Time Gifts

Shortlisted for the 1998 NIN Award

A mysterious visitor comes to see three desperate human beings: an astronomer in his prison cell the night before his execution for the ultimate heresy; a paleolinguist with a wasted life behind her who has been forgotten by everybody in her dusty basement office; an old watchmaker with a dark, painful spot in his past that has haunted him for decades. The visitor has a unique but ambiguous time-gift for each one of them. His true identity is only known by an insane artist locked up in her asylum atelier. But who would believe an artist in this world, even if she were not insane?

“Admittedly a slim volume, Zivkovic concisely yet densely packs this short narrative with more than one might expect from a far lengthier novel. Provocative and compelling, these are stories that will tease you long after the pages are completed, the questions raised eluding any definitive answer. An impressive work, and deserving of a larger and thoughtful audience.”
SF Site, USA

“This slim novel questions the relationship of reality to fiction. In the end, everything is called into question: the identity of the characters, the mysterious visitor, the doctor, and the author. The borders between reality and fiction are blurred, and the reader remains uncertain whether he is facing a fiction within a fiction. This unusual book, a hybrid of postmodernism and science fiction, raises some critical questions about human existence. It is open to many interpretations, both literary and philosophical, and can be read at different levels.”
World Literature Today, USA

Stories from the book have been published in the the UK (Interzone, June 1999), and in Hungary (Atjaro, August 2002).

Editions:

  • Stubovi Kulture (Serbian, 1997)
  • Polaris (English, 1998)
  • Northwestern University Press (English, US, hardcover, 2000)
  • Northwestern University Press (English, US, softcover, 2000)
  • Izvori (Croatian, 2000)
  • Polaris (Serbian, 2001)
  • Mlada Fronta (Czech, 2001)
  • Minotauro (Spanish, 2004, as a part of the Historias imposibles omnibus)
  • Laguna (Serbian, 2004, as a part of the Nemoguće priče omnibus)
  • PS Publishing (English, UK, 2006, as a part of the Impossible Stories omnibus)
  • Istiklal (Turkish, 2006)
  • Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Nemoguće priče / Impossible Stories omnibus)
  • DuMont Buchverlag (German,2011, as a part of Der unmögliche Roman omnibus)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2016, as a part of the Impossible Stories I omnibus)

Stubovi Kulture Serbian edition Polaris English edition Northwestern US HC edition Northwestern US TP edition Izvori Croatian edition Polaris Serbian edition Mlada Fronta Czech edition Minotauro Spanish edition Laguna Serbian edition PS Publications UK edition Istiklal Turkish edition impossible-stories-i_english_cadmus-press


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

The Astronomer

I.

He had to escape from the monastery.

He should not be there at all; he had never wanted to become a monk. He’d said that to his father, but his father had been unrelenting, as usual, and his mother did not have the audacity to oppose him, even though she knew that her son’s inclinations and talents lay elsewhere. The monks had treated him badly from the beginning. They had abused and humiliated him, forced him to do the dirtiest jobs, and when their nocturnal visits commenced he could stand it no longer.

He set off in flight, and a whole throng of pudgy, unruly brothers started after him, screaming hideously, torches and mantles raised, certain he could not get away. His legs became heavier and heavier as he attempted to reach the monastery gate, but it seemed to be deliberately withdrawing, becoming more distant at every step.

And then, when they had just about reached him, the monks suddenly stopped in their tracks. Their obscene shouts all at once turned into frightened screams of distress. They began to cross themselves feverishly, pointing to something in front of him, but all he could see there was the wide open gate and the clear night sky stretching beyond it. The gate no longer retreated before him, and once again he felt light and fast.

He was filled with tremendous relief when he reached the arched vault of the great gate. He knew they could no longer reach him, that he had gotten away. He stepped outside to meet the stars, but his foot did not alight on solid ground as it should have. It landed on something soft and squishy, and he started to sink as though he’d stepped in quicksand. He flailed his arms but could find no support.

He realized what he had fallen into by the terrible stench. It was the deep pit at the bottom of the monastery walls; the cooks threw the unusable entrails of slaughtered animals into it every day through a small, decayed wooden door. The cruel priests often threatened the terrified boy that he, too, would end up there if he did not satisfy their aberrant desires. The pit certainly should not have been located at the entrance to the holy edifice, but this utmost sacrilege for some reason seemed neither strange nor unfitting.

He began to sink rapidly into the thick tangle of bloated intestines, and when they almost reached his shoulders he became terror stricken. Just a few more moments and he would sink completely into this slimy morass. Unable to do anything else, he raised his desperate eyes, and there, illuminated by the reflection of the distant torches, he saw the silhouette of a naked, bony creature squatting on the edge of the pit, looking at him maliciously and snickering.

He did not see the horns and tail, but even without these marks he had no trouble understanding who it was; now that it was too late, he realized whom the terrified monks had seen. He instinctively froze at this pernicious stare, suddenly wanting to disappear as soon as possible under the slimy surface and hide there. All at once the blood and stench stopped making him nauseous; now they seemed precious, like the last refuge before the most terrible of all fates.

And truly, when he had plunged completely into that watery substance, it turned out that it was not, after all, the discarded entrails of pigs, sheep, and goats, as it had seemed, but was a mother’s womb, soft and warm. He curled up in it, knees under his chin, as endless bliss filled his being. No one could do anything to him here; he was safe, protected.

The illusion of paradise was not allowed to last very long, however. Demonic eyes, like a sharp awl, quickly pierced through the layers of extraneous flesh and reached his tiny crouched being. He tried to withdraw before them, going even deeper into the womb, to the very bottom, but his persecutor did not give up. The thin membrane that surrounded his refuge burst the moment he leaned his back against it, having nowhere else to go, and he fell out—into reality.

And with him, out of his dream, came the eyes that continued their piercing stare.

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