The White Room

Ivana had gone missing… With her disappearance there begins a fantastical adventure for Professor Zoran Živković, author and teacher of creative writing. Assisted by Senior Inspector Sanja Mrvaljević of the Belgrade police, military counterintelligence, the National Security Agency and ultimately Interpol, the search for Ivana grows into a comic nightmare of unforeseen proportions. For why and how do a series of mysterious videos, in which Ivana plays the starring role, reach Professor Živković’s inbox, and why are their settings at once strangely familiar and unfamiliar? How will he escape the web of suspicion which weaves implacably about him, and will he and Ivana ever be reunited? Once again, this time in the ultimate sense, Živković explores the trickeries and mysteries of the creative process, in a book that is gripping, hilarious, touching and more revealing than any he has yet written.

Editions:

  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, hardcover, 2022)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, softcover, 2022)

An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Randall A. Major

1.

Ivana had gone missing.

I discerned this gradually, as the evening wore on.

As usual, I finished teaching my creative writing class at nine. After the eight attendees who gather at my place at seven o’clock on a Tuesday had left, I put my study in order and went into the kitchen to prepare supper for Ivana and myself. The evening meal was our only chance to eat together on workdays. It rarely occurred that we were not together at the dining table at the same time in the evening. Though she was not currently at home, I expected her soon. She knows that I am fairly hungry after class, because on those days when I have no students, we generally eat at around half past seven.

I did not know where she had gone. Ivana always tells me where she is going—as I also tell her—but today she had not done so because there were special circumstances. I was in quite a bind timewise, so as she left she had not wanted to bother me with what she might be able to tell me upon returning.

It seemed that circumstances had been conspiring against me since that morning. It should have been a quiet day, but unexpected duties and unannounced visits kept devouring my time. Thus, instead of my usual practice of preparing classes in the morning, I only got to it at the last moment: it was already ten minutes after five when I finally settled down to work on a task which would usually take at least an hour and a half to complete.

Fifteen minutes later, I was roused from my contemplations by a wispy kiss on the top of my head, almost without a touch. I was slightly startled because I had not heard Ivana at all as she approached me from behind. I turned around and saw that she was dressed to go out.

I gave her a quizzical look, but she only flashed me a lipstick-laden smile, waved wordlessly, and left.

It took me about ten minutes to warm up the ready-made food in the microwave, prepare a salad, and set the dining room table. Ivana, however, was still not here. What is keeping her, I wondered as I went to my study for my cell phone. Only then did it occur to me that she had perhaps texted or called me if something out of the ordinary had happened, and that I had not heard because I turn my ringtone off during class.

The little green lamp on the upper right-hand corner of the phone was not blinking, which meant there had been no calls, messages, or e-mails. I turned the ringtone back on, then called Ivana. A female voice answered, but not hers: “The number you have dialed is not available. Please try again later.”

That was odd. Ivana is extremely careful that her phone does not ring in the wrong place—at the movies, for example, the theater, a concert, a lecture, or wherever she does not want to be disturbed. However, she would just turn off the ringtone, not the telephone itself. Quiet vibrations would inform her of incoming calls and messages. What had led her to stray from her routine?

I had no way of establishing that, so I just had to wait patiently until she returned. Soon, I hoped. My stomach was now grumbling. I went back to the dining room, sat before my empty plate, and stared longingly at the delicious food in front me as it inevitably grew tepid. I restrained myself stoically for about ten minutes, then started eating before it went completely cold.

I soothed my conscience by thinking that Ivana would not mind if I started without her. Should I have to suffer hunger just because something had prevented her from arriving on time? And there must be a simple explanation as well for the phone being off. Her battery might have died, for example. That, to be honest, had never happened to her but, as they say, there is a first time for everything. It is remarkable, I thought with my mouth full, how a person experiencing discomfort such as, let us say, hunger, easily finds an excuse to get their needs met…

Having satiated my initial craving, I continued eating at a slower pace. Even more slowly than usual. By lingering, I wanted to give Ivana another chance to get back, perhaps, before I finished, so that we could at least dine together briefly. As I brought my meal to an end thus, as if forcing myself to eat something that I really was not enjoying, my ever-fuller stomach was driving out the hunger pangs, and the weak spots began to appear in my excuses.

Truth be told, her battery could have died, but hers was not the only telephone in town. Why had she not called me from another phone? She didn’t know my cell number by heart? Possibly. We remember ever fewer things nowadays as we depend more on our cell phones, so when they fail, we remain helpless. Nevertheless, she could have called me on the landline. Even if she didn’t know that number either, she could find out through the information service.

I stared for a time at the empty plate in front of me, and finally made peace with fate: there would be no meal together. I returned the cooled dish of food into the refrigerator, together with the salad, but I left Ivana’s plate, glass, and silverware on the table. When she did finally arrive home, she would surely be hungry and just warm her supper up again in the microwave. That is, of course, if she had not eaten somewhere else already…

I washed the dishes I had used and, not knowing what better to do, sat down in my armchair and took a book that I had begun reading a few days before—Laurent Binet’s excellent novel The Seventh Function of Language. I was captivated by the enthralling story and became engrossed in my reading. After fifty-odd pages, I looked at the digital clock on the shelf; it was a quarter to eleven. Indeed, good fiction can deceive one’s sense of time: I had read for more than an hour, but I had the impression that only twenty minutes had passed.

And not only that. My guilty conscience also jabbed me when I realized that the whole time I was residing enthralled in the parallel world of this novel, I had not given Ivana a single thought. That was certainly a compliment to Binet, but an unforgivable transgression towards Ivana, to whom something had certainly happened. Not one single explanation crossed my mind for the fact that it was, my goodness, nearly eleven, and she was not home and had not called. As if the earth had swallowed her whole. As if she had simply disappeared.

A wave of panic rushed through me. A whole series of useless thoughts crossed my mind: I should go search for her (yes, but where?), I should report her disappearance on social media (yes, but I do not use any, I do not know how that is done), I should call her brother or aunt (yes, but I do not even have their phone numbers), I should ask our mutual friends if anyone had heard anything about her (I would just unnecessarily disturb them at this late hour; if anyone had heard something, they surely would have called by now), I should contact the hospitals (yes, but they do not give out information unless you are related to the patient or—I became petrified—the deceased)…

Once I had recovered myself a little, the very thing I should have first thought of as a fan and occasional writer of detective fiction then dawned on me: when someone goes missing, you do nothing under your own initiative, but instead report the case to the police. The sooner, the better.