This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
R E A D I N G I VA N V L A D I S L A V I ć
E D I T E D B Y G E R A L D G AY L A R D
L I S T o f P R E V I o u S LY P u B L I S h E D W o R k S CoNTRIBuToRS P R E fA C E
vii ix xiv
I N T R o D u C T I o N Gerald Gaylard A R C h I T E C T o N I C R E S I S TA N C E
MISSING PERSONS (1989)
• An Extraordinary Volume Romps in My Head Tony Morphet • ‘Freeze-frame?’ (Re-)imagining the Past in Ivan Vladislavić’s Missing Persons Sue Marais • ‘I Take up my Spade and I Dig’: Verwoerd, Tsafendas and the Position of the Writer in the Early Fiction of Ivan Vladislavić Christopher Thurman S u R R E A L A PA R T h E I D PAT h o L o G I E S
T H E F O L LY ( 1 9 9 3 )
22 25 46
• Postmodern Castle in the Air Ivor Powell • Citadel and Web Ingrid de kok • A House/A Story Hanging by a Thread: Ivan Vladislavić’s The Folly Peter horn • Fossicking in the House of Love: Apartheid Masculinity in The Folly Gerald Gaylard DECoNSTRuCTIoN
P R O Pa G a N d a b Y M O N u M E N T S a N d O T H E R S T O R I E S ( 1 9 9 6 )
72 74 80 85
• Pleasures of the Imagination Shaun de Waal • Interview with Ivan Vladislavić Christopher Warnes • ‘Or is it Just the Angle?’ Rivalling Realist Representation in ‘The whites only Bench’ Elaine Young • Translations: Lenin’s Statues, Post-Communism and Post-Apartheid in ‘Propaganda by Monuments’ Monica Popescu • Setting, Intertextuality and the Resurrection of the Postcolonial Author in ‘Kidnapped’ Zoë Wicomb
100 104 113
ANAChRoNISM AND NEWNESS
THE RESTLESS SuPERMaRkET aNd OTHER STORIES (2001)
• Review of The Restless Supermarket Lionel Abrahams • An interview with Ivan Vladislavić Mike Marais and Carita Backström • ‘Minor Disorders’: Ivan Vladislavić and the Devolution of South African English
160 165 175
• Lost in Translation fred de Vries C o S M o P o L I TA N T o P o L o G I E S
THE ExPLOdEd VIEw (2004)
• Words First: Ivan Vladislavić Tony Morphet • Inside the Toolbox Andie Miller • Layers of Permanence: Towards a Spatial-Materialist Reading of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Exploded View Shane Graham LIVING ART
THE MOdEL MEN (2004) AND wILLEM bOSHOFF (2005)
202 211 221
• Writing’s on the Wall Muff Andersson • On Ivan Vladislavić on Willem Boshoff on Conceptual Art Sally-Ann Murray uRBAN AESThETICS
P O R T R a I T w I T H k E Y S : J O b u R G & w H aT- w H aT ( 2 0 0 6 )
• Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys: Fudging a Book by its Cover? Ralph Goodman • Migrant Ecology in the Postcolonial City in Portrait with Keys: Joburg & WhatWhat Gerald Gaylard • Dismantling the Architecture of Apartheid: Vladislavić’s Private Poetics in Portrait with Keys Jane Poyner • The Invisible City: Surface and Underneath in Portrait with Keys Sarah Nuttall BEING LoST
T J / d O u b L E N E G aT I V E ( 2 0 1 0 )
• Interview with David Goldblatt and Ivan Vladislavić Bronwyn Law-Viljoen INDEX
L I S T o f P R E V I o u S LY PuBLIShED WoRkS
Tony Morphet’s review on page xx of Missing Persons first appeared in ‘Review of Books’ supplement to the Weekly Mail 6. 6 (23 Feb–1 Mar 1990): 8. Sue Marais’ piece was first presented as a paper at the Suid-Afrikaanse Vereniging vir Algemene Literatuurwetenskap Conference in Vanderbijlpark in 1991, and was published as ‘Ivan Vladislavić’s Re-vision of the South African Story Cycle’ Current Writing 4. 1 (1992): 41–56. It is reproduced here with some revisions and additions, and the omission of a section dealing with the characteristics of the short story cycle as genre, which appeared, in expanded form, in an essay in Nahem Yousaf. Ed. Apartheid Narratives. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. Ivor Powell’s review of The Folly was first published as ‘Post-Modern Castle in the Air’ in the ‘Review of Books’ supplement to the Weekly Mail & Guardian 10. 4 (28 Jan.–3 Feb. 1994): 37. Ingrid de Kok’s review of The Folly was first published in New Contrast 22. 1 (1994): 91–94. Peter Horn’s essay was first published as ‘The House that Nieuwenhuizen Built’ in the Southern African Review of Books 6. 1 (1994): 10–11. Gerald Gaylard’s article entitled ‘Fossicking in the House of Love: Apartheid Masculinity in The Folly’ was first published in Current Writing 22. 1 (2010): 59–71. Shaun de Waal’s interview was first published in the ‘Review of Books’ supplement to the Mail & Guardian 12. 24 (18–24 October 1996): 3. Christopher Warnes’s interview took place in Johannesburg on 8 January 1999, and was first published in Modern Fiction Studies 46. 1 (Spring 2000): 273–281. Elaine Young’s piece was first published as ‘“Or is it Just the Angle?” Rivalling Realist Representation in Ivan Vladislavić’s Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories.’ English Academy Review 18 (2001): 38–45. Monica Popescu’s piece was first published as ‘Translations: Lenin’s Statues, Post-Communism and Post-Apartheid.’ The Yale Journal of Criticism 16. 2 (2003): 406–423. A version of Zoë Wicomb’s paper appears in Step Across this Line: Proceedings of the 3rd
Conference of the Associazione Italiana di Studi sulle Letterature in Inglese. Eds. Alessandra Contenti, Maria Paola Guarducci and Paola Splendore. Venice: Cafoscarina, 2004. Zoë’s thanks go to Paola Splendore who invited her to deliver the keynote address. The paper was also subsequently published as ‘Setting, Intertextuality and the Resurrection of the Postcolonial Author.’ Journal of Postcolonial Writing 41. 2 (Nov. 2005): 144–155. Lionel Abrahams’ review first appeared in Donga 6 (2002): 57–60. Mike Marais and Carita Backström’s interview was first published in English in Africa 29. 2 (2002): 119–128. Stefan Helgesson’s essay was first published as ‘“Minor Disorders”: Ivan Vladislavić and the Devolution of South African English.’ Journal of Southern African Studies 30. 4 (2004): 777–787. Fred de Vries’ piece first appeared as ‘Lost in Translation’ in scrutiny2 11. 2 (2006): 101–105. Tony Morphet’s article first appeared as ‘Words First: Ivan Vladislavić’ in scrutiny2 11. 2 (2006): 85–90. Andie Miller’s piece was first published in scrutiny2 11. 2 (2006): 117–124. Shane Graham’s essay is a lightly revised version of an article originally published in a special issue of scrutiny2 devoted to the work of Ivan Vladislavić, scrutiny2 11. 2 (2006): 48–61. Another version of this the paper also appeared as a chapter in Graham’s book South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Muff Andersson’s review first appeared as ‘Writing’s on the Wall.’ in the ‘Friday’ supplement to the Mail & Guardian 20. 34 (20–26 August 2004): 3. The exhibition took place at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg in September 2004. Sally-Ann Murray’s paper was first published in Current Writing 20. 1 (2008): 16–37. Ralph Goodman’s piece was first published as ‘Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with keys: A Bricoleur’s Guide to Johannesburg’ Safundi 10. 2 (Apr. 2009): 223–230. Sarah Nuttall’s paper was first published as ‘Haunted Places are the Only Ones People Can Live in’ in Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid Johannesburg: Wits University Press (2009): 87–93. Bronwyn Law-Viljoen’s interview was first published in Art South Africa 9. 2 (2010) and online at <http://www.artsouthafrica.com/?article=825>.
Lionel Abrahams (1928–2004) was a Johannesburg writer, editor and publisher. Mentored by Herman Charles Bosman, he edited seven volumes of Bosman’s posthumously published works, and later became best known for his poetry, though he also published numerous essays and two novels. Muff Andersson is a writer and researcher working in the Office of the Principal at University of South Africa where she is writing the history of the university. Her most recent book is Intertextuality, Violence and Memory in Yizo Yizo: Youth TV Drama (2010). Carita Backström is a former producer at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, focusing on cultural and documentary programmes. She has produced a number of features on African literature, theatre and dance. She edited (together with Mai Palmberg) a book in Swedish, KulTur i Afrika, on contemporary arts and artists in Africa (2010). Ingrid de Kok has written four books of poetry, most recently Seasonal Fires: New and Selected Poems (2006). Her work has been translated into eight languages. She has been awarded writing fellowships in Italy and her work has been read at numerous national and international literary festivals. A Professor in the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies at the University of Cape Town, she also writes on cultural and literary topics. Fred de Vries is a Dutch writer/journalist, who moved to South Africa in 2003 to write a biography of Beat poet, Sinclair Beiles. Earlier he wrote Respect! (with Toine Heijmans), a book about hip hop in Europe. In 2006 he published Club Risiko, a close and personal look at the 1980s underground. Recently he published a collection of his South African interviews: The Fred de Vries Interviews: From Abdullah to Zille. Fred is affiliated to the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Shaun de Waal was the Mail & Guardian’s literary editor from 1991 to 2006. He is now its chief film critic and an assistant editor. Recent publications include Pride: Protest and Celebration (with Anthony Manion 2006); To Have and to Hold: The Making of Same-Sex Marriage in South Africa (2008); Exposure: Queer Fiction (2009); and 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian (2010). Gerald Gaylard is Associate Professor and previous Head of the English Department at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of After Colonialism: African Postmodernism and Magical Realism (2006), and has written widely on postcolonial literatures and aesthetics. Ralph Goodman currently works in the Department of English at Stellenbosch University. His areas of teaching include satire, the postmodern novel and the eighteenth century. His research is centred on post-1994 South African literature, moving into the area of cultural studies. His current work is on monsters and the monstrous in relation to the issue of xenophobic violence in South Africa. Shane Graham, an Associate Professor of English at Utah State University, is the author of South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss (2009), and the principal editor of Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation: The Correspondence (2010). He has published in Modern Fiction Studies, Theatre Research International, Studies in the Novel, and Research in African Literatures, and he serves as Book Review Editor for Safundi. Stefan Helgesson is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Stockholm University. Apart from his academic focus on Southern African literature, Brazilian literature, postcolonial theory and theories of world literature, he freelances as a literary critic and published his first novel in 2010. He is the author of Writing in Crisis: Ethics and History in Gordimer, Ndebele and Coetzee (2004), Efter västerlandet: Texter om kulturell förändring (2004) and Transnationalism in Southern African Literature (2009), and is the editor of Exit: Endings and Beginnings in Literature and Life (2010). Peter Horn is Professor Emeritus and Honorary Life Fellow (University of Cape Town), Honorary Professor and Research Associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, and President of the INST (Vienna). He has published three books on Kleist, a book
on South African literature, and has published with Anette Horn a book on Rilke, Ich lerne sehen (2010). He is an award-winning South African poet and short-story writer, translated into a wide range of languages. Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is the Editor and Co-Director of Fourthwall Books, Editor of Art South Africa magazine, and a Research Fellow in the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture. As Managing Editor at David Krut Publishing (2005–2010), she edited eighteen titles including William Kentridge: Nose; DisLocation/Re-Location; Art and Justice; Light on a Hill; TAXI-015 Paul Stopforth; TAXI-014 Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi; TAXI-013 Diane Victor; and William Kentridge: Flute. Andie Miller has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand and was winner of the 2009 Ernst van Heerden Award. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, scrutiny2, English Studies in Africa and Spectator: University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television Criticism. She is the author of Slow Motion: Stories about Walking (Jacana, 2010). Sue Marais currently lectures in the English Department at Rhodes University. Her research interests include feminisms, South African literatures and postmodern short fiction cycles. Mike Marais teaches in the Department of English at Rhodes University. His research interests include contemporary South African writing and recent publications include Secretary of the Invisible: The Idea of Hospitality in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (2009). Tony Morphet taught English Literature at the University of Natal in the 1960s and 1970s. He subsequently moved to the University of Cape Town to teach adult education and to work as an educational project evaluator – a move prompted by an admiration for Raymond Williams. He took early retirement in 1999. He has contributed a variety of critical articles and reviews to newspapers and journals. Sally-Ann Murray is an Associate Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2010, her novel Small Moving Parts received the Herman Charles Bosman Prize and
the M-Net Literary Award for English Fiction, in addition to being short-listed for the Sunday Times Literary Award and the University of Johannesburg Prize. She is also the recipient of the Sanlam Literary Award and the Arthur Nortje Award for poetry. Ivor Powell is a journalist and art critic living in Cape Town, South Africa. Starting out in his working life as an academic art historian, he moved into journalism in 1985 with the emergence of the anti-apartheid ‘alternative press’, writing mainly for the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), first as an art critic, then as a political and investigative journalist. He is currently employed as Group Investigations Editor for Independent Newspapers. Sarah Nuttall is Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER). She is the author of Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid (2008), editor of Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diasporic Aesthetics (2007) and co-editor of Johannesburg – The Elusive Metropolis (2008) and Load Shedding: Writing On and Over the Edge of South Africa (2009). Monica Popescu is Assistant Professor of English at McGill University where she teaches and researches postcolonial literatures. She is the author of South African Literature Beyond the Cold War (2010) and The Politics of Violence in Post-communist Films (1999). Her articles on post-apartheid literature, cultural translation, nationalism, and the Cold War in Southern Africa have appeared in Studies in the Novel, The Yale Journal of Criticism, Current Writing and other major journals. Jane Poyner is a lecturer in postcolonial literature and theory within the Department of English at the University of Exeter. Her research interests lie primarily in South African literature from the apartheid years to the present, focusing particularly on the question of intellectual practice within the sphere of culture. Her publications include a monograph and an edited collection on J. M. Coetzee, as well as articles on ‘TRC narratives’ and representations of anti-colonial violence in contemporary South African fiction. Chris Thurman is a member of the English Department at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the editor of the journal Shakespeare in Southern Africa, and compiler of Sport versus Art: A South African Contest (2010). His other publications
include Guy Butler: Reassessing a South African Literary Life (2010) and Text Bites, a literary anthology for high school learners (2009). Christopher Warnes wrote an MA thesis on Ivan Vladislavić’s work at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 1998. After finishing his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2003, he taught at Stellenbosch University. He is currently a lecturer in Postcolonial and Related Literatures at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Magical Realism and the Postcolonial Novel: Between Faith and Irreverence (2009). Zoë Wicomb is a South African writer of fiction and essays on South African writing and culture. She is Emeritus Professor of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Her latest work is The One That Got Away (2011). Elaine Young lectured in the English Department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal from 1999 to 2006. Her Master’s dissertation, ‘Narrative and Nationhood: Mediations of Identity in Post-Apartheid South African Short Stories’, focused on the writing of Ivan Vladislavić, Sindiwe Magona and Achmat Dangor. She embarked on a freelance writing and editing career in 2007, and now runs her own writing, editing and translation company, Copy Edit Paste.
P R E fA C E
Born in Pretoria in 1957, Ivan Vladislavić is of mixed origin and, as he tells Christopher Warnes, The name is Croatian. My grandparents on my father’s side were Croatian immigrants. My father was born in South Africa. And on my mother’s side my background is Irish and English, with a dash of German. I’m second-generation South African, on both sides. (104, this volume) He moved to Johannesburg and studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1970s where he was particularly influenced by the continental theory of Barthes and Saussure as introduced to him by the Afrikaans Department. A sensitivity to signs and semiotics, to the intricate relationships between words, has become a signature of his work. He was also impressed by the directness of studying Afrikaans works as they were published, and this introduced him to the world of South African fiction. Nevertheless, in the interview with Warnes he maintains that his work is as much influenced by events and processes in the world as by his own experiences or his reading of Dickens, Stevenson, T. S. Eliot, Kundera, Schulz, Barth, Barthelme, Vonnegut, etc. During the 1980s, Vladislavić worked for Ravan Press as a fiction and social studies editor, was assistant editor of a local literary magazine, Staffrider, and compiled the commemorative Ten Years of Staffrider (1988) with Andries Oliphant. It is no exaggeration to say that Vladislavić is South Africa’s pre-eminent editor, having edited and been involved with prominent works by Antjie Krog, Tim Couzens, Achmat Dangor, Jonny Steinberg, Charles van Onselen, Kevin Bloom and Peter Harris, among others. He has also edited or co-edited several titles under his own name. Publishing his first collection of short stories, Missing Persons, in 1989, Vladislavić has gone on to become arguably South Africa’s most prominent author in the post-apartheid era; a list of his works thus far follows below.
The aim of this volume, the first of its kind, is to collect much of the significant and original critical material, ranging from reviews to interviews to full-length articles, so far published on Vladislavić’s individual works. Some of the material is new, and some of the previously published pieces have been rewritten and edited for this volume. In compiling the book, I tried to choose critical material of diverse opinion and form, from the scholarly to the casual and creative, in order to indicate the wide-ranging and fertile responses that his writing elicits, and few pieces are only about the text to which they primarily allude. Moreover, in each section I have included examples of the initial reception of each of Vladislavić’s books upon their publication. The book is thus not only a critical celebration of Vladislavić’s work, but also gives readers a sense of how literary and cultural production and reading has changed since apartheid, via a collection of the original interpretive directions that Vladislavić’s work has been part of, enabled and encouraged. I hope that this critical material will be of benefit to readers and scholars of Vladislavić, post-apartheid South African literature and postcolonialism, especially postcolonial city writing. There are a number of people whose contributions to this book have been invaluable; indeed, it would not be in print if it were not for their help and encouragement. I would like to express my gratitude to all of them. Firstly, of course, my thanks go to Ivan Vladislavić, not only for his work, but for his generous enthusiasm for this work. Obviously my thanks also go to the various contributors, particularly for their patience and forbearance. Thomas Jeffrey at the National English Literary Museum at Rhodes University provided the complete critical oeuvre without which this book would not have been possible. Dino Galetti and Karl van Wyk did scanning, transcribing and editing work and Kerry Esterhuizen provided taxonomy. I am grateful to Ivan Vladislavić, Sally-Ann Murray, Cheryl Stobie, Christopher Thurman, John Masterson, Shaun de Waal, Kerry Bystrom and Bridget Grogan for their commentary, as I am to the anonymous readers from Wits University Press. I have had support from Therese Steffen, Christine Giustizieri, Jan Sollberger and Ina Habermann of the ‘Cities in Flux’ project at Basel. Kirby Mania and Clea Schultz have been committed students of Vladislavić’s work and have helped to keep me focused on his legacy to future generations. My thanks also go to Veronica Klipp, Julie Miller, Tshepo Neito, Estelle Jobson and Melanie Pequeux at Wits University Press, to Mary Ralphs for her indefatigable copy editing, Karen Lilje and Patricia Botes for their graphic design and proofreading respectively. I am grateful to Comair and Mary Wafer for permission to use ‘(Murder) When our mouths are filled with the uninvited tongues of others’ for the cover. Thanks are due to Monica Popescu for the picture of Lenin’s statue, to Joachim
Schönfeldt for making the images from ‘The Model Men’ exhibition available to me, and to Fred de Vries who provided the cover for De Rusteloze Supermarkt reproduced here. I would like to extend my thanks to John Hodgkiss, the photographer of the cover art. I would also like to express my gratitude to those who sat through seminars and provided invaluable feedback on my own pieces – Wits, Venice, the University of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Rhodes, Potchefstroom, Basel and Istanbul. Thanks, of course, are also due to those whom I have forgotten to mention. Finally, I would like to gratefully acknowledge the editors of the various publications who have graciously provided permission for the republication of several of the contributions contained in this volume. Gerald Gaylard, Johannesburg, 2011
I VA N V L A D I S L AV I ć ’ S P u B L I S h E D W o R k A N D A W A R D S : 1 9 8 9 – 2 0 1 0
• Missing Persons, 1989 (Olive Schreiner Prize) • The Folly, 1993 (CNA Literary Award) • Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories, 1996 (Thomas Pringle Prize for ‘Propaganda by Monuments’ and ‘The whites only Bench’) • The Restless Supermarket, 2001 (Sunday Times Fiction Prize) • The Exploded View, 2004 • Overseas, 2004 • Willem Boshoff, 2005 • Portrait with Keys, 2006 (Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for Non-Fiction; University of Johannesburg Prize for Creative Writing) • Flashback Hotel: Early Stories, 2010 (a republished compendium of Missing Persons and Propaganda by Monuments) • TJ Double Negative, 2010 (University of Johannesburg Prize for Creative Writing; Kraszna-Krausz Best Photography Book Award)
• Ten Years of Staffrider, 1988 (with Andries Oliphant) • Blank_: Architecture, Apartheid and After, 1998 (with Hilton Judin) • T’kama-Adamastor, 2000
G e r a l d G ay l a r d
Ivan Vladislavić’s oeuvre was perhaps best summed up by the author himself in an interview with Shaun de Waal in 1996 in which he emphasised the small, peripheral and marginal: A realist text’s success rests partly on its breadth, its vast sweep, and partly on the depth of its authenticating detail. But the world is already so overloaded with big stories and important information that the small and peripheral has come to me to seem a positive value. That’s what I mean about accustoming oneself to marginality, engaging with something that makes no claim to completeness. To complexity maybe, but not completeness. (‘Pleasures of the Imagination’ 3) In ‘accepting that this kind of [non-realist] writing is a marginal activity and finding a way of becoming comfortable with that’, Vladislavić exhibits a characteristic humility. Nevertheless, his insistence that, for him, writing ‘is a field of autonomy’ values the unconscious, small, peripheral and incomplete, at least as an antidote to being ‘so overloaded with big stories’. This minimalism constitutes a political resistance to monumental power, whether it be the ‘big stories’ of apartheid in the
past or globalisation today. It suggests a radical notion of democracy, namely that nothing – human or otherwise – is too small to be disenfranchised. Moreover, it refuses to separate the political from the aesthetic. His insistence upon the writerly, aesthetic and affective within a society that still tends to ignore or vilify these as merely marginal or irresponsible demonstrates how apartheid’s ‘big story’ brutalised our realities, feelings and creativity. But Vladislavić does not leave us stranded in apartheid or post-apartheid alienation. Rather, his close attention to that which we tend to ignore gives readers a language for feelings, old and new, and a way to live after trauma. The horror of our turbulent, violent history meets its nadir, and is transformed in this still, focused, minimal, enduring and humorous attention to the everyday and hitherto marginal. Incubated in the era of late apartheid, Vladislavić’s concern with the marginal has proved to be of enduring relevance. The apartheid era in South Africa could be defined as one which attempted to socially engineer the dominance of the centre – in this case colonial whiteness and Eurocentrism – via fixed delineations of margins: spatial, geographical, racial, sexual, psychological, spiritual. Beyond and below these borders, possibilities shrank and marginality was experienced as deprivation. Apartheid’s extension of colonial frontiers via macro social engineering resulted in what Njabulo Ndebele called ‘the spectacular’ in his seminal work, Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Vladislavić’s writing resists this apartheid context, particularly the spectacular that has endured in various forms since apartheid. We might describe his fiction as that of decentralisation, a movement paralleled in the democratisation of South Africa and the sprawling of Johannesburg. Moreover, this decentralisation demonstrates that South African literature has joined World literature, within which centres and margins have become a topological truism. Decentralisation and the assertion of margins have partly been enabled by the satirical iconoclasm in Vladislavić’s writing, an enduring feature of his work. He consistently deflates power interests and power mongering, supporting the ordinary person and the marginalised against the ‘big stories’ of the national, spectacular and monumental.1 To this extent, his fiction is interested in speaking truth to hegemonic power.2 Moreover, in this respect his fiction remains coloured by the apartheid past. Indeed, part of his iconoclasm is directed towards either nostalgia for, or outright condemnation and erasure of, that past. We might regard this as the deconstruction of both musealisation and futurism. More than these socio-historical points, however, Vladislavić simply delights in absurdity, which abounds in situations of power. For
instance, iconoclasm is nowhere more apparent than in the titular story of Propaganda by Monuments, which features Russian workers dismantling statues of Lenin and subjecting the revered icons of yesteryear to gleeful disrespect: ‘The one with the drill was skating around on the great man’s icy dome like a seasoned performer; and even as Grekov watched, the skater’s companion, the one with the clamp, slid audaciously down the curvature of the skull, unloosing a shower of scurfy snow from the fringe of hair’ (18). Ordinary people see the ordinary humanity (involving physical grotesquery in this case) of such ‘great men’ as the great man’s head becomes an ice rink and he develops dandruff. Given the monumental seriousness of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, satirical humour has the potential to overturn a whole mindset and revolutionise the existing social dispensation. Satire is minimalism’s scalpel. This satirical resistance to the monumental spectacle that was South African history and art has by no means been merely reactive, however, but has also delved into otherwise obscured marginal spaces. Not only has Vladislavić exhumed realities and intervals marginalised by society and History, but his texts tend to escape their own margins, moving beyond the delineations of the page and its text into seemingly unprofitable spaces, unconscious zones, intervals and gaps formerly regarded as beneath consideration. Unpopular qualities populate this writing: gentleness, selfeffacing reticence, careful caution, close observation, scrupulously methodical discipline, impeccable criticality, wit, silence. The inwards movement that these qualities suggest has coincided with a focus on the literary and aesthetic, which is perhaps prime among these marginal spaces. Vladislavić’s consciousness is highly sensitive to the aesthetic and strains against constraints on the imagination, the prison of language, generic limits, the borderlines of context and the walls of Johannesburg, all while celebrating the ordinary. As Tony Morphet puts it, in Vladislavić’s prose ‘the world of the city follows the frontiers of language’ (87), and he is attuned to the, often discordant, word-music of contemporary life. This may be the harsh industrial music of Johannesburg’s marching suburban expansion, ‘a dreamlike blend of familiarity and displacement’ as the ‘boundaries of Johannesburg are drifting away, sliding over pristine ridges and valleys, lodging in tenuous places, slipping again’ (The Exploded View 6). It could be the rustling, greedy advertising copy of global consumerism as in ‘Isle of Capri’ where the narrator went to ‘rifle the treasure chest full of after-dinner mints’ (Propaganda by Monuments 141). It could also be the ersatz Esperanto of global tourism, described in ‘Lullaby’, where in a Mauritian resort
a dozen people were swirling about, moored to their drinks on the tables like boats to bollards. A spume of coconut butter and rum drifted downwind. The ice had not just broken but melted. In a rising tide of accented English the odd phrase of Italian or German bobbed like a cocktail olive or a lemon wedge. (115) This aesthetic sensibility is not confined to an editor and writer’s concern with words and their music, however. It also manifests as innovation in form that refuses pigeonholing. Starting his writing career with surreal short stories (Missing Persons), Vladislavić has moved on to reinvent the realist novel as creative non-fiction in episodic cameo format (Portrait with Keys), to challenge character-identification (The Restless Supermarket) and to unfreeze the boundaries between words and images (The Exploded View, Willem Boshoff, TJ/Double Negative). Postcolonialism, for Vladislavić, involves linguistic and aesthetic experimentation. If the aesthetic, particularly embodied in satire, wordplay and form, is primary among these marginal spaces, what then is Vladislavić’s aesthetic? In a nutshell, it is minimalist. However, it is a minimalism that is geopolitically located, multiform, satirically defamiliarising rather than realist, constantly changing and that suggests lostness as a possible virtue. His is a consciousness stripped of distraction and superfluity; his art that of brevity and understatement. In this respect his writing partakes of the aesthetic that has been probably the major aspect of modern culture and has culminated, thus far, in the starkness of Modernism. Leaving behind the naturederived complexity and rococo curlicues of traditional and religious art, modernity has evolved an increasingly spare and linear minimalist aesthetic that has been nowhere more apparent than in the sparse functionalism of the contemporary city. Vladislavić’s writing is minimalist in this Modernist sense: stripped of the extraneous, sensational, arbitrary and dilatory, his writing is a kind of South African Modernism that echoes J. M. Coetzee in its derivation from Calvinism and in its appropriateness to the vast land and sprawling cityscapes of South Africa. The European novel has been progressively pared of its romanticisms by Olive Schreiner, Sol Plaatje, Herman Charles Bosman, Bessie Head, J. M. Coetzee, etc. Indeed, this progressively spare minimalism might be regarded as South African literature’s greatest contribution to the world of letters. Vladislavić is part of this tradition, and he can be said to go substantially further than Coetzee in the absence of ‘personality’ and drama, let alone melodrama, in his writing. Interpersonal relationships, if present, are treated with restraint (although perhaps this is changing, as Portrait with Keys and Double Negative contain oblique autobiographical
elements, and do feature relationships). Moreover, for all that Vladislavić insists on literature remaining a space of autonomy and freedom (in the de Waal interview noted earlier), literariness is treated with humility and some sceptical humour. This minimalism also addresses the individual in its specificity: shorn of embellishment, individual identity and event appears in its particular presence, thingness, suchness, incommensurability. While minimalism might seem a realist, even reductionist, art, here it exposes the inner life, even animating spirit, of things because it is wielded in such an observant manner. Vladislavić is particularly good at revealing the life of objects, an art at which William Blake, Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings, among others, so excelled.3 Individual specificity evokes the etymology of the word ‘margin’, which partly lies in the Latin word ‘margo’ for edge, boundary, space surrounding text, and partly in the similar Indo-European (Scandinavian, Germanic and Old English) root, ‘mark’, meaning sign, limit, border, often between two peoples.4 Vladislavić brings these two meanings together, tracing boundary limits via their signs, marks, words, and often simultaneously reinventing those frontiers which may redefine the individual via new words and ways of seeing. As he says, ‘etymology is precisely the last place you should look to establish a fixed meaning for a word…It’s precisely where you look to establish the fluidity of meaning in language’ (interview with Marais and Backström 149). Vladislavić finds space within, between and beyond habitual limits and definitions, particularly for marginalia, for the apparently useless, for the new. Like the narrator Vlad in Portrait with Keys, Vladislavić ‘marches’ his territory, marking out its borders and limits, traversing and transgressing it, having it transgressed, to the extent that borders and definitions become porous and problematic. As the protagonist Neville Lister describes his compulsive hoarding of ephemera in Double Negative: How can I say what these fragments mean to me? The awkward truths of my life take shape in their negative spaces. In the lengthening shadows of the official histories, looming like triumphal arches over every small, messy life, these scraps saved from the onrush of the ordinary are the last signs I can bring myself to consult. (174) Hence, while his writing is often sparse in the manner of Ernest Hemingway or Coetzee, it also playfully allows words and meanings to spin out of control and implode under their own weight of generalisation. We might regard his minimalism as the art of removing the generalisations from words, satirically shearing off some of the fat
around terms, shortening the distance between word and thing.5 The individual, the person, creature or object, is revealed in all its specificity, multiplicity and marginality in this minimalist focus. In this sense, Vladislavić’s entertainment of dimensions marginalised under apartheid and its aftermath is place-specific, and he is at pains to situate everything he writes of with precision. His is an acute consciousness of particular places and events that he often feels with his entire sensorium in microscopic focus, and conveys in definite, pointillistically detailed language. He has the satirical character Budlender describe the process thus: ‘Eternal vigilance. He should cultivate that, he should find some odd corner of human life to which eternal vigilance had never been applied, and apply it, just to see what dividends it paid’ (Exploded 22). If we were to describe the movement of Vladislavić’s writerly consciousness it would perhaps be with the words ‘in and through’. This attention to minute particulars is, ironically, precisely what enables a cognitive mapping of wider geospatiality, partly because the local can be situated within a bigger region, and partly because it uncovers the distant discourses, the general, the national, the global, history, that penetrate and partly condition the local. A neat distinction between place and space is deconstructed. One might say that the individual’s direct, lived, sensuous experience of their immediate surroundings is the very ground for engagement with distant others and the global. Similarly, Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia and Chris van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness & Mercy both narrate a personal history of the township that argues for just such a sensuous engagement with the local, which is also a way of engaging with the wider world. Writing in this specific way about Johannesburg, Vladislavić might well be regarded as the watershed of African writing as it moves beyond the colonial heritage of the plaasroman and the more recent anti-pastoral (J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, for instance) into the African urban and Afropolitan. Just as nothing resisted the pernicious, lazy generalisations of apartheid’s taxonomies and their aftermaths as persistently as this kind of focus on the specific and individual, so Vladislavić’s satire of apartheid monumentalism has also proved ongoingly useful in characterising the rise of African cities within the growing tendrils of globalisation. Vladislavić’s portrayal of Johannesburg is thus not merely a celebration of hybrid cosmopolitan spaces so much as an exploration of the torsion between those and the physical detritus of the losses they involve. Indeed, no other author better captures the ephemeral chatter of advertising copy, or conveys the copia of consumerist ‘folderols’ (his term for capitalism’s trifling consolations from ‘Autopsy’ in Propaganda by Monuments 50) around which we now build so much of what we value.
These aspects of globalisation are nowhere more apparent than in the architecture of space, and his descriptions of the cosmopolitan anonymity of chain restaurants, cafés, hotels, malls, stores, Tuscan villages, summon that peculiar dissociative feeling of being everywhere and nowhere at once that characterises these spaces. Strangers are not alone in being alone in these airbrushed way stations with their ersatz bonhomie or subdued upmarket dignity. No promoter of cosmopolitanism like Alain de Botton (On Seeing and Noticing), Vladislavić adds a uniquely local obliquity and scepticism to the profusion of theories of space and the urban evident in the writing of Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, Iain Sinclair, Henri Lefebvre, Marc Augé, and others.6 Africa here is no mere case study to theorise or basket case inviting exoticisms and compassion fatigue, but ordinary and complexly interconnected. Vladislavić’s precise minimalist aesthetic resists ideological generalisations, anthropocentric assumptions and the flattening effects and numbing affects of globalisation. It might be regarded as the margins resisting the centripetal forces of centralisation. Tracing the contours of contemporary alienation and rapprochement, his Joburg is stripped of its ideals and pretensions. Frequently satirical, unlike Coetzee, his bare prose unearths the expedience of material ambition, the ideological and general. A delightfully Luddite scepticism towards technoscience, disposability and fashion permeates this writing. The performative avatar identities of the urban, the metropolitan, the sophisticate, of televisuality, of virtuality, of mobile telephony, are exposed as projections laden with power. In the post-ideological secularism of the present, it is all too easy to materialise our psychological complexes, particularly via the technology of virtuality. Budlender from ‘Villa Toscana’ describes contemporary popular culture as ‘the whole ridiculous lifestyle that surrounded him, with its repetitions, its mass-produced effects, its formulaic individuality’ (Exploded 31). Janie in Double Negative indulges in this over-represented culture thus: Janie held her camera out of the window and took photos. My friends in the trade insist that photos are made rather than taken, but she was a taker. She took samples, clipping them out of the fabric of the unspooling world at arm’s length and barely glancing at the screen to see what was there. (167) It is precisely via a light, sceptical, satirical tread on the grounds of the local and material, dense with long history, bristling with memory, bustling with daily practices, that any counter engagement with the global takes place.
Hence, while Vladislavić’s writing is characterised by brief sentences pared to the bone, it can also include long lists of ephemera and marginalia that embody and implicitly critique the distracted dissatisfaction of contemporary consumerist excess and the obsession with the ‘new’. In other words, Vladislavić’s minimalism opposes the maximalism and hubbub of consumerism. In this respect his writing is a minor literature in that it allows the language of the local, the poetry of the ordinary, the voice of the object, to emerge.7 Does this mean that Vladislavić’s writing is a minority literature, in this case white? Perhaps, although it seems that Vladislavić ranges beyond just this one minority, suggesting that all are minorities in this patchwork quilt of a ‘rainbow nation’. His is a significantly post-nationalist, post-sectarian literature in its specificity, even while it resists globalisation. It might also be said that his writing is banal, the literature of the everyday, if it were not for the disconcerting unfamiliarity with which the ordinary looks back at the reader, unknown. As Simeon Majara, an artist character in The Exploded View, muses, with some self-satire: The new restraint. Where should one draw the line? The world was so loud, and no one took seriously a thing that didn’t attract attention to itself. There was no room for subtlety. Things were either visible or not, their qualities were either shouting from the surface or silent. This silence, the lull behind the noisy surface of objects, was difficult and dangerous. You never knew what it held, if anything. How were you to judge whether the voice you heard was a deeper meaning, whispering its secrets, or merely the distorted echo of your own babble? (123–123) Again, Vladislavić is self-reflexively humble about the ability of any aesthetic practice to initiate change, even within the individual and their world of feeling, yet it is precisely that change, in both the individual and the social, that he continues to insist upon. While it may seem that this satirical, restrained aesthetic is coolly aloof, impersonal even, this arguably abstracted state of feeling actually results from intimate engagement with context. Minimalism manifests oft ignored social realities as well as the process of perceiving. Satire is a direct response to context, both the brutalism of apartheid social engineering and post-apartheid’s schizophrenic continuations of this. These stripped aesthetic forms evoke strong, albeit unfamiliar, feelings. Satire, for instance, leads to laughter, often with a hysterical edge or quiet wryness, leading the reader to wonder why there is so much to satirise, how to engage creatively with an easily overdetermining context, and what form best enables freedom in the postcolonial city in flux. Such affects
also include the anxiety of white obsolescence, the excitement of black aspiration, achromatic contentments, unfelt feelings crowding at the corners of consciousness. For instance, two feelings particularly endemic to, and symptomatic of, our modernity in Vladislavić’s fiction are endangerment and a sense of vulnerability, both of which are explored in ‘Lullaby’ where people in an aeroplane are described thus: ‘For a moment, I saw an aeroplane full of little children asleep in their adult bodies, under youthful muscle and middle-aged fat, behind beards and breasts. Babies. The long, grey nursery droned into the dark’ (123). Yet here Vladislavić is not overwhelmed by these feelings and evinces a tender concern for our infant-like vulnerability to our own constructions via juxtaposition: just like soft jelly babies we are easily mangled within our hard steel vehicles moving through dizzying changes at accelerating speeds. Satire here, for all of its bite, is not vicious. Vladislavić’s locodescription in Potrait with Keys demonstrates another emotion particularly helpful in Johannesburg: courage. Refusing to be cowed and confined by fear, the narrator takes to the streets. This suggests the transformative power of minimalism which rehabilitates the past via contemplative rigour in the present moment. Moreover, the focus upon the marginal defamiliarises our feelings, prompting new emotions, wider sympathies. These strange feelings include, among others, sympathy for the obnoxious (The Restless Supermarket), the secret life of the objects we create, the haunting sepulchral quality of the spaces and rubbish left behind in the scramble for the new. Vladislavić suggests that an open, sensitive, light and subtle responsibility is required to respond compassionately as well as creatively to multiple, and frequently contradictory, local and global circumstances. Reading this aesthetic requires a non-programmatic attention to detail, an aesthetic sensibility that in South Africa tended to be relegated to secondary importance during the struggle years. This hermeneutic, like that of Vladislavić, has to be prepared to go over the edges of what is known into a state of transition and transience. Such reading is thus marginal in the sense of occupying the margins of the text; it is annotation in the spaces underneath and around the letters, spaces that were marginalised in History, by History. Marginal notes provide summation and explanation, but also a margin for error and freedom. Reading this writing requires a sensitivity to margins, emotions and implied narratives that are written as much through absence or negative space as through presence. This mode of reading is concise. Vladislavić’s implicit minimalist philosophy of ‘less is more’ works first in the realm of consciousness where, largely stripped of distractions, expectations and social constructions, his mind is free to notice what is right in front of
it. Such poetic consciousness is open, has peripheral vision for the minor and ignored (including aesthetic and formal aspects), and is fluid; it roams freely, zooming between the textures of the specific and the broad brush-strokes of the general and historical. In this respect, all of his writing is an ‘exploded view’, moving between the component parts and the whole, as in the novel of that title.8 We might chart a similar trajectory in South African literary critique, which has moved from nationalist resistance inwards towards more holistic resistances, including the poetic and psychological, attempting to move into ordinary living, marginal spaces and global consciousnesses, and ranging from analyses of psychic haunting and the detritus of trauma to the motilities of postcolonial cities. Retaining a sense of the urgency of pressing social issues from the materialist analyses of the 1970s and 1980s, as in Louise Bethlehem’s ‘rhetoric of urgency’, this criticism has increasingly moved into analyses of representation, aesthetics, form, psychology, interiority and affect – a move I would characterise as historical formalism. As Roland Barthes had it, ‘to parody a well-known saying, I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it’ (112). While sociopolitical concerns are likely to be a major preoccupation of this criticism for the foreseeable future, it need make no more apologies for its formal, aesthetic or marginal, as well as overtly social, concerns. That this has been a vexed movement is apparent in the critical pieces collected here, all of which engage in the debate about the sociopolitical valency of post-apartheid South African literature, and the import of postmodernism for postcolonial cultures. Vladislavić has been part of an emerging controversial trend in postcolonial writing and criticism, which has minimised the pre-eminence of the obviously political in favour of a more nuanced sense of complexity, interconnection and resistance, a movement that aligns it with postmodernism and magical realism. This postcolonial aesthetic, however, is not necessarily ‘art for art’s sake’ or sundered from the mundane, the material, the political. In fact, this re-aestheticisation might be seen as a re-energising of the political via a more holistic resistance that includes the individual, psychology, desire, style, as well as overt political organisation. Indeed, one might argue that this is a more thoroughgoing critique of the mimetic, empiricist and utilitarian discourses underlying imperialism. Is this a recuperation of new criticism and its close reading within theoretically-informed postcolonialism? If so, it is concerned with feeling but without sentimentality; it involves the sympathetic imagination without liberal humanism; it attempts to engage in forensic analysis without historical amnesia or universal generalisations.
In other words, one might say that whereas African literature was once subject to social realities which were seen to be of greater import, this arguably condescending interpretative framework has since been loosened such that this writing is as open to the variety of appreciations as any literature (accompanied by a certain wry acceptance of the limitations of literature’s social effect). South African literature and literary studies is thus no longer exceptional; it has rejoined world literature for all that it is critical of that world. Its politically informed historical formalism is now beginning to ask questions about the effect and affect of postcolonial literature in the global milieu and attempting to redefine the sympathetic imagination as a consequence. But none of this minimalist aesthetic or hermeneutic multiplicity and sophistication should suggest a definitive interpretation of Vladislavić’s fiction; indeed, the elusiveness of the marginal may well be its most constant feature. Vladislavić’s engagements are for the sake of autonomy and freedom; to this extent his writing resists a realism, or any other form or analysis, that is reductive. The results of his delvings remain at least partially unfamiliar. As readers we are always struggling to crack his code and fully understand the import of his words, images and narratives. Readers are granted a high degree of freedom, and hence responsibility, by this writing. This elusive process of meaning making is reflexively modelled in Vladislavić’s narratives (or lack thereof ) and in characters who stumble along, often lost, trying to elicit meaning from apparently random objects and events. The African flâneur is no leisurely dilettante taking his turtle for a stroll on a leash in this fiction. Indeed, Vladislavić’s most characteristic character is an invisible everyman who may be like the reader or may be an anachronistic hangover, idiosyncratic misfit, stranger or migrant, sometimes unpleasant, who connects the formal and informal, urban and rural, city and underbelly, groomed and chaotic, wealthy and impoverished. Never ‘at home’, always restless and moving into informal zones, this stranger redefines our possibilities just as Vladislavić redefines his own. Moreover, the space of undecideability between author and narrator/focaliser in his work adds to this elusiveness. Evading our attempts to fix his writing in the clarity of an amber understanding, we are never quite satisfied by the understanding we do arrive at. Vladislavić encourages us to ask the question of why we want a final clarity. Perhaps making a virtue of necessity, lostness has potential for this writer (as in the ending of Double Negative). Perhaps it is simply that bold claims cannot be made of minimalist fiction.
Vladislavić’s literary resistance to the architectonics of monumental power began in 1989 with Missing Persons. For Tony Morphet reviewing the short story volume just after its first publication, this resistance lay in the unexpected and unpredictable possibilities in his writing. For Sue Marais, this resistance was in Vladislavić’s critique of monumentalism in the ‘stupid republic’ (59) he parodies, a society which, in Jacques Berthoud’s words, ‘turned an irrelevance [“race”/skin colour] into a fundamental’. On the other hand, in Christopher Thurman’s view, Vladislavić’s resistance is his foregrounding of the problems of being an artist in an uncreative society. This range of views indicates a resistance holistic and concerted enough to have continued relevance after apartheid ‘ended’ in 1994, resulting in needle-sharp satires of the commodity fetishism and consumerism that globalisation brought. This resistance continued with The Folly in 1993, which portrayed the contradictions of apartheid as surreal. That this rather abstract novella, which tipped more than a nod in the direction of semiotics and symbolism, was greeted with some puzzlement at the time is evident in Ivor Powell’s review which critiqued the text for its abstruse non-realism and unconvincing characterisation. A more socio-historical reading was provided by Ingrid de Kok who situated the novel within the acute transitional uncertainties of the early 1990s in South Africa. Peter Horn’s review, on the other hand, was more positive, coming as it did from a deconstructive position appreciative of Vladislavić’s self-reflexivity concerning the process of creativity, particularly within a monumentalised society. My own piece attempts to explain the abstraction of this text as a result of surreal psychosexual pathologies arising from engineered social divisions; the house of apartheid relied on extreme machismo and homosocial bonding under a strong leader to contain its subjects. Vladislavić’s book suggested that freedom from apartheid monumentalism required an intervention into the realm of language structures in the psyche, the house of words, as well as more social resistances. Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories extended this deconstruction of the remnants of apartheid ideology into the verities and jingoisms of the new South Africa, exposing the throes of monumental change as a previously isolated nation joined the international community. The ability of this collection to spark connections beyond the local and parochial is evident in the critical pieces selected here which all examine one of its stories from distant vantage points: form and genre, Scottish writerliness and post-communism respectively. Shaun de Waal’s interview did much to clarify Vladislavić’s emphasis upon literature’s writerly, imaginative and marginal qualities.
Elaine Young’s piece pointed out that a key aspect of deconstruction is the challenging of the established empiricist orthodoxies of Western realism and representation that inevitably accompanied a country attempting to reveal the clandestine secrets and heal the traumatic symptoms of apartheid. Zoë Wicomb explored another aspect of Vladislavić’s deconstruction: a self-reflexive demystifying of creativity via foregrounding the process of writing. For Wicomb, it was Vladislavić’s locatedness that was the most precious ingredient in his creativity. That this locatedness was never entirely isolated is emphasised in Monica Popescu’s piece which traced the links he made between South Africa and the Soviet bloc (something traded upon in the Soviet-style cover art of Flashback Hotel: Early Stories). In the eponymous title story ‘Propaganda by Monuments’, Vladislavić suggested that every attempt to erect the ‘new’ tends to unwittingly echo the past it attempts to transcend, a deconstructive point if ever there was one. One of the inevitabilities of rapid flux is the difficulty of keeping up, resulting in obsolescence and anachronism. One strand of post-apartheid South African writing is the literature of obsolescence, primarily literature by and about white males who feel themselves, willingly or otherwise, to be dinosaurs in the new dispensation. The Restless Supermarket is one of these texts, alongside Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and a number of others, embodying a highly ambivalent negotiation between nostalgia and futurism, provoking the ambiguation of sympathy. Lionel Abrahams found that ‘rather more than I think I’m supposed to, I sympathetically identify (perhaps even empathise) with Aubrey Tearle’ (59). In his interview with Mike Marais and Carita Backström, Vladislavić said that he knew he was on the right track with Aubrey Tearle when he felt discomfort; readers are repelled by Tearle’s offensiveness, but identify with his sense of quixotic isolation. That this literature of obsolescence is by no means necessarily conservative was pointed out by Stefan Helgesson who explored Vladislavić’s resistance to the language of commerce, globalisation, commodification, consumerism and the ‘new’ in this ironic novel. English, the transnational language, is localised here, and simultaneously freed of its more imperial commercialisms. For Fred de Vries, this explained why the novel has been unamenable to translation; its errors, solecisms, foibles, neologisms, ephemera, evanescent colloquialisms and fantastic linguistic complexity foregrounded the difficulty and necessity of translation in our transnational world. If anything, The Exploded View was even more critical of the culture of global consumerism: here the Tuscan villas arranged in serried ranks in security villages
that have so expanded Johannesburg’s peripheries and eaten up the veld, appeared in all their facile architectural horror. For Tony Morphet, this consumerism provided Vladislavić with so much bizarre reality that his text had ‘no fantasy constructions and few, if any, vertiginous falls for the reader. Instead intricate cuts in the time sequences govern the narratives’ (88). Likewise, for Shane Graham this novel embodied a strong political statement about the increasingly foreign manipulation of space and behaviour in South Africa because Vladislavić so consistently held material realities in view. This growing artistic and architectural sense of spaces and objects was apparent in Andie Miller’s interview in which Vladislavić revealed his physical cut-’n-paste technique, where he lays out and juggles sections of text, acknowledging the affinity for surrealism and Dada (particularly Kandinsky, Duchamp and Breton) which is everywhere present in his writing in some form or another, despite his apparently increasing realism. Willem Boshoff made it clear that art had indeed ‘evolved into what I would say was my major interest, outside books’ (Miller 120). For Sally-Ann Murray, this book was a homage to Boshoff ’s craft and conceptual genius, but it also suggested how Vladislavić’s own fiction is similarly painstaking and conceptual: ‘like many of the artists he names, he is an habitual and urbane trickster, a skilled scavenger of language, anecdote, observation and voice, the writer making art out of ordinary words’ (268 this volume). The effect of this is that his ‘prose entices a reader into becoming an artist, and envisaging “the city as an aesthetic project”’ (269 this volume). Another art involvement was ‘The Model Men’, a three-way non-collaborative cooperation between Vladislavić, Joachim Schönfeldt and Andries Oliphant partly reproduced here. Muff Andersson’s review of ‘The Model Men’ emphasised the separateness of each contribution: at no stage did any of the contributors attempt to influence the response of the others, allowing for greater mutual respect and freedom. Vladislavić has followed this non-collaboration in working with others, apparent in Double Negative and its companion volume TJ by photographer David Goldblatt. Portrait with Keys substantially increased Vladislavić’s international visibility, primarily because its viscerally vivid perambulations of Joburg spoke directly to our need to make sense of, and feel at home in, our urban and peri-urban milieu. Ralph Goodman’s review suggested how the novel redefined the protagonist flâneur as an urban guerrilla who seizes meaning from their context despite their relative marginality. Searching for a sense of home within the ecologically alienated and often inhumane environs of the city becomes the problem for the immigrant, the narrator, and even for the author, in my own piece. For Sarah Nuttall, Vladislavić’s novel also grappled
with the difficulties of racial and generational alienations. Jane Poyner extends this argument by suggesting that Vladislavić’s emphasis upon the private and affective is an antidote to the ongoing legacy of apartheid. This is significant as, without such an antidote, the alienating effects of apartheid continue to flourish in an era of global consumerism which all too often widens the gap between rich and poor. Portrait with Keys is part of a new generation of urban writing that has, so far, included Phaswane Mpe, Chris van Wyk, K. Sello Duiker, Niq Mhlongo, Andie Miller, Lauren Beukes, Kopano Matlwa and Kgebetli Moele, among others. Increasingly, ‘township’ writing will extend this genre, as with Jacob Dlamini and Chris van Wyk, for instance. In this sense the text has been part of the gentrification of post-apartheid South African fiction; the crime, autobiographical, memoir, historical romance, performance poetry and urban genres have proliferated; a healthy sign. Finally, TJ/Double Negative involved a cooperative non-collaboration with photographer David Goldblatt that suggested a trajectory of ongoing experimentation and innovation into the future while maintaining his earliest concerns. For all that Vladislavić’s writing has increasingly engaged with reality, with photorealism, he continues to have his characters (alongside other textual aspects) question realism: as Neville Lister the protagonist asks, ‘How could you ever do justice to something so rich in detail? You couldn’t do it in a novel, let alone a photograph’ (Double Negative 45). Suggesting that truth is stranger than fiction, this Babushka doll slipcase production (see colour section) troubles the boundaries of image and text, as evident in Bronwyn Law-Viljoen’s interview, suggesting the value of being lost.
The pieces included in this volume move some way towards mapping not only the range of Vladislavić’s work and the criticism thereof, not only changing concerns in Southern Africa and its literary criticism, not only the emergent literature of postcolonial cities, but also how it is that a previously isolated pariah country joined a global community (or lack thereof ). In Vladislavić’s questioning of South Africa and Johannesburg’s place in the contemporary globalised world he has satirised not only Afro-pessimist and xenophobic generalisations, suggesting possible palliatives to the spectacular history and literature of South Africa, but also cosmopolitanism and consumerism, implying forms of opposition to negative aspects of globalisation. This suggestiveness answers the question of the significance of the individual, specific,
small and marginal: these are extremely significant, and nowhere more so than in a country struggling to its feet within a wider world dominated by a growing global culture that tends to ignore and obliterate difference. Moreover, the emphasis on the marginal reminds us of the cost of ‘progress’ – the thousand derelict buildings crammed with immigrants in central Joburg that haunt Sandton like its unconscious, for instance. In this sense, Vladislavić has opened up spaces that are not mere emptinesses but resonant with presence and possibilities. The pieces in this book also instantiate the provenance of Vladislavić’s writing. Internationally his stature rests on his responsiveness to the contemporary, his humour, his honed style, his articulation of the search for home within the urban. These qualities appeal to those, and they are many, who have migrated to the big urban spaces of the world. Locally he has been positioned by critics as the voice of the ‘now’ in post-apartheid letters for his forensic analysis of South Africa in transition from the exceptional and marginalised to the merely marginal. That he finds many of the promises of democracy betrayed is axiomatic; that he discovers some alternative to this betrayal in a creative consciousness and minimalist mode of writing that pays detailed attention to the marginal is crucial. Such textured, sensitive attention implies a tolerance for the marginal that is not a soft virtue, but a ‘strong, active value’ that ‘requires work’ (interview with Marais and Backström 128), an active engagement with the self and specific others. Vladislavić deconstructs any neat boundary between aesthetics and politics, such that his minimalism constitutes an enduring marginal and satirical resistance to monumental power, whether of apartheid or globalisation, whether of bodies or emotions, whether of reality or word. For Vladislavić, it seems that any democracy that has no space for the marginal is not worthy of the name.
Notes 1 This concern with monumentalism is perhaps also derived from Nietzsche’s distinction between monumental, antiquarian and critical histories in ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’. 2 Indeed, Isabel Allende described modernity as the ‘monumental pandemonium of progress’ (44), a formulation appropriate to Vladislavić’s similarly postcolonial concept, particularly
given that he cites Humphrey Jennings’s Pandemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers at the end of Portrait With Keys (211). 3 As Terry Eagleton has it: ‘To penetrate to the essence of what makes a thing uniquely itself is to discover the part it plays in the cosmic whole. This idea runs steadily through Western civilisation, all the way from Plato’s Forms and Leibniz’s monads to Hegel’s World Spirit, Coleridge’s symbols and Hopkins’s “inscapes”’ (13). 4 A merging of at least three distinct but related Germanic base forms, whose reflexes remained distinct in Old English, but had fallen together by late Middle English: Old English mearc (strong feminine) < a Germanic feminine ō -stem which is the base also of Old Frisian merke mark, character, border, Middle Dutch marke limit, boundary, borderland (compare margrave n.; Dutch mark undivided land (chiefly in border areas) held in common ownership), Old Saxon marka mark, boundary, Old High German marca, marcha border, end, country (Middle High German marke, mark (see sense 3), German Mark border country, especially in the names of certain territories: see sense 2), Old Icelandic mǫrk forest (often a boundary between peoples: compare Old Saxon holtmarka boundary forest), -mǫrk land (only in compounds; compare denmark n., Swedish mark, Danish mark field, ground, Norwegian mark in the same senses), Gothic marka boundary, landmark, and the first element in the Germanic ethnonym preserved as classical Latin Marcomann (see marcomanni n.). (Oxford English Dictionary online). 5 In conversation, he said that ‘I do think that one can get to very precise things in language, but you have to get past the layers of fat that lie on top of the language that we normally use; this is why I think that so much good writing is about the craft of it…What takes the inspirational outpouring into the level of really good art is the ability to examine it technically and get to something else’ (interview with Gerald Gaylard). 6 His fiction has been usefully read in the theorisation of Johannesburg, notably in Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe’s Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis and Lindsay Bremner’s Writing the City into Being. 7 This tends to happen via the deterritorialisation of language, much in the manner of Kafka, as suggested by Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. 8 See particularly pages 15, 56, 137, 188 in The Exploded View.
References Allende, Isabel. ‘The Gold of Tamás Vargas.’ The Stories of Eva Luna. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. London: Penguin, 1991. 44–54. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Vintage, 2000.
Bethlehem, Louise. ‘“A Primary Need as Strong as Hunger”: The Rhetoric of Urgency in South African Literary Culture under Apartheid.’ Poetics Today 22. 2 (Summer 2001): 365–389. Bremner, Lindsay. Writing the City Into Being: Essays on Johannesburg 1998–2008. Johannesburg: Fourthwall Books, 2010. De Botton, Alain. On Seeing and Noticing. London: Penguin, 2005. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. 1975. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. De Waal, Shaun. ‘Pleasures of the Imagination.’ ‘Review of Books’ suppl. Mail & Guardian 12. 24 (18–24 October 1996): 3. Dlamini, Jacob. Native Nostalgia. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2009. Eagleton, Terry. How to Read a Poem. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. Morphet, Tony. ‘Words First: Ivan Vladislavić.’ scrutiny2 11. 2 (2006): 85–90. Ndebele, Njabulo. Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006. Nietzsche, Friedrich. ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.’ Untimely Meditations. 1873. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 59–123. Nuttall, Sarah and Achille Mbembe. Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2008. Van Wyk, Chris. Shirley, Goodness & Mercy. Johannesburg: Picador: 2004. Vladislavić, Ivan. ‘An interview with Ivan Vladislavić.’ Mike Marais and Carita Backström. English in Africa 29. 2 (2002): 119–128. –. Flashback Hotel: Early Stories. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2010. –. Interview with Gerald Gaylard. Philosophy Café, Pretoria, 31 July 2009. –. ‘Lullaby.’ Touch. Ed. Karina Magdalena Szczurek. Cape Town: Zebra, 2009. 113–123. –. Portrait With Keys: Joburg & What-What. Cape Town, Umuzi, 2006. –. Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories. Cape Town: David Philip, 1996. –. The Exploded View. Johannesburg: Random House, 2004. Vladislavić, Ivan and David Goldblatt. TJ/Double Negative. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2010.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.