Fantastic Reviews - Story Collection Book Review
Seven Touches of Music cover Seven Touches of Music by Zoran Zivkovic

Aio hardcover - 155 pages
Copyright 2006
Translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic

Book reviewed December 2006

Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Seven Touches of Music is a collection of seven short stories by Serbian author Zoran Zivkovic, who has been successful in Europe since 1993 but neglected until recently in the English-speaking world.  Seven Touches of Music is in Zivkovic's preferred mode of writing, a collection of short stories that are linked thematically, which he calls a "mosaic novel."  A notable prior example is "The Library", six linked short stories that collectively won the 2003 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella.

Aio Publishing's edition is the first North American printing of Seven Touches of Music, which Zivkovic wrote in Serbian in 2001.  (The English translation previously appeared in the UK in Interzone magazine and in PS Publishing's omnibus collection Impossible Stories.)  Opting for quality over quantity, Aio has released only a few titles - alternating between promising new writers such as Jus Neuce and Dana Copithorne and established authors who have been underexposed in the U.S. like Zoran Zivkovic and Ian R. MacLeod - but these titles have been exceptionally well produced.  Our cover scan does not do justice to this gorgeous edition of Seven Touches of Music, issued without dust jacket in a velvety hardcover.  The violin cover image disappears in certain lights and jumps at the eye in others.

This cover perfectly suits Zoran Zivkovic's elegant writing style (for which we should also give some credit to translator Alice Copple-Tosic).  Zivkovic's prose is spare and understated, yet he can make the simplest story elements bear a heavy emotional weight, as in this description of the protagonist of "The Waiting Room" sitting down to wait for her train:

Miss Adele did not mind waiting very much; she was accustomed to it.  She had spent most of her life waiting.  In her younger days it had often made her restive, though she had been unable to say exactly what she was waiting for.  In any case, whatever she was expecting had never happened, and she had long since reconciled herself to that.

Each of the stories in Seven Touches of Music follows a middle-aged or older character, usually identified by first name only, living a quiet life in a sleepy, possibly Eastern European town.  The characters all receive sudden, fantastic, sometimes disturbing visions.  The visions are more than mere imaginings, so I would label the stories fantasy, but one could call them slipstream or fabulation.  The visions are triggered when the characters hear music, but the stories are not really about music; rather, music is the gateway to a glimpse of something missing from their lives.

For there is a void in the life of each of the central characters.  For some it is something they once had but lost, for instance Miss Adele in "The Waiting Room" has forfeited her relationship with her sister.  For others, it is something they strive for but cannot attain, such as Dr. Martin's hopeless wish in "The Whisper" to connect with his autistic students, or something they never realized they needed until it was too late, as with Mr. Oliver, a widower who never thought to have children before "The Cat" shows him the life he could have lived.  A source of music - a song from the radio or a music box or a peculiar organ-grinder - shows them what they have been missing.  Sometimes it is revealed literally: in "The Violinist", a Princeton professor is suddenly shown the secrets of the universe.  For others, the vision is a metaphor: Mrs. Martha, a librarian who has lost any real connection to her husband Constantine, sees the destruction of the library of Alexandria in "The Fire".

The stories are all superbly crafted and emotionally charged.  Somewhat disappointingly, however, most of Zivkovic's characters turn away from their magical insights and are little changed in the end by their experiences.  For this reason, many of the stories feel incomplete.  It is no accident that my favorite story, "The Puzzle", features the protagonist most willing to embrace the visions he receives.  A former SETI researcher, Mr. Adam passes his retirement in a completely regimented fashion, organizing all his activities by a pointless but rigid schedule, until music from a band in the park suddenly inspires him to start painting.  He begins to suspect that someone is trying to tell him something through these strange paintings.

The shared elements in these stories are intriguing, but the term "mosaic novel" is perhaps an overstatement.  "Mosaic novel" suggests that there is a single story arc encompassing the entire collection, which is not true.  It is more accurate to say that the stories reinforce certain common themes, but most of the stories could be read as easily in isolation.

          The one exception is the final tale, "The Violin-Maker".  Characters from the earlier stories reappear in this finale, and a reader who has not read the preceding stories would be at a great disadvantage.  (As Murphy's Law would have it, this was the only story I had read before, when it was reprinted three years ago in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror 16th Annual Collection, and it left me puzzled at the time.)  "The Violin-Maker" is the only story in which someone actually achieves exactly what he aspires to, creating a perfect violin to produce "the sound of divine harmony." Yet the violin-maker is no more content in the end than anyone else in Seven Touches of Music.  This may seem a dismal conclusion, but Zivkovic uses it to cast the previous stories in a happier light, suggesting that the void his characters all feel so bitterly is just what makes their lives precious.
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Copyright 2006 Aaron Hughes

Other Zoran Zivkovic book reviews on Fantastic Reviews:
Steps Through the Mist

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Links to other Zoran Zivkovic reviews, articles, and websites:
Zoran Zivkovic's Official Web Site
Zoran Živković (writer) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Zoran Zivkovic interviewed - infinity plus non-fiction : Jan. 2005
Curled Up With A Good Book: Seven Touches of Music-- book review
The SF Site Featured Review: Seven Touches of Music (2001)

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