The Library – Zoran Živković

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The Library (collection) by Zoran Živković
Original: Serbian, 2002
Translated by Alice Copple-Tošić, 2010
Everyday logic against the outré illogical

Zoran Živković is an Serbian author of some repute. Though I hadn’t heard of him prior to my contact with Kurodahan Press, his list of achievements is impressive, his scope of writing is intriguing, and his insight within stories is enticing. When I did contact Kurodahan and requested a care-package of translated Japanese SF for review, I couldn‘t strip my eyes from the synopsis they had glued themselves to:

A cycle of six thematically linked stories, droll renditions of the nightmares ensuing upon misplaced, or (of course) excessive, bibliophilia. A writer encounters a website where all his possible future books are on display; a lonely man faces an infinite flow of hardback books through his mailbox; an ordinary library turns by night into an archive of souls; the Devil sets about raising standards of infernal literacy; one book houses all books; a connoisseur of hardcovers strives to expel a lone paperback from his collection.

I read that synopsis… then looked at my then-500+ collection of books stacked in my condo and thought to myself, “I face hardships of library acquisition and disposal every month!” Granted, only 23 of the now-580+ books are hardback, I find it difficult to part myself with the ones I have chosen to hoard.

I’ve gone from a dabbler in SF (2006), to a reader in SF (2007), to a blogger in SF (2010), to a borderline archivist (2014). I don’t shelve and archive everything, but I like to think I have a good ear/eye/nose for knowing which books to keep shelved… just in case, you know? However, this has not been proven to be the case; I still wish I had Brian Aldiss & Harry Harrison’s anthology Farewell, Fantastic Venus (1968) and Theodore Sturgeon’s collection Starshine (1966).

Zoran Živković is often compared to Jorge Luis Borges for his use of magical realism, in which surreal circumstances penetrate an otherwise urbane reality in which the unwitting victim-cum-protagonist (the same man or a series of different man with the same obsession) plods along in his life while dealing with these seemingly bizarre occurrences; however, this man (or these men) applies their everyday logic to deal with the outré events, yet doesn’t skip a beat. The result: a man flummoxed by the phantasmagoric.

Through each story, the reader witness a man brought into subtle conflict with the bizarre, the uncanny, the unthinkable, the imponderable. The reader, as a third-person perspective witness of the events, understand the surreal aspects of each story, but the man always takes these matters in stride, applying a cold logic to the illogical with varying results.

Virtual Library” enters the modernized world where an author sees his entire life’s work before him even though he’s not yet dead. Some stories like “Home Library” and “Smallest Library” could very well have been written by Kafka though in different pose and on a more upbeat note. Yet throughout the collection of stories here, there’s a keen sense of humor, albeit the narrator’s offered humor rather than the conscious humor of the victim-cum-protagonist. This humor culminates in “Noble Library” where the man desires to rid his library of an ever returning paperback novel—hilarity ensues yet the man is stalwart in ridding himself of the literary abomination. Regardless, each story garners smiles of relevance in a fellow book lover. They’re delightful!

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Virtual Library (shortstory, 2002/2010) – 4/5

As the saying goes, one’s man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but in this case one man’s trash is his own treasure; this trash, however, is his junk mail. That same man is intrigued by the heading “Virtual Library – We have everything!” Here, virtual is used in its truest sense. As a writer himself, he discovers his own work freely available, along with a number of unknown titles and tentative dates of his death. He corresponds by email but learns very little. 16 pages

Home Library (shortstory, 2002/2010) – 5/5

On an innocent Tuesday while checking his apartment’s mailbox, he discovers a large bound book entitled World Literature, in which is printed fine script on thinnish onionskin paper. He takes he largish tome to his spartan abode and returns to his mailbox, only to discover the exact same tome. He takes this book, an arms’ full of books, then numerous trips with a suitcase in the dead of the night. Relieving himself of furniture, the tomes stack from the walls to the ceiling. 16 pages

Night Library (shortstory, 2002/2010) – 5/5

He runs from the cinema to the library so that he can borrow a book for the weekend. Thankfully, he enters a few minutes after closing time yet finds the doors unlocked. He deposits his umbrella and inquires within only to find no one about… then he hears the doors lock. Inside, he spies a well-suited figure take place at the central desk.,where he inquires about borrowing a book. He’s told that its a Night Library in which all tales of lives are held; naturally, he inquires about his very own. 22 pages

Infernal Library (shortstory, 2002/2010) – 4/5

Hell conjures images of sulfurous stench, fiery pits, and brutal methods of torture, but not a man sitting behind a computer in a dark, drab room. Hell’s clerk tells the man that since having the computer, a singular interesting fact had arises: 84.12% of hell’s inmates don’t like to read. What better way to torture souls than to expose them to them to the literature of the world—nearly endless volumes in hell’s library—for all of eternity? That clerk, however, calls it therapy. 14 pages

Smallest Library (shortstory, 2002/2010) – 4/5

Under the Great Bridge where well-knowledged men sell secondhand books, the man visits a seller at the end of the line—a blind man. The blight yet insightful man can smell the frustration of the writer, so he prescribes three tattered tones to the man. As he gets home and readies to discard the junk, he discovers a fourth book—its title: The Smallest Library. What follows in another title page without an author’s name. He shuts the book and opens it again, only to discover a new title, a new story. 24 pages

Noble Library (shortstory, 2002/2010) – 5/5

Upon entering his proud library of fine hardcover books, the man spies an unwelcome addition to his collection—a solitary paperback book. A tad disgusted by the undignified piece of publication, he, however, cannot simply throw it away; instead, he shreds it, only to discover it upon his shelves one more. There on, he contemplates forms of typical suicide so that the book can end its own pitiful existence—one if by water, two if by air. Yet each time the book reappears like daily hunger. 16 pages

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Japan Sinks – Sakyo Komatsu

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Japan Sinks (novel) by Sakyo Komatsu
Original: Japanese, 1973
Translated by Michael Gallagher, 1976
Destruction of a country, integrity of a man

Sakyo Komatsu is perhaps Japan’s most famous translated science fiction, but for all the wrong reasons. Komatsu wrote Japan Sinks for nine years and finally published the novel in 1973, in which he won two awards: the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and Seiun Award. He also has two pieces of short fiction that can be found in English: the grisly and hard-hitting “Savage Mouth” (1968/1978) and the poigantly psychological story “Take Your Choice” (1969/1987).

In popular culture, please recall the films of the 1970s… if you need a reminder of the popular films of the time, here’s a short list: Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974) and Tidal Wave (1975), to name a few. This was a the golden era of the disaster film, which, in turn, spurred the disaster novel: Scortia and Robinson’s The Glass Inferno (1974) and Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), to just name two. Likewise in Japan, after the novel’s publication, a string a similar films were produced.

While disaster films and novels were at the peak of popularity, Japan Sinks was translated by Michael Gallagher and published by Harper & Row. Was Japan Sinks translated and published for its artistic merits or to meet a consumer demand for destruction? Regardless, the novel is of two parts: the external disaster inflicted upon Japan and the internal conflict within the protagonist, Toshio Onodera.

It all begins when construction of the Super Express train line is stalled due to the inaccuracies in measuring the land, almost as if the entire landscape had shifted up and down. Then there’s a report of a recently made volcanic island disappearing—simply vanishing into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. On the professional side of things, this scares a number of people who host a number of theories; on the government side of it, the entire scenario of Japan sinking is simply absurd; and as for the public, they don’t have any idea of what’s to come.

Soon, earthquakes strike major metropolitan areas, volcanoes erupt in spectacular fashion, and the death toll begins to climb through the thousands and tens of thousands. The psyche of the Japanese people had become inured to national disasters, so they collectively remain strong and unaware of greater calamity.

Meanwhile, Toshio Onodera has his own sinking feeling. The theory, tests, results, and observations all point to the certain destruction of Japan and the “death of the dragon” isn’t in the distant future:

 The dragon was stricken.

A fatal illness was eating at him, destroying his very marrow. Racked with fever,his vast bulk covered in bleeding wounds, he thrashed about, vainly struggling against fate that was tearing at him. The encroaching blue sliding over him was like the shadow of death. (169)

Amid the turmoil, Onodera sits on the cusp of allegiance to his government and allegiance to his people. The Japanese people take the destruction in stride, adjusting to their despair with acceptance followed by renewed vigor for accepting lives challenges. But they don’t know the future extent of the damaging being wrought. The government insists that if the Japan’s forecasted destruction is revealed to the public, an even greater chaos will ensue.

As he continues his research into how and when Japan will sink into the ocean, Onodera experiences an internal conflict: Should be be faithful to the organization or to the people? He asks, himself, “Have I become a faithful bureaucrat?” (130). But he scuttles this idea immediately because a true bureaucrat would never ask themselves that question. With this realization, Onodera know what he must do.

Overwhelmingly, this is a disaster novel through and through. It’s also very geocentric with lots of obscure Japanese place names: volcanoes, islands, villages, mountains, oceanic features, subterranean faults, etc. This doesn’t distract from the story, but it does leaden the weight of its progression. When one is unfamiliar with Japanese geography, one island sounds the same as another; one town sounds the same as another.

The book’s saving grace is the chasm within Onodera. Just because Japan is exploding and subsiding, this doesn’t mean that Onodera must also perish; rather, he sees the cataclysm as a test of his self-worth, his loyalty, and his honesty. Much like Japan is between tectonic plates being driven together by deep, fierce forces, so too is Onodera the center of similar intrinsic forces—to be a loyal salaryman or to be a loyal human. In all too many instances, Japanese men have chosen the former and, in Onodera’s eyes, the latter is a choice for the greater good. Japan may sink, but Onodera plans to rise above it… at all costs.

Hide and Seek – Gerard Klein

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“Hide and Seek” (short story) Gerard Klein

English Publication History: The Book of John Brunner (DAW, 1976)

Original: French (Cache-cache), 1960

Translated by John Brunner, 1973

Synopsis: The often purported Theory of Everything has been rumored to exist in many places and faiths, but mathematicians and physicists know that it simply lies in the details. Most, however, feign from delving into exhaustive detail as it requires hundreds and thousands of pages and hours to describe details across multiple disciplines. Of course, that purported Theory of Everything is the existence of God, but where the details lie, does the devil lie within, too?

Pseudo-analysis: A similar but much more popular version of this story is Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953), both of which feature a deep secret unveiled with god-like repercussions. Though Clarke’s story was a short 10 pages, Klein’s story is even shorter–just 1 page. It’s a short shortstory with a punch ending, much like one of the stories in Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin’s anthology Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales (1963).