Seven Touches of Music
By Zoran Živković
Aio Publishing, 2006
Seven Touches of Music was first published in Serbia (by Polaris Press) in 2001. The seven stories that make up the book were serialised in Interzone from August 2001 to February 2002. The new Aio Publishing imprint is the first English language collection, and is certainly a striking volume. At first glance it looks more like a diary or notebook than a novel: small, with a black hardcover and no dust jacket, black-edged pages of high-quality stock.
Everything about it is designed to make clear that this is not your usual work of fantasy fiction. And, for most readers versed in the Anglo-American tradition of SF, it will be unusual: sitting in the same European lineage as Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, in which the alien begins incomprehensible and remains so. Živković himself is a World Fantasy Award winner for The Library in 2003; he is a doctor of literature; and he was, for a couple of decades, the publisher of Polaris Press in his native Serbia.
As in Ursula Le Guin's translation of Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial, Živković's prose style is strongly mannered. Unlike that of Kalpa Imperial, this prose sometimes veers from mannerly toward clunky. Alice Copple-Tosic, a native English speaker, has translated a number of Živković's works, among others, and has been a lecturer in English at Belgrade University. While one might ascribe the occasional awkwardness to the greater gulf between Serbian and English than between Spanish and English, one might also expect that a good translator should be able to overcome this. And, in the absence of a storyteller of Le Guin's stature to do the translating, one does wonder if the book might have benefited from stricter attention from an English-language editor.
Like The Library (actually, like most of Živković's book-length works), Seven Touches of Music is billed as a 'mosaic novel'. In the common tongue, it's a 'short story collection'. I've also seen it referred to, appropriately, as a 'story suite'. The thematic thread that runs through all seven stories perhaps justifies the ostentatious labels.
The common theme has some scope for interpretation. My reading is that it's about the price of gaining perfect knowledge or achieving the moment of perfect inspiration and the impossibility, even if you grasp it yourself, of explaining that inspiration to others. No matter how immaculately Jesus or Mohammad understood the word of God, once it went in the ears of some flawed disciple, percolated through their brain and then came out through their hand, writing it down, its rendition became necessarily imperfect.
The first five stories in Seven Touches of Music are variations on a common plot as well as the common theme. As the book's title indicates, music is the catalyst for the moment of Platonic inspiration. In each of these stories, a person has an unusual musical experience, followed by a vision of some kind, and responds. In the opening story, The Whisper, a teacher plays Chopin to a group of autistic children. This triggers, in one boy in particular, an apparent moment of divine inspiration. The teacher's response, after flirting with the idea of trying to replicate the incident, is to retreat in fear from further exploration. His decision to retreat is legitimised by the chill Živković delivers to the reader with his understated revelation of what the autistic boy has apparently perceived.
In The Fire, a librarian dreams of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by sorcerous musicians. The vision of the library returns while she is awake and she glimpses the lost works of (perhaps) Sophocles or Aeschylus. In The Cat, a widower, acquiring an old music box, has a vision of the fuller life he and his wife might have lived, had they made different choices. While the vision in each of these stories comes closer to the protagonist than in the story before, in neither case—as in The Whisper—does the protagonist seek to fully explore the mystery.
The fourth story, The Waiting Room, fits slightly awkwardly between its neighbours, deviating from the trajectory of the stories on either side of it. In this story, an embittered spinster begins to have visions about everyone she knows and meets, ultimately driven into seclusion by her unfortunate circumstance. The Waiting Room, however, is the only work that foreshadows the depth of torment felt by the violin-maker who closes the book.
The Puzzle was the first story after The Whisper that stood strongly on its own merits. This is perhaps because its protagonist is the first one to actively protagonise. In it, a retired and disillusioned SETI researcher, again, triggered by a vivid musical experience, begins to paint. His pictures form the titular puzzle—that ultimately outdoes Richard Dreyfuss's mashed-potato mountain for inscrutability.
The Violinist is where it all comes together. Here, we see into the mind of Albert Einstein on his deathbed. He recalls a youthful visit to Italy, where he chanced to hear notes of perfect music and was overcome by them. On his deathbed, the genius sees clearly the mosaic woven by the perfect notes—that was locked away inside the mind of the autistic boy in The Whisper and that the SETI researcher of The Puzzle attempted to piece together. But Einstein's problem, literalised by Živković, is the same as for all prophets.
After this, The Violin-Maker is something of a postscript—although, I think, for the balance of the overarching narrative, a necessary one. Here we have the story of the creator and player of the perfect instrument that Einstein heard and the consequences that followed for the violin-maker and his assistant. This, for me, is sufficient for The Violin-Maker and The Violinist, together, to fully illuminate the stories that preceded them. The appearance of characters from the first five stories at the end of The Violin-Maker seemed both superfluous and heavy-handed. Perhaps this references an established literary device of which I am oblivious, but it didn't float my boat.
Throughout the repetitions of the early stories, Živković circles in towards the moment of revelation—beginning with the teacher in The Whisper, completely external to what his pupil has glimpsed; then through the librarian's academic desires, the widower's unadmitted regrets and the spinster's confrontation with her greatest fear, to the SETI researcher's obsessive intellectual-emotional pursuit—each step more intimate and more central to the protagonist's sense of self. In spite of this, I do wonder if this work might not be stronger if the Seven Touches of Music were only Four, and the reader was taken directly from The Whisper to The Puzzle. The message delivered would, I think, remain essentially unchanged.
In the end, neither the repetitiveness nor the occasional clunk are enough to derail this project. For all my criticisms, Seven Touches of Music did ultimately succeed for me on the strength of The Whisper and the final three stories. This is an intriguing book, and one that requires some serious brain-exercise in tackling it, for all its apparent simplicity. Reading it was a refreshing break from the norm.
Aio is also planning to publish Impossible Encounters (2000) and Steps Through the Mist (2003) by the same author.