“I found the envelope wedged in the front door…” With these words begins a series of surreal adventures for a correct, sensitive and morbidly self-conscious undertaker. Drawn hither and thither across the city by the lure of the hidden camera, he finds himself caught up in an ever more perplexing and anguished pursuit, leading to a denouement both beautiful and satisfying. By turns sinister and comic, slapstick and profound, Hidden Camera raises questions about the nature of self-awareness, freedom and surveillance, as well as eternal themes of love and death.
“A short, meaty book, this is an antimodernist parable heavy enough for you to know you’ve absorbed real substance, yet ironic enough to ensure you don’t want to kill yourself when it’s over.”
—The Guardian, UK
“Calling this uncanny Serbian novel Kafkaesque, and its narrator a contemporary Joseph K, is apt, but the book feels more like Orson Welles’ eerie film of The Trial than like the great absurdist novel. It is a glowing, romantic conundrum.”
“What makes this novel haunting is how quickly the anxious narrator adapts to the situation. Like a mouse in a maze, he changes directions every time he encounters an obstacle, and his free will soon becomes a joke. As in the work of Kafka, big ideas course through this bleak social commentary, but they never feel dropped from on high.”
—Time Out New York
“Hidden Camera is a work of unexpected beauty and surprise. […] Zivkovic is seeking to communicate something about the nature of life and death, of existence and non-existence, which bends perception into new and challenging shapes.”
- Polaris (Serbian and English, 2003)
- Dalkey Archive Press (English, US, 2005)
- Laguna (Serbian, 2005)
- Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag (German, 2008)
- 451 Editores (Spanish, 2009)
- Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Romani / Novels omnibus)
- Minval (Turkish, 2016)
- Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2017)
An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:
I found the envelope wedged in the front door.
That was unusual. The mailman had never delivered a letter that way before. Why hadn’t he dropped it into the mailbox with the others? I’d just collected the mail he had left, as I usually do when I come back from work. While the elevator took me up to the third floor, I gave it a cursory look. Nothing special: a bill and three advertisements. I put my briefcase on the floor, stuck the letters from the mailbox under my arm, took the envelope and inspected it on both sides. That settled one question but raised another. The mailman had nothing to do with this letter. He probably delivers mail without information about the sender, but not without anything about the receiver. Among other reasons, because he wouldn’t know whom to deliver it to. No writing disturbed the whiteness of the long envelope. But who had wedged it into the doorframe if not the mailman?
As I unlocked the door, it occurred to me what this might be. It was another advertisement, except they hadn’t sent it the usual way, through the mail, but distributed it door to door, and in addition wrapped everything in a veil of mysterious anonymity. They probably figured it would get more attention that way. I, for example, had already given it more attention than the three advertisements from my mailbox would get; they would end up in the garbage without being opened. Who knows, I might even open the letter. It was very light, as though there was nothing inside. Someone had put considerable effort into arousing the curiosity of possible customers.
The only thing I couldn’t figure out was how the deliverer had entered the building. The entrance is always locked and it’s highly unlikely that any of the tenants would let a stranger inside if he called on the intercom and said he wanted to wedge advertisements in everyone’s door. He must have tricked someone. Those people are cunning. How else could they succeed at their work? Before I entered my apartment I looked at the front door of the other apartment on my landing. There was no white envelope there. They must have taken it inside already.
I hung my coat and hat on the coat rack in the vestibule and went into the living room. I dropped my briefcase on a chair, put the letter on the coffee table and rushed to the aquarium. My tropical fish take precedence over everything else. I have to feed them at 5:30 sharp. First I checked the thermostat to make sure the water was the right temperature, then the air pump with its jet of bubbles streaming towards the surface. Then I took the plastic top off the can and started sprinkling mealy fish food onto the water. The fish immediately began a voracious hunt after the little lumps, fighting unnecessarily over some pieces while other bits of food slowly sank to the bottom.
I am not fond of animals and would never have a dog, cat or parakeet in my apartment, let alone any other species. It’s not because I don’t want their company—many people who live alone like I do solve the problem of loneliness this way, whether they admit it or not—but because I would then be confronted with obligations that I could not properly fulfill. Unlike larger animals, fish don’t require much care. It’s enough to feed them twice a day at a specific time. The tank’s simple equipment made sure the proper conditions were maintained in the aquarium.
Once, however, the heater broke. During the night water had somehow come in contact with the electric wires. In the morning I found the whole little school of fish floating lifelessly on the surface. I wasn’t too upset. The same day I bought a new heater and new fish—and everything was the same as before. Someone might conclude from this that I have no feelings, but this isn’t true. The death of the little tropical creatures would have been harder on me had I been on more intimate terms with them. But there had been nothing more than reciprocated indifference. The fish were only aware of my existence during the brief moments when I fed them, and then only as some impersonal force that acted kindly towards them for some unknown reason. In all other circumstances they didn’t pay me the slightest attention.
I paid quite a bit of attention to them, however, although not as recognizable individuals with any feelings of attachment. This is actually why I had bought them, spurred by an article in the newspaper that suggested different ways to relax. I would turn all the lights off in the living room except for the light above the aquarium, put on a CD, settle into the armchair nearby and let myself unwind as I watched them. Sometimes this lasted quite a while. It was never less than half an hour, and once I stayed there next to the fish for two hours and twenty-four minutes, only getting up to change the CD. The length of this aquarium therapy depended on how tense I was. But even the greatest tension would finally start to ease before the soundless, chaotic movement of colorful shapes that I stared at as though hypnotized.
During one of the first séances something curious crossed my mind. I thought about how the fish and I lived in two parallel worlds that had almost nothing to do with each other, and yet were of mutual benefit. What the fish received from my world was quite elementary: food and warmth. I, in return, received from theirs something immeasurably more complicated: inner tranquility. If I wanted to thank them for this gift, how could I possibly do it? How could I explain the concept of inner tranquility to beings without a soul? I couldn’t. Some things can pass through the membrane that divides parallel worlds and some things can’t.
The fish were now taken care of until morning. As soon as I had had something to eat myself, I would be in need of their services. I’d just been through another depressing day. Only the ignorant could think that if you work long enough in a funeral parlor you stop being affected by what goes on there. It’s actually quite the opposite. At least with me. The older I get, the harder it is to do my work. I’ve recently started considering the idea of taking early retirement as soon as I meet the qualifications. I guess I can make it through another two years and eight months. My pension will be quite a bit lower than it would be after full retirement, but I’ll manage somehow. Whether I would even live to see full retirement in that job is very questionable.
I was heading for the kitchen to make something to eat, when I suddenly remembered the mysterious envelope I’d left on the coffee table. I hesitated a moment, but curiosity got the better of my growling stomach. It wouldn’t take long just to see what was inside. I raised the envelope to the window. Through the white paper, the rays of the afternoon sun outlined a small, dark rectangle in the middle, at somewhat of a slant. I tore open the envelope carefully on the side edge, stuck two fingers into it and took out what was there.
Even though I knew what it was right away, I stared at the movie ticket for several moments in bewilderment. Then I peered into the envelope but, as I expected, there was nothing else inside. I looked at the blue ticket again. It was valid for a screening at the Film Archives that day at six o’clock. There was no mention of what was playing. I opened my briefcase, took out the newspaper, found the movie page and looked for the program at the Film Archives. But instead of the name of the film it said, “Closed on Monday.”
I put the ticket, envelope and newspaper on the coffee table, and then headed for the kitchen once again. It was easy to figure out what these unidentified but clever promoters were up to. They had rented the Film Archives theater for the only day it was closed to regular showings. Not a single other movie theater in town had such a convenient day off. I had had no idea that this reputable institution rented out its premises, but we live in a time of general commercialization and nothing should be surprising anymore. Even funeral services are affected, making my job all the harder.
They had sent out tickets for a series of showings to countless addresses. Certainly to many more than there were places in the theater, rightly judging that many would not respond to their invitation. Those who did get hooked by this bait would have a surprise in store for them. Instead of the film they expected, there would be some kind of dog and pony show. And what would be even more unusual, most of the people would stay until the end, even though they weren’t the slightest bit interested in what was being offered. They might even buy it finally. It is truly unbelievable how gullible people are sometimes. I, of course, was not of their ilk. It wasn’t easy to sell me a bill of goods. In any case, even if I’d wanted to go, I would have had a hard job getting there on time. I looked at my watch: twenty-five to six. Bearing in mind the distance between my house and the Film Archives, I would be racing against the clock.
I took a package of goulash out of the freezer and got the pot I use to fix frozen food from the cupboard. I filled the deep pot about one-third full with water and put the aluminum foil-covered brick into it. I put the pot on the largest plate and turned it on. I then set one end of the kitchen table with practiced movements and returned to the stove. Dinner would be ready in about fifteen minutes. I spend this time every day watching the water heat up. It’s not exactly exciting or useful, but what else could I do as I waited for the meal to get ready? There was no question of reading the newspaper, for example, because I never do that in the kitchen.
I’d been staring at the silver bar on the bottom for about three minutes when something suddenly snapped inside me. In a rapid succession of movements I turned off the plate, stuck my hand into the already lukewarm water and took out the package of goulash, wiped it with the dishtowel hanging next to the sink and put it back in the freezer. There was no time to put the pot away and clear the table. All I did was grab the two slices of bread from the bread basket that I’d just sliced. I started stuffing them into my mouth on my way out of the kitchen.
I picked up the ticket from the coffee table in the living room and then rushed to the vestibule. I had trouble putting on my coat. It isn’t easy to pull your hand through the sleeve when you’re holding a slice and a half of bread. When I finally got it through there was a small pile of crumbs on the floor. I’d bought the bread that morning so it was already rather dry. I was strongly tempted to clean up the mess right then and there, but I somehow managed to curb the impulse to put everything in order without delay. That could wait as well. I didn’t have a moment to lose. I quickly put on my hat and went out. Thank heavens I didn’t have to fool with locking the door. It was enough to close it behind me.