The Book is not quite a novel, although almost half of it takes the form of a narrative, neither is it an essay, although quite a lot of what is said in it adopts that style. It is actually closest to that rare type or “para-genre” of satirical prose embodied in the exemplary In Praise of Folly by the famous humanist from Rotterdam. Instead of the “Folly,” of human manias and absurdities, here, in a similar kind of double-talk, the books themselves “speak,” those monuments to our intelligence, ambitions and self-importance, and they primarily “speak” by making an analogy between man’s fate and that of books—to man’s detriment, of course.
“Zivkovic’s notes of erudite perversity, playful textual misdirection, and parodic exaggeration make The Book a celebration of and lamentation for all books, an epitome and paragon of the species.”
“[A] novel of brilliant reversals (…) Zivkovic elegantly renders an author’s worst night-terror and in doing so has written a tale that teeters between tremendously funny and deadly serious satire.”
—Review of Contemporary Fiction, USA
- Stubovi Kulture (Serbian, 2000)
- Polaris (Serbian, 2001)
- Polaris (English, 2003)
- Prime Books (English, US, 2003, hardcover, as a part of The Book / The Writer omnibus)
- Prime Books (English, US, 2003, softcover, as a part of The Book / The Writer omnibus)
- Munidang (South Korean, 2004)
- Laguna (Serbian, 2004, as a part of Knjiga / Pisac omnibus)
- Kedros Publishers (Greek, 2006)
- 451 Editores (Spanish, 2007, as a part of The Book / The Writer omnibus)
- PS Publishing (English, UK, 2009, as a part of The Writer / The Book / The Reader omnibus)
- Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Romani / Novels omnibus)
- Cavalo de ferro (Portuguese, 2016)
- Minval (Turkish, forthcoming)
An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:
The Captain’s Library
From the inside the cabin door looked entirely different from the outside. Instead of the crude, gnarled beechwood, it was all polished mahogany, inlaid with brighter materials and secured by ornamental brass rivets. Such a door befits the premises of a sailing?ship captain who wishes to uphold and assert his uniquely elevated status-even if that vessel is, in fact, a pirate ship. Why should pirate captains be denied an appreciation of beauty?
It is really only prejudice that holds them to be savage, primitive cutthroats who belch at the table, wipe their mouths with their coat?sleeves, and throw gnawed bones into every corner. Nothing could be further from the truth! Among pirate captains one can find any number of individuals whose manners are truly refined, cultivated and polite; men who, moreover, have the ability to appreciate various of and, in many cases, to create art themselves.
Although you will definitely never find this information in textbooks of literary history, because it would be unedifying to mention such uncomfortable truths, many a great poem, and even several excellent novels, were written in just such cabins, during lulls between piratical or corsairly activities. Likewise, there are countless still?lifes, some of which have found their way into the galleries of great museums, that were created in moments of inspiration after the division of booty valiantly liberated from owners who, for obvious reasons, will have no further use for it. It is only natural that on such occasions the captains (at least those of finer propensities) are in no hurry to seize for themselves the trifles which fascinate the common crewmen and perhaps even the less educated officers. Gold and silver specie, and other such blatantly valuable items, do not attract such captains strongly; but a rare book, or a painting by an old master, can certainly appease a delicate conscience, upset by the somewhat dishonest means whereby they were obtained. In such matters, the ideal circumstance is for one pirate ship to rob another; the question of honest acquisition having been completely cancelled, the luckier and more capable captain can then enjoy his newly acquired riches with a completely untroubled conscience.
That our present captain was of that special sort was demonstrated by many unmistakeable signs in the cabin. Indeed, had it not been for a small, black, triangular gonfalon bearing the device of a white skull?and?crossbones, which stood on a heavy marble base on his ample desk-a desk which required six legs, though they were slender, elegantly curved and ornately carved-one might have fancied that this room was the atelier or salon of a connoiseur who, for some eccentric reason, chose to dwell on a sailing ship instead of, as might have been predicted, a remote castle surrounded by carefully tended lawns hidden among shady, evergreen forests.
It is also a vulgar prejudice, however, to assume that true devotees of the arts invariably wish to retreat into such sheltered environments. Quite the opposite is true: you are more likely to find them in quite different places, some of which may not appear entirely suited to the contemplation of artistic beauty. Don’t let appearances deceive you! Artistry, and its appreciation, may dwell where nobody suspects that it might be found.
Even if you overlooked the white grand piano (on your right as you step through the door)-from which occasionally flowed the sounds of elegies measurelessly melancholy, causing shivers of nameless dread among sailors unused to such things-and if you ignored the right?hand wall, almost entirely covered with winter landscapes, the best that could be obtained on the open seas, with frames curled into such arabesques as would provoke envy in even the haughtiest art?collector, still there was no way that you could fail to notice the vast library stretching along the entire left?hand wall, from the ceiling timbers lying flush with their rounded wooden beams down to the slickly polished deck.
What styles of binding and spine were to be seen there! On the higher, less accessible shelves slept the captain’s favourites, ancient manuscripts from the days before printing, when they were painstakingly copied. The antiquities did not, in fact, possess any binding in the usual sense. Stiff leaves were constrained between thin tablets of stone or wood which only hinted at a possibility of book?covers, and with no hint at all of a spine. Only by lifting the book down could one find out what it was, and that privilege was exclusive to the captain. Should any other person, from some unthinkable degree of ignorance (or, even worse, malice) reach out to remove a book from this library, that miscreant would suffer immediate capital punishment, without hope of forgiveness or mercy. Not that it had ever come to that; the inclinations of his crew lay in fundamentally different directions.
The next highest shelves of the library mirrored the history of printing skills. A row of precious incunabulas, both tabulary and typographic, illustrated the early printers, the problems they faced and the processes of trial and error by which they resolved them. What materials had not been used for binding in those pioneering times? Almost anything which seemed to offer sufficient firmness and durability, but leather most of all.
Skin, that is; torn from every imaginable species of domestic and wild mammal, and even from several birds, then specially processed and cured for the purpose. After almost a century of experimentation, it had been unequivocally proved that learned texts, whether religious or secular, are best encased in leather from boars which, having been gelded when very young, are then allowed to roam for a time through a fenced?off area of oak forest, not too damp; while lighter volumes, whose contents are directed more to the emotions (a category which includes devotional poetry) are best clad in the leather of young pregnant cows, because of its lighter nuance of colour, which will be found to lose none of its virtue even when the mood of the contents is predominantly pensive or even melancholy.
Among the uncouth and superstitious crewmen there sometimes-especially on nights when the moon was full-circulated whispers that among the captain’s books were some whose leather originated from no animal whatsoever. Cruel but brave, hardened sailors who had each stared death in the eye many times, yet still they shivered with horror at the thought that some of the books in the captain’s library might actually be bound in human hide. Such rumours considerably enhanced his authority, and induced the sailors to look with a certain awe on the library, which otherwise might have become, together with every person known to cherish books, the occasion for ironic and disrespectful remarks. Nothing improves loyalty and obedience so effectively as the thought that the punishment for rebellion or treachery might be so horribly and literally visited on one’s own skin.
Below the incunabulas and other early printed books were those rare folio editions in which the captain most frequently sought solace in those hours of sombre lassitude which, as the years slipped by, came to bedevil him more and more often. It is a falsehood that pirates, especially the more educated among them, recoil from the ultimate questions of morality, metaphysics and epistemology, particularly those which bear directly on the meaning of life. Thinking of such matters, in the long and lonely hours when the ship lay becalmed, without a breath of wind to tighten her sails and propel them into new adventures, caused the captain to evaluate very critically-indeed harshly-the course of his own life to date. At such times it seemed to him that he could discern very few, if any, moments when it had been touched by the sublime; which reflection offered so bleak a prospect for the times to come, that he was assailed by the darkest forebodings-even to the point of considering suicide as a means of slashing swiftly through the mire of futility which constrained him. Many pirate captains, shrinking from such an irreversible step, seek oblivion in drunkenness, although it is well known to all that the false relief of such transient amnesia leads deeper into the abyss. Many captains … but not this one.
When such dismal thoughts assailed him, the captain took up from its place on his six?legged desk, hard by the small pirat’s flag, a staff of old wood, polished slick with long use, culminating in a sharply pointed hook. It was the only golden object in his cabin, and he would use it to search for salvation among those large books with very thin pages in which were preserved the complete works of the great literary masters. Although at such times it would soothe him the most to read about a kindred soul tormented by similar sorrows, he had long ago resigned himself to the fact that his honourable trade seemed rarely to offer inspiration to such writers. Indeed, few authors ever wrote about pirate captains, even about those who were enlightened by education; and those who did write about them tended to do so without affection or understanding. But nothing could be done about that: in a world so full of injustice, this latest instance was matter only for regret, not wonder.
He derived some consolation for the lack of texts about his quite unjustifiably neglected and undervalued profession in one verse form, which he found only superficially inappropriate to its harshness and cruelty. In the harmonious rhymes of sonnets, in the enchanting elegance of that poetic form, in the endless scope for ingenuity which it offers within such tight contraints, and most of all in the supremely delicate feelings described by exquisitely chosen words, he found such balm that he frequently read them aloud, quite enraptured and gesticulating vividly, as if reciting for a large and avid audience.
Most affecting of all were the concluding couplets of sonnets; his tightly controlled voice would then waver with emotion, and his eyes brim with tears. On certain occasions the tears would gush openly, unrestrainedly, especially when he chose to read the sonnets about his favourite heroine, the Dark Lady, who seemed (because of her melancholy colouring, if for no other reason) the object most suited to his admiration. It would definitely not have done for any common seaman, or even officer, to see him in such a state; he had therefore ordered very sternly that he was never to be disturbed while reading aloud, by no person for any reason or with any excuse whatever.
In fact, his readings brought life to a standstill throughout the ship; everybody walked on tiptoe if they must walk at all, and such conversations as could not be postponed were continued in whispers. The only unsoluble problem was the totally inconsiderate screeching of the gulls, especially when the ship lay at anchor or was close to land; muskets and blunderbusses could not be utilized because of the disproportionate noise they made, and none of the crew could boast the Ancient Mariner’s skill with bow and arrow.
Below the folio editions were rows of books published in times more and more recent. Although he had personally selected them, the captain accorded them less reverence than the works on the higher shelves. He was aware that this laid him open to the charge that his tastes were old?fashioned; this he did not bother to deny. Some of these younger tomes were works of genius, no doubt; but they were rendered less worthy in his eyes by the circumstance that, as their dates approached the present, their initial print?runs became ever longer. That, in his view, was a quite lamentable desecration and profanation of an art which should have remained restricted to a small circle of the elite.
Occasionally a new edition of the Dark Lady sonnets came into his hands, and some of these new renderings were printed more gracefully, and arranged more tastefully than the first edition which he valued so highly, but he flung them overboard in disgust. He knew that this is not a very reasonable attitude, because the text was precisely the same, even enriched with historical introductions, explanatory notes, and learned commentaries, but he justified his actions with the old, powerful truth that a book is not, after all, just “text.” What, apart from text, a book is, the captain perhaps could not have satisfactorily explained to anyone else, but to him it seemed too obvious to require explanation; for was it not noticed long ago that the most self?evident truths are sometimes the hardest to explain?
In any case, the lowest shelves of his library, those below the knee, were occupied by books from the age when publishing had ceased to be a cultivated craft and become an industry. Although this part of the library was of much livelier colour and appearance than the monotony of prevalent grey which characterized the upper range, the captain’s comparative disrespect for them was expressed not only by the low place which he assigned to them but also by a certain, for him uncharacteristic, neglect. While he was fervent in his solicitude for the higher tomes, protecting them especially from dust, that great enemy of books, he allowed the lower shelves to accumulate dust over long periods, quite deliberately, as if punishing them. And, of course, at the very bottom, almost on the deck, were the editions which, by the captain’s inflexible criteria, deserved only the deepest contempt: the paperbacks. They were dusted off only during the great seasonal cleanings, which were rare.