Tuesday, September 12, 2006

ZORAN ZIVKOVIC: Afterword to Fourth Circle

When we published Zoran's The Fourth Circle through the Ministry of Whimsy (Night Shade incarnation), Zoran provided this afterword that gives interesting insight into the difficulties facing foreign language authors trying to break in to the English-speaking markets.



I was 45 when I wrote The Fourth Circle, back in 1993. By that time, I was the author of several books dealing in various ways with science fiction, all of them non-fiction. My sole previous excursions into the realm of fiction writing were a play, "Project Lyre," and a short story—nothing worth mentioning, although "Project Lyre" was published in a Japanese magazine.

Why would a scholar, with an MA and a PhD in science fiction, suddenly decide to turn to fiction writing, deep into middle age?

When, in 1990, after an entire decade of truly hard labor, I published The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a two-volume set so large and heavy it could almost have been used as a blunt instrument, I realized a simple fact: there were no more challenges for me in that direction. Indeed, what goal more ambitious could I have set for myself, as a writer of non-fiction, than an encyclopaedia?

Yet I was intellectually far too young for retirement. The solution to the problem was to find a new challenge elsewhere, outside of non-fiction writing. One possibility was to embark on an academic career. I could have accepted an offer to deliver a course on the history and theory of SF genre for the Department of Comparative Literature, Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade. I declined the position, however, deciding that it wouldn't be very different from early retirement.

The key factor which led me to try my skill at fiction writing was my editorial experience. In 1982 I founded "Polaris," one of the first privately owned publishing houses in the former communist countries. "Polaris" was basically a one-man show. I performed almost all the duties, from selecting titles to packaging copies to be sent to subscribers. I didn't mind this diversity, until one of the duties finally became a burden too heavy for my increasingly older shoulders.

Editing translations and original texts was never a job I much liked. It's very time consuming and largely unrewarding. Maybe I wouldn't have found it so difficult to do, if the works I dealt with hadn't seemed to me of poorer and poorer literary quality. It was inevitable that I would eventually ask myself a fundamental question. Why was I wasting my two most precious commodities—time and a certain talent—to contribute to the promotion of other writers, when I could invest them in my own writing? I could surely write better than the majority of authors I published in "Polaris." There was a certain arrogance in this stance, I don't deny it, but without it I probably would never have dared to launch myself into the turbulent sea of fiction writing.

Although rather voluminous, The Fourth Circle was written in less than four months in early 1993 while a civil war was in full swing all around me. It was a very peculiar experience, quite different from the writing of any of my non-fiction books, when I knew precisely what I wanted to do and how to do it. In the case of my first novel, there was no plan, no preconception whatsoever. Although it might sound incredible, when I typed on my monitor the simplest possible first sentence—The Circle.—I hadn't the slightest idea what would follow.

But somewhere beneath my conscious level, quite unknown to my rational self, a critical mass was gathering. My knowledge of literature in general and science fiction in particular, accumulated over previous decades, gradually transformed into a new quality. As soon as it had a chance to be released, it erupted almost like a volcano. Actually, the eruption would probably have been even stronger, had it not faced an unexpected technical obstacle: the velocity of my typing. I type, namely, (mis)using only my right hand index finger, which, after many years of such abuse, has become rather thicker and more gnarled than its left hand counterpart.
What I went through at that time was almost a personality-split. I was simultaneously a writer, mostly unconscious of what he was doing, and a reader more and more impatient due to the slowness of the writer's typing. It became particularly frustrating during the closing chapters of The Fourth Circle, the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, when I could hardly wait to see whether and how several seemingly unrelated structural threads would eventually merge to form a consistent tapestry.

In the end, the reader was rather satisfied, although somewhat reluctant and embarrassed to state it openly, due to his very close ties with the writer. The writer, for his part, was also pleased, although he remained as blissfully ignorant of what was happening as he had been in the beginning. Yet, he learned maybe the most important lesson about the holy mystery of artistic creativity: one doesn't have to know exactly how something functions as long as it functions.
The Fourth Circle was originally published in late December 1993. The following Spring it won a prestigious Serbian literary award—"Miloš Crnjanski." Curiously enough, it was a mainstream, not generic, award. The unquestionable SF elements in my novel were neglected, purposefully or not. It was primarily credited for its "literary values." One eminent critic hailed it as "a postmodern rhapsody."
I should have been more than satisfied. My first foray into literature had already proven quite a success. Alas, the limitations of that success were all too evident. As one cynic rightfully remarked, when you write in Serbian, you don't write at all. Indeed, your work is available to a theoretical maximum of about ten million native speakers, although the real number of potential readers is far, far inferior. The initial print-run of The Fourth Circle was only 500 copies, with an additional 500 printed after it won "Miloš Crnjanski." And that was it.

If I didn't want to remain first in the village, but to try my luck in the city, I had to provide an English translation of my novel. Once in English, it would become readable not only in the English-speaking countries, but throughout the world. It was easy enough to see that. To make it happen, however, was by no means straightforward and inexpensive. I confess I have always envied authors who write originally in English. First, they don't have to bother at all about providing translations of their works. Second, they never pay their translators. Their publishers gladly do that for them. But, as we all know, the world isn't a just place, particularly if you aren't among its privileged inhabitants.

Quality English translators from the Serbian are a rare breed. It's no wonder, therefore, that they are in strong demand and appropriately expensive. So, even when you manage to engage one, you are not quite certain whether you should be glad because your work will be properly translated, or sad because it is going to cost you a fortune. Sadness usually prevails, since it is an investment that very rarely if ever pays off. What you eventually get for your money is a mere chance to get to where any English speaking author is when he has just completed his work. There are no further guarantees whatsoever even of recouping your investment, let alone of making a profit. You really have to be quite a gambler to agree to such terms.
I certainly felt like one when Mrs. Mary Popović agreed to translate The Fourth Circle. And like any over-optimistic gambler I tried to see only the bright side of the whole enterprise. First of all, if there was someone able to cope with the translating challenges of my novel, it was Mrs. Popović. These were rather numerous and demanding. To start with, the four separate narrative lines needed to be distinctive in tone, which was probably the hardest task to achieve. In order to accentuate the differences between them, in the Serbian original I used four different fonts, one of them created particularly for that purpose. It referred to the episode taking place in a Medieval monastery, for which I almost invented a new language. Then, there were many intertextual references, ambiguous allusions, puns... It wasn't going to be easy money for the translator.

Indeed, the translating lasted almost six months. I spent a substantial part of that time with Mrs. Popović, assisting her in finding her way through the complex labyrinths of The Fourth Circle. I remember some moments of real trouble, almost desperation, when we struggled to find proper English equivalents for some of the subtler points in the original. I knew from my own experience (more than 50 translated books, mostly from English) that a translator's life is by no means a bed of roses. Yet, only now, working on my own novel, did I fully realize what a martyrdom it could be. Had I not written it myself, I would have been tempted to find the author and explain to him, mostly in a non-verbal way, what I thought of his linguistic and other virtuosities. By the end, Mrs. Popović and I were in full agreement: she had been shortchanged for her labour.

In my naivety, it seemed to me then that the worst part was behind me. I had a—hopefully—good novel, very professionally translated into English. What else could be needed in order to place it with an American or British publisher? Well, first I discovered I needed an agent. That came as a total surprise, since the institution of literary agents simply didn't exist in the part of the world I lived in. A writer dealt directly with publishing houses, without any intermediaries. Some American publishers, to whom I sent The Fourth Circle in late 1994, returned it unopened, briefly stating that they would only consider manuscripts received through agents.
Eventually, I managed to find an agent to represent me, although right from the start he wasn't very enthusiastic, and understandably so. At that time, with Sarajevo under siege and horrible bloodshed throughout the Balkans, anything with the prefix "Serbian" was automatically and indiscriminately identified as suspicious, to say the least. Indeed, soon one rejection slip followed another. The fact that none of them had anything to do with the literary qualities of my submission was scant consolation.

Under these bitter circumstances there were also a few amusing incidents. One publisher, for example, happened to like my novel quite a bit. Alas, he concluded that, however good, it was, at least at the moment, "unmarketable." (That was the very first time in my life I met this term used in what I thought was a predominantly literary context.) Yet, I got a counter-offer from him. Could I deliver, he asked, a 100,000 word novel about the civil war in Bosnia, preferably in three months. I shouldn't restrain my vivid imagination in any way when it came to atrocities, serial rape, concentration camps and other similar pleasantries so much admired by the mass audience. Such a novel would be not only marketable, but very probably bound to hit the best-seller lists. The gentleman was rather confused and disappointed to hear that I simply wasn't interested in hiring myself out as a writer, regardless of the advance he might have been willing to offer me.
When apparently there were no more publishers to whom my agent could submit The Fourth Circle, he stepped forward with an ingenious proposal. I should change my name. What do you mean, I asked incredulously. He meant I should choose a pen name, preferably something that would sound American. Like what? Well, we could try to find an analogous version of your original name. What would that be? After a brief etymological consideration, he boldly suggested: Donald Livingston. Why would I be Donald Livingston instead of Zoran Živković? Can you really imagine, he asked, that anyone called Zoran Živković would ever be able to publish anything in the USA? I could. He couldn't. So, inevitably, we went our separate ways.

I first received notice that, against all the odds, one of Zoran Živković's works of fiction (not The Fourth Circle) had been accepted for publication in the USA in the Spring of 1999, during the NATO campaign against my country. It happened between two air raids, in the short period when the electricity was on long enough to pick up my emails. My first thought was that it was another example of the irony of fate. After many years of futile attempts I had finally achieved my goal only to become another regrettable collateral victim in the next bombing. Fortunately, fate wasn't that ironic, although I managed to escape it only by a narrow margin. I happened to live just across the street from the Chinese Embassy which was hit, allegedly by mistake...

In 2004, exactly a decade after it had become available in English translation, The Fourth Circle will at last be brought out in the USA by Night Shade Books/Ministry of Whimsy. And not only this novel, but all my fiction works: Impossible Stories (an omnibus of five related mosaic-novels: Time Gifts, Impossible Encounters, Seven Touches of Music, The Library and Steps through the Mist; also Night Shade Books/Ministry of Whimsy) and The Book/The Writer (Prime Books). With some luck, I might even see my latest, just completed novel, Hidden Camera, published in the same season.

So, as you have seen, esteemed reader, The Fourth Circle had a very long journey to make before finally reaching you. But, please, pay no attention to all the troubles it has seen. They are irrelevant. In the solemn world of literature, troubles don't count. The only thing that matters there is what an author has achieved against them.

Zoran Živković
Belgrade, early September 2003


At 7:12 AM, Blogger Marly Youmans said...

I enjoyed this account of metamorphosis, followed by that of numerous offspring...


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