Ten linked stories with resonant titles explore almost every conceivable aspect of human memory: the positive and the negative, the precious and the profane, the heavenly and the unbearably hellish. Zivkovic’s deceptively simple tales anatomize the essence of what makes human beings tick, our passions, our vanities and yearnings; the very memories which make us who we are.
- Laguna (Serbian, 2007)
- Blodnjak (Slovenian, 2009)
- PS Publishing (English, UK, 2009, as a part of the Impossible Stories II omnibus)
- Kurodahan Press (English, Japan, 2010)
- Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Nemoguće priče / Impossible Stories omnibus)
- Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2016, as a part of the Impossible Stories II omnibus)
- Zavod (Serbian, 2017, as a part of the Nemoguće priče II)
An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:
1. Crime and Punishment
When I opened my eyes, it was like I’d been submerged in milk. An undefined, amorphous whiteness surrounded me on all sides. I stared at it emptily for a while until my eyes focused enough to make out where I was: lying in a bed without a frame, like a sort of catafalque, in the middle of a small square room. There was nothing else in it. The walls and high ceiling were covered with immaculate white padding. A bright light from an invisible source increased the glare of the whiteness. I squinted to protect my eyes from snow blindness.
The sheet that covered me up to my chin was also white. Wanting to see something that wasn’t white, I tried to take my right hand out from under the sheet. But the wide belt strapped over my lower arm prevented me. My left arm was strapped down too. A belt bound me across the chest and another one bound my ankles. I could squirm but not get up.
“How are you?”
I was unable to determine the origin of the deep male voice. It seemed to be coming from all around me.
“Restrained,” I replied, not knowing where to look.
“That is unavoidable. But except for that, how do you feel?”
I ruminated briefly. “Fine.”
“There isn’t any nausea? You don’t feel like vomiting?”
“Please shake your head several times, keeping your eyes open.”
“To check whether there is any dizziness.”
“How can I feel dizzy if I’m lying down?”
“It’s possible. Please move your head quickly from side to side.”
I hesitated slightly, then did it. Everything began to rock as though I was suddenly on a ship caught in a storm. I closed my eyes to regain my balance.
“Wonderful,” pronounced the voice.
“Wonderful that I’m dizzy?” I asked, opening my eyes again. The rocking sensation had not quite passed.
“That’s right. Dizziness is a good sign. Nausea would be bad.”
“Sign of what?”
“That everything is all right.”
“Nothing looks all right to me. What kind of place is this? What am I doing here? Why am I restrained? And who in the world are you?”
Several moments passed before the voice spoke again, but it was not to give me any answers.
“What is your name?”
I opened my mouth to say my name, but nothing came out. All I did was stare blankly straight ahead.
“What do you know about yourself?”
My answer was silence once again.
“When and where were you born?” continued the voice relentlessly. “Who are your parents? Are you married? Do you have any children? Where do you live? What do you do for a living?”
The questions washed over me like a huge confusing wave. I had to know the answers to them, of course, but all there was in my memory was a hollow whiteness resembling the one that surrounded me.
“I can’t remember anything,” I said at last in a soft voice. “What happened to me?”
“You have complete loss of memory about yourself.”
“Did I have an accident?”
“No. Your memory has been artificially removed.”
The voice said it as though telling me that my nails had been trimmed. Dead silence filled the room.
“Why?” I finally asked.
“Because that is the sentence you’ve been given.”
Once more I needed a little time before I spoke.
“What have I been sentenced for?”
“You committed a crime.”
“That’s no longer important. Don’t let it weigh you down. The crime was erased along with your past.”
I shook my head in disbelief. This made everything start to rock again.
“Was whatever I did so bad that I had to give up my past?”
“Yes. Actually, it could have been worse. If it weren’t for the mitigating circumstances, you would have been executed.”
“What’s the difference? This is like being executed too. Without any memory of my past I’m no longer myself.”
“You have no reason to complain. It’s true that you are no longer your former self, but it’s unlikely you would want to be if you knew what you’d done. It wouldn’t be at all easy to live with such a burden on your conscience. And you are not by nature a psychopath who would be unperturbed by your crimes. The remorse you showed at the trial tipped the scale in your favor and the judge handed down a lighter sentence. The expert’s opinion also helped. He said the chances of you repeating the crime under other circumstances were negligible.”
“But how is it possible to live without a memory?”
“You won’t live without a memory. You’ll get a new one without any stains. You will leave here as a completely rehabilitated man. Think of it as being part of a special witness protection program. The only difference is that protected witnesses are aware of their first identity, while you won’t be. For you, the new memory will be all you have.”
“What new memory?”
“One tailored just for you. Everything that could be was kept from your former life. You will have the same education, for example. You will remember—and even better than before—the things you learned, the books you read, the films you saw, the music you listened to. And everything else, except for actual people you were in touch with. Particularly friends and relatives. Your memories of them will be replaced by new ones.”
“I’ll get new friends and relatives?”
“No. That’s impossible. You won’t have any relatives. But there’s nothing unusual about that. Is the number of people without kin so small? You will be able to found a family, though, and get relatives that way. The same thing with new friends. When a person moves to a new town, which is what you will do, they quickly forget old friends and make new ones, isn’t that right?”
I didn’t say anything for several moments, mulling this over.
“But old friends and relatives will remember me. Their memory hasn’t been erased. What if one of them runs into me by accident and recognizes me?”
“They won’t recognize you. A new face goes with your new memory. Actually, you already have it.”
My hand moved automatically towards my head but was stopped by the belt.
“What do I look like?” I asked hesitantly.
There was a brief pause before the voice replied.
“Will I like myself?”
“Everyone likes themselves. More or less. In any case, you won’t know about any other face.”
Once again I thought this over.
“There’s something I don’t understand. Why are you telling me all this? Won’t my memory of this conversation jeopardize my new life?”
“No, it won’t. This conversation will also be erased before we implant a new memory.”
“So why did we have to have it?”
“We didn’t. We could have left your questions unanswered or made up something less drastic. But basically it’s all the same. We found out what we wanted to know. There wouldn’t be any conversation at all if the procedure of removing an old memory and implanting a new one could be done in one fell swoop. But we have to make sure that the old memory has been erased before we put in the new one. This doesn’t always happen. Some memories are really stubborn, and then there is nausea and vomiting. Luckily, everything went smoothly with yours. Dizziness is a guarantee that everything is all right.”
“I won’t remember a single thing about my former self?” I asked in a soft voice again.
“Nothing. You will soon wake up in your bed a new man. With a new memory.” The voice stopped suddenly. “Although the old one won’t be destroyed.”
“We keep memories that have been removed so we can study them. Your old self will come alive whenever an expert activates it from the data bank. It will stay that way even after your new self is gone. In a way, you will outlive yourself. The opposite would be fairer, of course, but it can’t be helped. You are only of interest to researchers as a murderer and not as a normal man. Well, then. We must get on with things. Please close your eyes and relax. Soon it will seem that you are falling asleep.”
I thought of asking one more thing, but didn’t. What was the use of knowing something I would forget in just a few moments? When I lowered my eyelids I was not surrounded immediately by darkness. The lingering picture of milky whiteness evaporated slowly and unwillingly, like a stubborn memory.