An undertaker returns home and finds a movie ticket wedged in his door. Though it only gives the time and location, he goes to the theater and watches a short film of himself eating lunch in a park. Alarmed, he stands up after the film and finds an invitation to a secondhand bookstore on his lap. His curiosity, fear, or something else drives him one place after another, as he convinces himself he’s the main character in a reality TV show. So goes Hidden Camera by Serbian writer Zoran Zivkovic.
Zivkovic conceived the novel as having a “specific humor of the paranoid,” and said it would have been “too macabre” without it. The undertaker narrates for the reader as he carries a running conversation — descending into an argument — with himself. His self-conscious doubts and criticisms, his quick adaptation to his role in this “game,” and his posturing for an audience he assumes to exist make him laughable. He moves alone through the city but treats the world as his stage.
It’s a curious effect: the city, like the undertaker, remains anonymous. The only time characters intrude is to move the undertaker along to his destination.
Zivkovic shows his prowess in making the reader care: though Hidden Camera lacks characters with much personality, how he crafts the plot makes us want to know what’s happening. He challenges whoever picks up his book to pick through each scene, analyze the objects he mentions, and decide whether they’re symbolic or merely props. He will not help. He will not show his hand. He will leave interpretation to the reader. His job is to write.
The city is empty. It has the appearance of a city — highways, buses, cars, apartments, bookstores, movie theaters, restaurants, even a zoo — but, functionally, it is deserted. Man may be a social animal, but the unnamed narrator appears to the reader as isolated and left on display. The narrator believes that about himself: his adventure, he assumes, is part of a show for the amusement of the absent people of the city. He visits the city zoo, but for him, the city is the zoo, and he is the animal on display. In the hands of other writers, the plot and approach would read like a tale of horror and dread. Not so with Zivkovic.
Zivkovic gets compared to Kafka, but he fits just as well with the absurd children’s stories of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School stories. The existential fear of Kafka isn’t in Zivkovic’s world. The narrator isn’t hounded by a bureaucracy, paternal disapproval, or a cruel state. Fear is usually shown as irrational and absurd. The absurd in Zivkovic is a game, not a mortal threat. Sachar’s world is filled with cows in schools, irrational methods in math that gets students to the correct answers, and floors that don’t exist. It’s a comic effect that portrays the senselessness of the world. Absurdity and ignorance aren’t always methods of terror. Sometimes, they’re part of the confusion of life, there for us to interpret in whatever light we choose.
That is a hard line for the reader, as absurd and surreal literature is tied to anxiety and terror for English-speaking audiences. Hidden Camera feels like a prelude to a dystopian story because the literary tools he uses are rarely used for anything else. The inherent subversion of the reader’s expectations enhances the novel. The reader becomes like the undertaker in building up an expectation that is undermined.
Zivkovic acts as an introduction to fantastika, a European literary tradition broader than fantasy or science fiction as Americans understand it. The pessimistic and nihilistic mood of American writing has effectively erased the idea that the absurd and surreal could be a celebration of life. Zivkovic represents a counterweight to incessant darkness. Chaos isn’t always to be feared, after all. Life is more chaotic, in positive ways, than most credit it. Planning and order is often illusory, a sweet myth perpetuated for self-assurance.