In the terrible spring of 1999, Serbian writer Zoran Zivkovic was trapped with his wife and children in their Belgrade apartment. Throughout the 77 days of NATO strikes, with food and water scarce, with intermittent electricity, Zivkovic was writing a book entitled The Book. It was his funniest novel yet.
After that masterpiece of philosophy and mirrors, an American literary agent who couldn’t sell Zivkovic’s fiction offered to get him a sizable advance for a 100,000-word tome about what happened in Bosnia. After the brilliant physics fantasy of The Fourth Circle (1993) and the bibliophilic excesses of The Library (2002), how could he descend to mere reality? Zivkovic declined. He would write not with history, but fantastically against it.
In his newest book, Hidden Camera, Zivkovic again channels philosophy and the fantastic, precognition and reincarnation, following his master Borges in imparting to those rarefied airs a sense of flesh, bone, and context within the pitiless procedure of genre literature. It opens as a detective story, with an unnamed man finding an envelope; an invitation within leads him to the movies. Expecting nothing, he sits in the theater, alone except for a beautiful woman. As the film begins, he recognizes himself on the screen. Further envelopes containing invitations forsake logic; our hero is baffled with clues. Is this real? What is? He suspects the titular hidden camera and begins acting the confident detective for an unknowable lens. He is victim to the most pernicious of reality shows: the unexamined life.
In visits to a zoo and a hospital, our hero is led deeper into mystification; the detective story goes from pulp to metaphysical mist, a sense of dread that would have flattered Philip Marlowe, were he to have shadowed Siddhartha. While he ostensibly follows a few appropriately anonymous people—a wizened old man, a tomboyish girl, the beautiful woman, all playing different roles in different locales—no explanation is given, just action, less dialogue, more of the chase. Indeed, Hidden Camera is written as if it were already a movie, with the Communist paranoia of Zivkovic’s youth glossed onto celluloid, The Castle with Sam Spade as K. Like all good genre, Hidden Camera is masterfully paced. In the last few pages, our hero finally confronts the three ethereal characters at the scene of his birth. It’s a resolution that settles the story as much as it unsettles the soul.