Hidden Camera (novel) by Zoran Živković
English Publication History: Hidden Camera (Dalkey Archive, 2005; Cadmus Press, 2017)
Original: Serbian (Skrivena kamera), 2003
Translated by Alice Copple-Tošić, 2005
Synopsis: Left to his hobbies, memories, and work, an undertaker lives out a fairly uneventful life, one without dedication to excess in love, addiction, or interest; in his placid life, this undertaker steers a steadfast trajectory toward the nearest shores of his own death, a fact seemingly unbeknownst to himself… until one evening when he discovers en envelope beneath his apartment door. As he watches the fish in his aquarium dance their own tedious rhythm to ultimate death and heats his frozen meal of goulash upon the stove, the tedium of his life breaks with the interest in the envelope. He casts aside his rhythm of everyday habit to attend the screening at the cinema, which he knows nothing about other than its time and place, both add considering that it’s the cinema’s normal closing day.
A ticket attendant takes his invitation and suggests that the movie would never start without him, an incident that seemed overly courteous but the man shrugs it off only to enter the cinema where a single other soul sits in the cinema, next to whom he is sat by the usherette. As he’s left in the tangible darkness of the viewing room, he’s left with only his thoughts that keep returning to the woman next to him, an imagined beautiful face kept hidden by the brim of her hat. As the movie begin, he’s slow to realize two things: the woman in the film to the same woman sitting next to him; the man with the awkward gait is himself. He sits transfixed, perplexed until the meager light of the film vanishes, leaving him alone with his thoughts again. When the lights return, he finds himself alone.
Rather than return home to steep in boredom, the man continues with the sequence of invitations from a succession of envelopes that he thinks are mere traps to appear in hidden camera pranks. He assumes his clumsiness will be captured; he assumes to be made the fool; he assumes to be the butt of jokes for sadistic viewers. Instead, with each followed invitation at eerier and eerier locations, the man finds himself with his assumptions, perspectives, and fleeting thoughts. And again, he finds himself in the company of the same ticket attendant and usherette in a different capacities, albeit in more elegant roles.
The liquidity of his assumptions never condense into a malleable reality; rather, his assumptions evaporate, leaving him with the dregs of stupefaction: his patronage of a secondhand bookshop ends with only a question, his audience outside a cage ends with rapture, his centrifugal revelation ends with defeated pride, his attendance to a dinner and a show ends with revulsion, and his stroll through a cemetery ends in ambition. However much he experiences on his night of bizarre ordeals, he still considers himself to be the amusing spectacle to a sadistic piece of public humor.
Analysis: When using a metaphor, an idea can be deadened upon delivery: “Life is crazy.” When using a simile, the idea can be more indirect, which requires a bit of thinking and, therefore, reflection, if desired: “Life is like a box of chocolates.” When this simile is extended in scope and depth to become a piece of art, so much more reflection is needed, a state which doesn’t fit everyone. Some people like to be entertained, to have everything explained to them with no loose ends so that they don’t have to do any thinking for themselves (IMHO, in regards to movies: Michael Bay-esque); there are others that savor nuances, subtleties, and open-endedness (IMHO, again, in regards to movies: Stanley Kubrik-esque). The former not only draws the lines, paints fills in the pretty colors, but it also points out all the features on the said canvas; the latter, however, merely provides a frame with some generous gradated tint, the picture and color of which must be inferred. Are those analogies enough?
Hidden Camera is anything but blunt, direct, or obvious. The reader must suspend every scene in their mind before sequencing to the next scene, which may offer parallelisms to the previous scene. Once these two scenes are compared, the reader must again suspend them in order to compare them to the proceeding scene, which may–and in this case, will–offer more nuances in which to draw more parallelisms from. By the end of the novel, the reader has all these nuances sliding in parallel configurations like a multi-dimensional pin tumbler lock. Jiggle it as you may at first, the pins won’t align; either perseverance or expertise will coordinate all the pins into place, whereby the allegorical door of splendor can be opened. And no: Even though I’ve given this novel a lot of thought, many pins refuse to fall into the cuts, which, at the same time, frustrates and titillates me.
Even outlining what I’ve drawn from the novel can lead the would-be reader into one of either two traps: 1) following my train of thought or 2) preparing them for the surprises ahead. A few things, however, to consider:
- As the narrator is nameless, it can be inferred that he is a reflection of all of us.
- The narrator is an undertaker, someone who has experience with death.
- “Death is what precedes the beginning of life… During birth you go from death to life. During death… you go in the opposite direction… There are two basic states… Life and death. If you’re not alive then you’re dead. And vice versa. Those who aren’t born are just as dead as those who have died (82)”
- Death is darkness.
- Life is chaos in motion, much of which needs subjective interpretation.
- The “light” of life is full of experience, which triggers learning, which, therein, triggers our capacity to predict.
- Expectations, however, can alter the present experience.
- Further and in greater contrast, usually divergent expectations can either be revelational or disastrous.
- With a stubbornly neutral mindset, however, neither of these states will reach their extreme.
- When the overarching “experience” is complete, how will the thorough objective approach to it all snap into subjectiveness?
This ten-step approach to understanding the novel doesn’t even take into account the following:
- The recurrence of the three role player: the usherette, the ticket attendant, and the veiled woman.
- The transitions between “experiences”.
- The spectrum of color during each “experience”.
- The possible real-world parallelisms of each “experience,” as the overall novel may be an obtuse reflection of some social issue.
Review: A dozen people from a dozen nationalities could walk away from this novel with a gross of different meanings… that’s how bountiful the inferences are as they cascade from one tier to the next on an ever-progressive push toward the conclusion that, also, pushes the reader’s ability to bridge parallelisms. What can be inferred in wondrous; what could further be inferred is titillating. Some may argue that that which can’t be understood is often highly regarded (IMHO, Gravity’s Rainbow ranks #1 on that shit-list), but Hidden Camera offers just enough morsels to satiate the hungry pilgrim from one oasis to the next, of who may never reach their holy land; regardless, it’s the pilgrimage of faith, not the destination of faith, that matters.