The accolades on the back of Vladimir Tasic’s Herbarium of Souls pronounce the Serbian-Canadian writer to be an avatar of the late Jorge Luis Borges and a wunderkind who melds the scholastic with both the mystic and the metaphysical. In truth, this collection of short stories bears a strong resemblance to Borges’s classic anthology Ficciones, though Tasic’s book falters in emotional scope and literary complexity – an unavoidable failure, given the legendary heights to which it aspires.
A first impulse is to blame the stuttered writing on a poor translation from the original Serbian. Indeed, the two pieces that were translated by the author himself are the only ones that glow with pleasant, flowing writing and compelling choices of words and organization.
While Borges explored with resolute assiduity the ultimate metaphysical preoccupations of modern existence – time, destiny and the absurdity of human existence – Tasic seems limited to somewhat scholastic dissertations on the occult, approaching meaningless subjects as if they were apocalyptic profundities. For example, Tasic’s first story, titled “Professor Corben’s Last Discovery,” concerns an academic’s obsession with a fiction writer’s omission of a character in his final masterpiece. This obsession, shared by the scholar’s peers, seems completely unjustified and uninteresting, and serves to overshadow a promising relationship between the narrator and the scholar’s wife. This relationship, by the way, is teased but never explored – yet another frustrating aspect of either Tasic’s writing or the book’s poor translation.
The final story, from whose name the collection’s title is taken, is perhaps the most frustrating. Though benefiting from tight writing and some depth (better conveyed, perhaps, because Tasic translated this one himself), this story is nonetheless an obvious imitation of one of Borges’s masterpieces. A critique of a non-existent art exhibit by – it is assumed – a non-existent artist, this piece is interesting only for its homage to Borges, but offers little in isolation.
Tasic does, however, display a complex understanding of some of the more obscure sidebars of metaphysics. The most impressive story in Herbarium of Souls is the second last, titled “Herr Doctor’s Wondrous Smile.” In it, Tasic introduces us to the “omega point,” a mystical number that presumably has meaning to mathematicians and occultists, but would still prove compelling fiction if it were actually entirely made up. Since Tasic is a mathematician by profession, it is possible that much of “Herr Doctor” is based upon genuine mathematical theory.
Tasic’s real life role as a maths professor provides a comfortable arena in which he sets all of his stories: attached, in some way, to the ego-strewn world of academia. This is both a strength and a failing since, after the third story, one wonders if Tasic is truly able to describe or understand compulsions other than the intellectual. After all, a thread of passion detached from the forebrain is, in this reviewer’s opinion, what marks a true work of literature.