Fantastika is, in fact, the spectrum itself…


From cover of The Fourth Circle, by Zoran Živković, 2005 edition

From World Literature Today:

Michael Morrison: You have allied your fiction with the literary tradition of Middle-European “fantastika.” How do you define this tradition? Which of its authors have influenced your work?

Zoran Živković: The literary and geographical areas of “Mitteleuropa” (“Central Europe”) don’t coincide. The former is much wider, encompassing the European part of Russia. In the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century, it was culturally, intellectually, and artistically rather united, particularly when it comes to literature. Valery Bryusov‘s novel The Fiery Angel (1908) is very illustrative in this regard. It is set entirely in sixteenth-century Germany, but if you didn’t know that it was written by a Russian, you could never have guessed it: the novel seems so authentically German.

The term “fantastika”-used in slightly different ways in many European languages-doesn’t seem to have a satisfactory English equivalent. It could have been “fantasy” if that term hadn’t been reduced to a marketing label that means “Tolkienesque” fiction. Fantastika is by no means limited to that narrow section of the spectrum. It is, in fact, the spectrum itself-all nonmimetic prose. Nearly 70 percent of everything written during the past five thousand years is nonmimetic and belongs to one of many forms of fantastika: folklore, oneiric, fairytale, epic, and so forth.

“Middle-European fantastika” was never a literary movement amalgamated by a common poetics. It was, rather, a tradition that shared some traits but was otherwise heterogeneous. Its most common trait was its minimal fantastic content. It features only slight deviations from reality, never large-scale dramatic events. Its protagonists are not heroes, but marginal individuals trying to find their way in a changed world.

I owe various debts to grand masters of Middle-European fantastika. From E. T. A. Hoffmann I learned how to discreetly introduce fantastical elements, from Gogol how to increase the symbolic value of a fantastic story, from Bryusov how to achieve authenticity, from [Mikhail] Bulgakov how to make the most of the humor in a fantastic context, from Kafka how to handle absurdity, from [Stanisław] Lem how to search for new paths of fantastika.

MM: During the twentieth century, the Balkans suffered political upheavals, ethnic dislocations and violence, and economic hardships on a scale difficult for an outsider to imagine. Many Yugoslav and Serbian writers have addressed these and other historical events in their fiction, such as The Houses of Belgrade by Borislav Pekić, Knife by Vuk Drašković, In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijević, and, in the fantastic, Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars. By contrast, the characters in your work seem largely detached from history, politics, and society at large. How, if at all, has the tumultuous situation in Serbia influenced your fiction? To what extent was the decision to not address such matters premeditated as opposed to a consequence of the process of creation?

ZZ: The simplest answer would be that I am not a mimetic writer and therefore my books are not fictional “comments” on reality, even when reality is literarily very stimulating, as it certainly was in the twentieth century in the Balkans. But how is it possible, one might wonder, to be a nonmimetic writer under such circumstances, to neglect the strong historical challenges to which almost all other Serbian writers responded?

I have often faced this question, locally and internationally. For quite some time the Serbian literary establishment didn’t really know what to do with my humble self. It still sticks to a century-long tradition of favoring realistic over fantastic fiction, although this goes against the very roots of our national literature: our folklore, which is so abundant with fantastic elements. Even in the early twenty-first century, a Serbian author must write about themes from our national history to be taken seriously by the establishment.

At first, they simply ignored my books or, if pressed, labeled them as science fiction (in their vocabulary, a synonym for trivial literature), which showed that they actually hadn’t read my work at all. But then I gradually became by far the most widely translated contemporary Serbian author (at the moment, sixty-one foreign editions in twenty-one languages) and could no longer be ignored, for few Serbian writers manage to reach the world. A major part of the establishment finally accepted my fantastika as serious literature. For another, smaller, nationalistic part, however, precisely the fact that my books are so widely translated implied that I had turned my back on what they see as Serbian national literary interests.

Similar dilemmas occasionally appeared abroad. Some foreign critics found it rather curious that a Serbian author wasn’t recognizable by what he wrote about-Serbian themes (usually narrowed to the Balkan civil wars of the 1990s). Moreover, had they not known where I came from, they would never have been able to figure it out from my stories and novels. I had the impression that they implicitly reproached me for betraying a strange literary canon.

I believe this whole misunderstanding originated in a misconception of the act of literary creation. To put it simply, a writer doesn’t choose a theme; a theme chooses an author. At least, this is the case with me. I don’t start working on a new piece of fiction by asking myself what I am going to write about this time. When I come to my desk to begin a new story or a new novel, I know very little about it, at least on a conscious level. It is in my subconscious that the work is already fully formed, waiting to be transferred to my monitor via my keyboard. While I am writing I am little more than a typist-and a reader curious to know what his subconscious will come up with this time. So far, for some mysterious reason, it has delivered only nonmimetic fiction . . . to my satisfaction as the reader.

“Fantastika and the Literature of Serbia: A Conversation with Zoran Živković”, Michael A. Morrison, World Literature Today