BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Three surrealist stories in which people follow odd people and odd things happen.
PROS: The writing is spare and effective
CONS: I have no idea what to think about this collection of stories (but I’ve written 760 words about it anyway)
Reading Zoran Živković’s The Bridge is an exercise in puzzlement. It is a series of three linked stories; each story having a beginning, a middle, and an end. The stories all share several common elements and it’s clear that they take place on the same night, in the same place. From there however, it’s all up to you. The stories are individually and collectively surreal, with a sense of randomness that wanders between the profound and the comedic, the implausible and the impossible.
At the beginning of each story, a person spies another person and decides to follow them. In the first, a man spies himself–not a twin or an actor or his reflection, but another man that is also him. He has to follow the man to see what he does and to try to avoid any damage to his reputation. In the second, an older woman spies a neighbor of hers… who died a while back. She follows, while keeping two absolutely contradictory notions in her head: that this woman is her neighbor, and that she is dead (no zombies here, I’m afraid). Finally a young teenage girl sees a young man she is sure is her son, i.e., the son she will have when she has kids. He’s currently older than her, but that is no obstacle to her making chase.
The middle of each story is the slow-motion chase that ensues. The followed person in each case wanders down streets and buys various random items, gets on and off public transportation, all with a seeming destination in mind, sometimes several. Finally a destination is reached. Very odd things happen involving games of chance, and usually the follower is finally caught up in the action at this point–going from simple observer to participant, but there’s never any commentary from the followed. In fact, the stories are all uniformly free of dialog. There’s always a sense that the followed character and their fellow participants are playing a game with rules known only to them, leaving the follower (and reader) in a state of perpetual bewilderment.
At the end, the two people leave that place and go to the eponymous bridge. From here their fates diverge once more.
There are many leitmotifs that help link the stories: people with red hair, people behaving in ways that “normal” middle-class proper folks find unacceptable, games of chance, other symbols. And it is clear that the stories take place in the same place at roughly the same time: various characters observe other characters wandering through the action, linking the stories tangentially.
However, any meaning that readers may draw from the stories will probably come from themselves, not from the author. Certainly no privileged reading immediately presents itself. I’m sure that I could sit down with this book, dissect it, remove all the symbols, note and weigh them, try to place them in some table of meaning, and return with an interpretation for you. In fact, there is a very extensive (and unfortunately dryly written) afterword by a scholar who does something similar, although he focuses on the historical, literary and philosophical context surrounding the work than on the symbolism. Either way, if I were to do that, it would feel like something imposed on the story from without instead of arising naturally from within.
I’ve never had this problem with Živković stories before. I absolutely loved the other books of his I’ve read; The Book, The Writer contains a story that every reader should read, while The Last Book was just allusive enough to make me feel smugly educated while still entertaining with an enjoyable genre plot. However, stories like those in “The Bridge” just aren’t my cup of tea. I almost certainly apply the wrong ‘reading protocols’ to books like this–I want them to resolve into a world-picture that makes sense, like fantastic and science fictional worlds do. I’ve never been a fan of Kafka, particularly not his novels (I have appreciated some of his short fiction). I prefer to have at least some guidance or entry point from the author as to how they intend a piece to be read. In short, stories like this make me feel like an idiot, like I’m missing something that if only I were smarter and more sophisticated would be obvious. (Although I’m confident enough now as a reader to suspect that isn’t so.) However, if you enjoy this kind of literary ambiguity, the sort of story that allows more or less infinite interpretations, this is a short and well written example of the form.