Zoran Živković - Time Gifts

Zoran Živković - Time Gifts
Rating - 6.5

There are four stories. In three, the solitude of a character is invaded by the presence of a mysterious man. He is constantly in shadow, such that his physical features are difficult to determine. 'As it was, all he could make out clearly were the pale hands folded in his lap, while his head was completely in the shadows, as though missing.' In each of the stories, we discover a little more about the visitor. He wears gloves. He has a penchant for white clothing. And he is interested in time. The first three stories, he presents the characters with a problem involving time. What if you could back and change something? What if the future was made clear? What if we could learn if our theories of the past are true?

Zivkovic's novella is constructed heavily around the twin concepts of time and chaos. Butterflies play a heavy role in the stories, alluding to the concept of chaos theory, which states that a butterfly fluttering its wings can cause a hurricane in a different country.

Consider the first story. A man is sentenced to death. He will burn at the stake, by order of the Church, for heresy against religion. We are not told exactly what his crime was, but it is implied that is has something to do with his occupation as Royal Astronomer. Did he perhaps declare that the Earth was not the centre of the universe? We don't know.

The man is locked within a cell, awaiting his punishment. A mysterious man enters. They discuss the astronomer's punishment, and what it would mean if he had a chance to avoid his fate. The man offers to show the astronomer the future, a future where the monastery he will be burned alive in has been remodelled into an observatory, and named after him in honour of his death. The astronomer, though skeptic, accepts, and the future is shown.

Returning to his cell, the astronomer is given a choice. Will he die in flames and be remembered through the observatory, or will he renounce his discovery and live a comfortable life, though one that is burdened with guilt? The story closes with his answer, which is not revealed.

The second and third stories follow a similar process. A character is introduced, a problem regarding time is present, and a decision is made. Always, the chance for redemption comes at a heavy price. Always a 'time gift' is shown to be as harmful as it is good.

The third story serves to destroy the narrative strength of Zivkovic's novel. Perhaps because most fairy tales operate in threes, with the third iteration proving unique, or at least providing closure, we expect that the third story will show a new insight into the mysterious man. But it doesn't. It's a rehash of the theme that we are familiar with from stories one and two. It is not an exaggeration to say that while the characters, settings and even 'time problems' are different with each story, the concept and theme are fundamentally the same. So similar, in fact, that it is unnecessary to beat us over the head a third time. And yet that is what Zivkovic does.

By the fourth story, then, we are somewhat tired of the concept. Yes, it is clear that the possibility to tamper with time comes with the drawback of negative choice. Yes, sometimes our choices have implications we have not expected. Yes, choices are difficult. This is clear from the first story, enhanced in meaning by the second, and made tiresome by the third. The last story, though, is a little different.

It is here that Zivkovic becomes rather meta, or post-modern, with his storytelling. The fourth story shows a regret on the part of the novelist, Zivkovic. He is unhappy that his time gifts to the characters gave negative as well as positive results, and seeks to rectify his mistakes in the fourth story. Zivkovic plays with the idea of author versus character versus narrative, and while it is interesting, it serves little purpose other than to tie up the loose ends of the other stories. The mystery man doesn't need to be explained, because he is described away as the author. It feels a cheat, a cheap trick for the reader.

What is there to make of Time Gifts? The novel is very short. As much as I disliked the third story, its placement is necessary, if only because without it, the page count of the novel would be in the low sixties. But isn't that a little strange? Time, and its effects, are a healthy subject for novelists. Proust wrote a six-book epic concerning time. Mann wrote one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century about time. Zivkovic has chosen a vast, rewarding topic, but he is unable to plumb its depths. Indeed, he skims the surface, and repeats himself even then. A shame, because the few ideas presented are interesting, and are handled with skill. A deeper exploration of the themes, coupled with a more compelling story, would have served this novella greatly. Instead, what we have is a flash of greatness, but flashes are forgotten, and ultimately don't matter



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