Review: Writing by Ivan Vladislavić and Eben Venter

This is the proof a review that was recently published in Wasafiri: a literary magazine of international writing:

‘My point is that “restless” doesn’t mean that you never rest. Don’t you see? It means, and I quote, never still, fidgety’ (86–87). Thus argues Aubrey Tearle, the narrator of Ivan Vladislavić’s extraordinary novel, in a vain attempt to convince the manager of a 24-hour supermarket that the name of his business simply ‘creates the wrong impression’. Tearle, a retired proofreader of telephone directories, is obsessed with correcting the lexical errors of Johannesburg: his mission, to restore order in a time of change. The novel is set in 1993, and uses Tearle’s microscopic lens to explore the lived transition from apartheid to a postapartheid society in this city.

Vladislavić’s work has been celebrated in South Africa for some time, but has not been widely available outside the country. The first UK edition of this novel, published by the innovative subscription publisher, And Other Stories, happily changes this. The book was originally published in southern Africa in 2001, and won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2002. Vladislavić’s work was recently recognised by the Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction (2015), and we can look forward to more from And Other Stories soon: Double Negative is published in 2015, and The Folly and the non-fiction Portrait with Keys are to follow in 2016.

The Restless Supermarket certainly deserves recognition. It is not a book that can be read quickly: its structure is built upon the ‘lexical gymnastics’ and lengthy word associations that Tearle, our narrator, is so proud of. Tearle is stand-offish, objectionable and spends his life (and the novel) collecting ‘corrigenda: things to be corrected, especially in a printed book’ (65). He files these ‘literals, misspellings, inversions, anacolutha’ (65) in his System of Records, which becomes his life’s work: ‘The Proofreader’s Derby’. The narrator regularly visits the Café Europa, a whites-only establishment which he considers the bastion of civilisation. He upholds certain ‘standards’ and resists change, even as his world deteriorates around him. Indeed, Tearle wants to pass the ‘entire city through the eye of the proofreader’s needle’ (292). This mission is literal and metaphorical. Tearle frequently points out corrigenda to proprietors, acquaintances and even strangers in the city, but also wishes to somehow ‘cleanse’ and ‘civilise’ the city. The implications of this become quite clear at the devastating Goodbye Bash which closes the Café Europa, where Tearle is described as ‘totally verkramp’ (255): an ‘Afrikanerism’ referring to Tearle’s attachment to the existing order, that he had heard ‘before’ (255). Even Tearle’s seemingly basic proofreading has important political implications: the errors he collects in the cafe and in the street relate directly to the increasing mixing and use of non-standard Englishes in businesses and print media. Even Tearle’s study of the Johannesburg telephone directory reveals the concentration of ethnic groups in certain areas of the city, and secret changes between one directory and the next (129–30).

This is all deftly done. Through Tearle’s painfully detailed accounts the absurdities and injustices of the city emerge, and the ‘civilisation’ and ‘ambience’ that he clings to are exposed for a façade. The narrative depends heavily on an aesthetic of accumulation, and on a strong sense of satire. Although the prose brims with adjectives and clauses, it remains tightly structured, and the wit dry. Nevertheless, a strong sense of human fragility remains throughout. There is something tragic about watching Tearle in his disintegrating world, however disagreeable he may be. The sadness that we feel for him reminds us of the political seriousness that underpins the absurdity and playfulness of the narrative. Vladislavić has produced an unusual and commanding portrait of this time.

Where The Restless Supermarket moves slowly, Eben Venter’s Wolf Wolf propels the reader forward: a compelling, even compulsive read, built on dark suspense. The city is Cape Town; the protagonist, Mattheüs Duiker: the son of a wealthy Mercedes merchant. The narrative bears witness to Mattheüs’s struggle to find his way in post-apartheid South Africa: to negotiate a path between inherited guns, cigar smoke, blood and braais, enterprise and same-sex desire. The novel was originally written in Afrikaans under the same title, and published simultaneously in English by the South African publisher, Tafelberg Publishers (translated by Michiel Heyns). Tafelberg publishes in Afrikaans and English. As with The Restless Supermarket, this novel demands that we pay close attention to the specifics of the South African context in which it was produced. This does not mean, however, that we should expect a neatly packaged account of postapartheid South Africa from either of these writers. Difficult times call for different literary techniques.

Wolf Wolf is saturated with the guilt and contradictions that run through Vladislavić’s novel. But in Venter’s we smell, feel and hear the invisible things that are intensely present during this period: above all, the disciplining of human relations and behaviour. Mattheüs’s tender descriptions of his terminally ill Pa appear alongside the claustrophobia of his dank room and flashbacks of his father in his heyday: commanding his study, the house, the braai. Mattheüs recalls in vivid, present-tense prose how he watched his Pa ‘take a sip of wine and lustily, unashamedly animallike, raise his T-bone and start tearing at the meat with his strong white teeth’ (Venter 232). This episode is told in heady present-tense prose, through a winding sentence that is almost a page long. Clauses are layered upon one another as the event builds in intensity. This is not verbosity, however, but finely crafted and punctuated prose which allows the reader to move with the narrator, to draw breath and turn, with the syntax, towards his father, ‘saliva gleaming on his lower lip’ (232). The father is examined in minute detail and is one of the central forces of the novel. Mattheüs grapples with the weight of the expectations that he has inherited from this man: with his Afrikaaner history, with his language and with heteronormativity.

Certain matters are afforded more significance than they seem to warrant. We are often forced to focus for a long time on a single event: the signing of a cheque or the opening date of a take-away. These events become so dominant that it begins to seem like they will sustain the entire narrative: that only their resolution will close the book. But suddenly, these issues are brought to a conclusion, leaving us with a different obsession. This curious narrative structure sustains the tension and cleverly allows us a glimpse into Mattheüs’s consciousness and perspective. Fortunately, this is not as frustrating as it might seem. Instead the structure intensifies the suspense as we follow Mattheüs and his lover Jack through their grim, sometimes funny, experiences to a dramatic crescendo. Folded into the story are glimmers of ways of loving and living that cannot yet exist, but that might, in time, survive in this place.

As in The Restless Supermarket, women largely function as stage-props. In both books they appear as softer, flatter counterparts: piano players in evening dresses, sisters in yellow tights, sickly-sweet neighbours. The focus instead is on the agony of negotiating the ingrained expectations and prejudices of white, dominant masculinity at a time of massive national transition. The results are painful, sad, even desperate. But there is nothing desperate about the writing. In both books the writing is exacting and adept, and we should look forward with interest to more from Venter and Vladislavić.

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