Four Stories Till the EndBy Zoran Zivkovic (Kurodahan Press; 2004/10)

A profoundly strange, jaunty and satiric look at art, death and everything in between by the incomparable Zoran Zivkovic. As the title promises, the book consists of four stories, each with distinct thematic similarities. It’s a form unique to Zivkovic, who in this book appeared to be warming up for his epic mind-boggler ESCHER’S LOOPS. That novel, however, dealt with several interlocking accounts, whereas in FOUR STORIES the connections are primarily symbolic–though no less profound.

In the first story a condemned man receives visits in his cell from four unexpected individuals: his lawyer, his prosecutor, his judge and a prison guard, all of whom have bizarre stories to tell involving artistry, death and birds. That last element becomes particularly pertinent on the final page of the story, when the condemned man opens his cell door to find a bird waiting for him.

The above sets the tone for the following three tales, which all feature nameless protagonists confined to claustrophobic settings–a hospital room, a hotel room and an elevator–where they’re each visited by four people, all of whom have bizarre stories to tell involving artistry and death. As to what this all might “mean,” I think Zivkovic provides the answer in the final story, whose protagonist is asked, in the past tense, how he died.

It’s reward enough, however, to simply bask in Zivkovic’s consistently outlandish sense of invention, in accounts of a missionary vanishing into a painting; a circus usher determined to kill every spectator whose name has at least two vowels by placing dangerous insects on tickets; a hotel containing a zinc mine, slaughterhouse and cemetery; an elevator dining room; a serial killer who atones for his sins by painstakingly cutting out letters from books, with which he then creates “literature preserves.”

This is, in short, one of Zoran Zivkovic’s strangest-ever works, making it, by extension, one of the strangest books of all time.