The Ghostwriter

A writer sits down to work, but who can resist the addictive temptation of the email inbox? Each message alert brings a new question and a fresh challenge, until a tangled web weaves its way around the hapless author. Yet all the while his cat, Felix, gets on with life regardless. Zoran Zivkovic’s hilarious new novella lays bare the oddities and absurdities of the writing life: the traps writers set for themselves and the snares readers lay for them. Here, too, are fascinating puzzles about the nature of authorship and the writer’s identity, the relationship between the writer and their work and between the writer and the reader, the reader and that which is read. Above all, though, it is a paean to the Cat, to a relationship which in its simplicity and innocence, its playfulness and affection, makes nonsense of all these human perplexities.

Editions:

  • Paideia (Serbian, 2009)
  • Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Romani / Novels omnibus)
  • Blodnjak (Slovenian, 2010)
  • PS Publishing (English, UK, 2012)
  • Cavalo de Ferro (Portuguese, 2012)
  • TEA (Italian, 2012)
  • Galaade (French, 2014)
  • Minval (Turkish, forthcoming)

Paideia Serbian edition Romani Novels Ecrivain fantome


An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:

Had the email started any other way, I certainly would have deleted it immediately. For a long time I have saved almost every message and replied to most of them, but finally I came to my senses. Now I only save the ones that seem important because there is less and less time. But what writer could resist the flattery of a devotee, even an anonymous one?

Highly Esteemed Writer,

I am a great fan of your work. I have a business proposal to make in this regard. Would you be interested in hearing about it?

Sincerely,

An Admirer

I opened a new folder, called it “Admirer” and saved the email as “Admirer 001”. I did not expect the number of messages I exchanged with this unknown Admirer to have three digits, but that is how I have standardized my email archive. Every name starts with “001”. Not many of them have reached “010”. Only in correspondence with several friends is the first number greater than zero.

I am so close to “999” with one of them that I will soon have to change to four-digit numbers. In order to keep the archive standardized, all the others will have another zero tacked onto the front. Even using a convenient file-renaming program, the work will take the better part of two days. I was recently amazed to find out that over the years I have collected more than 6,300 emails in 417 folders. But there are no shortcuts when you are a neat freak. I have yet to come to my senses in that regard and it is not certain I ever will.

Admirer’s email address did not reveal a thing: admirer@gmail.com. He had evidently chosen it in order to say as little as possible about himself. It was even likely that he used it solely to write to me. Let’s just see how important it is to him to keep his identity secret, I thought.

Esteemed Admirer,

The only way I might be interested in hearing your proposal is if I know who is behind it. I am not in the habit of getting involved with people if I don’t know their name, despite their being “a great fan of my work”.

Sincerely,

Writer

Two and a half minutes later there was another gong from the three speakers placed on the wide, varnished board above my desk between the radiator and the window. Ever since the computer started informing me of incoming mail this way, my life has become much easier. Before that, I felt like I had a telephone without a ring, so I had to pick up the receiver from time to time to check whether someone was calling me.

Even though I knew the analogy did not work—I could miss a call from a silent phone, while the email would wait for me permanently in my virtual mailbox—I interrupted what I was doing more and more often to check whether something had come in. I told myself that I was being absurd—to say nothing of the time I wasted and lack of concentration on my work—but when has a sober inner voice brought anyone to their senses?

And just when impatience was gaining serious momentum, forcing me to check my mail at barely three-minute intervals, my email-telephone acquired a ring. I found by chance that I could give my incoming email an alert tone. This did not put reason completely back in charge. I keep the speakers turned up way too high so that I can hear them when I’m not in my study. If I am in it, and that’s where I spend most of my time, I not only jump at every gong but sometimes—especially when engrossed in writing—hop off my chair. Moreover, when a long time passes without any gong, I succumb to temptation and check whether a message has arrived, persuading myself that computers, just like people, can sometimes fail, although not once have I ever found any unannounced email.

Highly Esteemed Writer,

Unfortunately, I cannot reveal my identity. You will understand why if you let me make you my proposal. You have nothing to lose by hearing it. Should you find it unacceptable, I will annoy you no further.

Sincerely,

Admirer

I stared through the drooping leaves of the yucca quivering in the imperceptible currents of air. The large round brass flowerpot stands between the middle and right speaker. The interlacing greenery partially blocks my view, but it also breaks the uniform blue of the morning sky that fills the window. My bleary eyes wander that way whenever I’m collecting my thoughts as I write.

Admirer was right. I had nothing to lose by letting him make his proposal. Actually, he could have done it already. But he didn’t want to without my permission. I would have to find a fitting response to this courtesy, even if I didn’t know who was behind it. In any case, he was clearly not some country bumpkin. Language is a telling indication about people. This person was accustomed to polite manners. Even two short messages were enough to realize that.

Furthermore, I wanted to hear the sound of the gong. I receive the fewest emails during the summer and this certainly does not suit the addict, even partially recovered, that I have become. Here was a chance to ease the drought. For want of anything better, even a short exchange with a stranger would be welcome. There was no fear that this would interrupt my work. I was not exactly inundated there either.

Esteemed Admirer,

I await your proposal.

Sincerely,

Writer

In less than a minute, the gong sounded again.

Highly Esteemed Writer,

Thank you for being so obliging!

My proposal is simple. Would you be willing to write a novel for me?

Sincerely,

Admirer

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