would be more comfortable to sit on a bench, conveniently placed right across from the front door.  Furthermore, I looked less conspicuous on a bench than standing in the middle of the street.  There is no reason to fear that this adaptation will contravene story rules.  We must not be slaves to verity, particularly in stories about the fantastic.
‘Rendezvous in front of the House’, p.127 (Cadmus Press, 2018)

What he sees across the street is a vision of himself as a young man, and he instantly recognises the day shown, and what occurred.  Just as he’s about to leave, though, the fantastic doubles down on its generosity and shows him another of his past selves, this time on a far sadder day…

When we get to the longer stories, one of the common traits is Živković’s delight in running stories together, using one anecdote to spark another and leaving the reader to follow in their wake, trusting that there’ll be a pay-off at the end.  ‘The Square’, which introduces us to four characters on a sunny Saturday afternoon, tells each of their stories in turn, before revisiting them, and as it does, the reader is swept up in the unusual events that are to eventually bring the protagonists together.

Meanwhile, in ‘The Teashop’, stories themself are at the centre of the tale.  Here, an old woman stops for a cup of tea after missing a train, and when she decides to take a chance and order the enigmatically named ‘tea made of stories’, she discovers that her drink comes with a performance attached at no extra cost.  A dizzying series of anecdotes ensues, with storytellers coming and going before the tales come full circle, finishing back at the railway station – and the woman.

However, it’s in ‘Compartments’, the longest piece in the book, that everything comes together.  A man runs to make a train and is helped on board by the Conductor, a friendly fellow in charge of what proves to be a rather unusual carriage.  It consists of six compartments, each occupied by some rather unusual people, and as the unnamed passenger moves down the corridor, spending a short time in each compartment, we sense that something very strange is going on – and it all has to do with a beautiful woman who has been there before him.

‘Compartments’ is a bizarre, enthralling piece, where nothing is as it seems, and which will require many more readings to be understood.  Populated by an entertaining range of characters, from chess-playing monks to female soldiers with wet feet, the story is full of blatant allegories (such as the frequent bouts of darkness in tunnels), and the internal logic of the story is dreamlike, in the sense that we move from one event to the next without questioning what would simply be unacceptable in a waking state.

It might be a little clichéd to suggest links to Kafka here, but there are definitely parallels, especially in the way the story defies analysis, with each reader likely to have their own interpretation of events.  However, you could just as easily argue for shades of P.G. Wodehouse, as the story races along in great humour and farce, mainly thanks to the recurring character of the Conductor.  He hurries the passenger along the train, telling him stories while working on his personal grooming:

“Allow me.”  He took me by the shoulders and set me under the candelabrum by the door.  He shook out the towel, tucked it into my shirt collar, and spread it out so it covered my entire chest.  Then he took the little dish and brush and with brisk movements began whipping the soap into a foam.
‘Compartments’, p.23

There aren’t many train services that provide you with a complimentary shave, but the question this raises is why the passenger needs to be looking his best.  Don’t worry – all will be revealed.

‘Compartments’ is a fun story I’ll be trying again very soon, and overall the collection is an entertaining way to spend an evening.  As there’s a distinct focus here on the fantastic and a liking for rushing the reader through the stories, I do wonder whether Živković’s style will translate into longer fiction.  To do so, there would need to be a slightly more measured pace.  However, I’m more than willing to find out, and with a whole shelf of books available, there’s nothing to stop me from giving one of his novels a try.

Apart from finding the time, of course…

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