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Johannesburg Blues

Ivan Vladislavić’s characters are lost in the new South Africa

The Distance by Ivan Vladislavić. Archipelago, 304 pages.

Ivan Vladislavić is considered something of a “Johannesburg writer” in his native South Africa. In “Joburg,” his 2006 essay in Granta magazine, he called it “a frontier city, a place of contested boundaries” and gave us some beautifully observed vignettes. For me, the most telling involved his preparations for a dinner party. Living in one of Africa’s most violent cities—we get a wry list of steering locks and their relative merits—he is forced to pay a private company to protect his guests’ cars. Unfortunately, he leaves it to the last minute, and has to make do with a kid from the sticks, still on probation. The poor fellow doesn’t even have a complete uniform, just the top half, “a navy-blue tunic that is too short in the sleeve.” For protection against possible carjackers, he has “a large silver torch and a panic button hanging around his neck.” Our writer is full of angst at what he has done:

Bongi is standing under a tree on the far side of the road. He looks vulnerable and lonely. It is starting to drizzle. Minky takes him an umbrella from the stand at the door, the grey and yellow one with the handle in the shape of a toucan, which once belonged to her dad. With this frivolous thing in his hand, Bongi looks even more poorly equipped to cope with the streets.

“This is unforgivable,’ I say, “this is a low point. I’d rather live in a flat than do this.”

“What difference does that make?” says Minky, who always sees through my rhetoric. “People have still got to park their cars somewhere.”

In this relatively short essay, later collected in Portrait with Keys (2006), Vladislavić captures how the city changes over a decade-and-a-half, as South Africa transitions from apartheid to majority rule. He and his older brother were in the habit of meeting every second Tuesday of the month at a well-known restaurant in the central business district, until the escalating violence sent them fleeing to the outer suburbs with the rest of the white population. The parking lot was “the barometer of change,” Vladislavic reflects. “You could find parking on the fourth floor now, and after a while on the third, and then always on the second or first. Finally the illuminated arrows were switched off.”

Discussing the city in a 2019 interview with the Johannesburg Review of Books, Vladislavić quoted from Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York: “Maybe we become New Yorkers the day we realise that New York will go on without us. To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves.” For Vladislavić too, Jo’burg, is a living organism, and it serves as a backdrop for much of his fiction.

The Folly (1993), his debut novel, is an outlier in this regard. In the JRB interview, Vladislavić said it is set in a version of Pretoria, the northern, largely Afrikaans-speaking city where he grew up. It centers on a white, lower-middle class couple whose placid, domestic routine is suddenly upended by the arrival of a drifter who moves onto the empty plot beside them. As in Coetzee’s Age of Iron, he comes to exert an outsize presence, eventually convincing the husband that he has built a substantial house when all he has done is put some nails in the ground and a length of string between them. In the end, officials from the nearby loony bin come to take the stranger away, and our man returns to the Mrs. he had almost abandoned as if nothing much has happened.

It is this kind of quiet, almost subliminal resonance between fiction and politics that Vladislavić’s many admirers, academic and otherwise, have made much of.

The Folly was published during the brief but volatile transition from apartheid to majority rule. Nelson Mandela had been released in 1990, but elections were still four years away. Violence perpetrated by white and black extremists, culminating in the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, chief of staff of the armed wing of the African National Congress, might have led to outright civil war but for Mandela’s moral authority and the size of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the largest in Africa. It is this kind of quiet, almost subliminal resonance between fiction and politics that Vladislavić’s many admirers, academic and otherwise, have made much of.

His next novel, the award-winning The Restless Supermarket (2001), is actually set in that volatile year of 1993. It is a satire about a white man recently retired from a lifetime of proofreading telephone directories for the Post Office. Coincidentally, his favorite Café Europa, located in a neighborhood that is rapidly becoming mixed, is about to close. Now he notices that standards are not what they were, both here as elsewhere:

Standards of morality, conduct in public life, personal hygiene and medical care, the standard of living, and so on. All these are symptoms of a more general malaise. Decline with a capital D.

In the café itself, this is evident in the presence of “Africans,” new arrivals from Eastern Europe, and women—the last of whom he considers prostitutes for the most part. Even worse are the two TVs dedicated exclusively to sports. The man is hardly a sympathetic figure for Archbishop Tutu’s Rainbow Nation, but the author manages to make him interesting enough, by turns ridiculous and amusing. At one point he even takes to berating local retailers for their typos, for instance the kebab shop owner who spells hummus with only one “m.” (He has the seventh edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary to prove it.)

In “Afritude Sauce,” the most highly regarded of the four interlocking stories in The Exploded View (2004), a white sanitation engineer finds himself equally at odds with his surroundings. The occasion is a visit to a new, low-cost housing project—called, tellingly, Hani View—with an apparent sewage problem. But on reaching there, our hero discovers that the residents couldn’t afford the water bill, having rejected backyard pit latrines in favor of “a throne at the end of the passage.” The engineer fancies himself a progressive, especially when he retires with some locals to a nearby eatery, having decided to go casual, “although the loose-fitting shirt with its African design—argumentative little people jumping up and down waving their arms in the air, jagged lines sparking from their fists—always made him feel ridiculous.” He settles for the Afritude sauce, the house special, “the flavour of the New South Africa, an exhilarating blend of earthy goodness and spicy sophistication,” as one of his companions explains. As they wait for their order, he looks around in smug self-satisfaction:

As they sat there in the middle of the room, the focus of attention, he, Egan, and the five black men, an equal among equals, he became conscious of their special status. They represented something important. They were the only racially mixed party in the place. Glancing around at the other tables, at the pale Danes and Poms, taking a quick census, he felt weirdly proud of himself. He was part of the new order, that part of it that did not need to be labelled “new.”

Unfortunately, he has got ahead of himself. The conversation gradually shifts into Sotho, the local African language, and he drinks too much: “They were talking heatedly. He had the feeling that for the first time this evening he had ceased to matter to them. It made no difference that he was there.” He ends up in his hotel room feeling lost and embarrassed.

A pervasive sense of unease marks out Vladislavić’s characters.

But you don’t have to be white to be confused about your place in the new scheme of things. In “Curiouser” (curio-user), another story from The Exploded View, a black installation artist with “a private school accent” faces some tricky questions about appropriation. The matter grows urgent when he acquires six crates of masks from a supposedly Malawian dealer that may, after all, have been stolen. Once scuffed up, they form the basis of his exhibition, which is very well received. As a friend remarks:

It’s unfair, isn’t it? You carve up a cheap curio and put it in a gallery, and suddenly it’s worth a packet. . . . But I can’t help being aware of the balance of power, the imbalance, one should say. The way you live here, the way the people who made these masks must live.

It is this pervasive sense of unease that marks out Vladislavić’s characters, prompting some commentators to draw analogies with the unsettled state of post-apartheid society. 

Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell, 1967. | Cliff

And so to his latest, The Distance, which follows a white boy, Joe, who goes from adolescence to adulthood in 1970s apartheid South Africa—all the while obsessing over Muhammad Ali. Joe’s attraction to The Greatest is somewhat mysterious. By his own admission, he wasn’t even an echt fan of the sport, which he does not get to see, as South African authorities refused for the longest time to license television broadcasting. (And for good reason: when they finally did, the first images transmitted were the killing of schoolchildren in the 1976 Soweto uprising which “disturbed the. . . peace once and for all,” as Joe puts it.) He must make do with newspaper cuttings from the one daily and two weekly newspapers his father assiduously reads. A budding writer himself, he takes to the overblown prose of sports journalism:

Without the boxing writers, my love for Muhammad Ali would not have bloomed. You could say I fell in love with the writing rather than the boxing. . . . I loved the boxing writers for their bluster, their bombast, their purple patches as livid as bruises. They were full of rhetoric and hyperbole, grandiose circumlocutions and cock-eyed similes. There was something grand, I decided, about saying “the busted-beak fraternity” or “the fistic arts” when you could just have said “boxing.”

Joe is also seduced by the Louisville Lip’s own colorful language, which he quotes extensively and which sounds as fresh now as it did then: “I’m fearless. . . I wrestle with an alligator, I tussle with a whale. The other day I murdered a rock. I injured a stone”; “Last night. . . I hit the light switch on the bedroom wall and I was in bed before the room was dark”; “It started raining last week. I handcuffed lightnin’ and threw thunder in jail. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” But Ali’s clowning also challenges the “rigid, disciplinarian school system,” where our hero is:

subjected to the short-back-and-sides regime, the cadet platoon and the cane, at the mercy of teachers who wore their army step-outs to cadet parades and headmasters who took pleasure in making a boy bend over a chair-back to be beaten . . .

By and by, Joe attains manhood, goes to university, and leaves childish things behind him, including his box of Ali clippings. He becomes a writer of some note, but as the years go by it is borne in on him that “the past is not so easily disposed of.” Reflecting on his youth, he returns to the clippings he has lugged around for forty years and sets out to unearth “what they might reveal of the world I grew up in.”

The bits on Ali himself are entertaining enough, but then, like the writer, I was there.

This is when a new voice is introduced. It turns out that Joe needs a collaborator from the past to supplement his fading memories, and he enlists his older brother for the task. A sound engineer who skipped university and was never much of a reader anyway, Branko is an unlikely choice for a literary undertaking, as he admits himself: “Fucking hell, this is a new one. My brother, the novelist, asking for my help. I’m no good at making things up, I say. That’s your department.” But he reluctantly agrees, at first out of a grudging sense of duty and then out of something deeper when Joe is murdered in a botched carjacking outside his home in one of the sleazier suburbs that Branko had warned him against—a shocking event in an otherwise domestic story. The result is a sort of two-hander, with each brother alternately taking turns over fifteen chapters to recall what it was like growing up, even as they simultaneously reflect on the changes that have occurred over the years, with Ali as the constant right up to his death in 2016. Even Donald Trump gets a look-in when he adds his own tuppence worth to the eulogies: “A truly great champion and a wonderful guy. He will be missed by all.”

Branko does his own background job of describing an apolitical, lower-middle class white South African family, similar to the one in The Folly. The father works as a salesman of some kind; the mother is a stay-at-home who bloodies her fingers knitting endless jumpers to help out with the finances. Politics is never discussed, and black people feature only in passing, the more so as the family can’t afford house-help. But race keeps making its way back into the narrative, as Branko pointedly refers to Ali as Cassius Clay, the “slave” name he repudiated when he joined the Nation of Islam. Like their father, Branko dislikes Ali: “Having a big mouth was not a virtue then. We’ve gotten used to it now, but too much yackety-yak used to be seen as a feminine failing.”

“What a laughable double bill we make: his nickel-and-dime biography of Ali and my five cents’ worth of memoir,” Branko opines at one point, a judgment echoed by his already skeptical wife, when they receive news of Joe’s shocking murder. “No one will be interested in your brother’s stupid book now. You may as well put it through the shredder,” she announces with characteristic bluntness. The bits on Ali himself are entertaining enough, but then, like the writer, I was there. We hero-worshipped Ali in my school in Nigeria, following his every fight on television, unlike poor Joe. We also happened to be the world’s largest “black” nation, recently decolonized and with decided views about the plight of our brothers and sisters down south. I clearly remember the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle when Ali gave a boxing lesson to the supposedly unbeatable George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. It also proves the turning point for Joe. As he sees it, Ali the showman, in collaboration with the burgeoning mass media, has now become a vehicle of corruption:

The day after the fight, Don King was busy, meeting diplomats and dignitaries from around the world, all keen to present tenders from governments and financial consortiums for the next big fight. . . . King was considering a bid from Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti and had been invited to inspect the facilities in Port-au-Prince (presumably the sports venues and hotels rather than the cells where political opponents were tortured and starved to death).

So it is that his “love affair with Ali had run its course.” The scrapbooks, along with his innocence, are put away but the question still nags at the reader: Why the convoluted plot about boxing? Why the two voices? Why Ali? And the answer comes back from Joe himself: “But the more I think about it, the more arbitrary it seems. I could easily have chosen someone else.” 

Vladislavić is what they call a writer’s writer and has been acknowledged as such by academics.

Vladislavić is much admired both at home and abroad. André Brink, the South African novelist, calls him “one of the most imaginative minds at work.” Teju Cole has singled out his “narrative intelligence,” noting that in his books: “Each section is perfectly judged; we enter incidents in medias res—as though they were piano études—and exit them before we have overstayed our welcome.”

In many ways, he is what they call a writer’s writer and has been acknowledged as such by academics. Reviewing The Distance in “Africa Is A Country,” Jeanne-Marie Jackson, argues that Vladislavić avoids the suspicion of gimmickry “by laying out a clear purpose for [his] readers: we are meant to combine and re-combine the various elements that bring any place into composite being, and whose sundriness is especially noticeable in South Africa’s biggest and most bustling city.” Even though apartheid is rarely mentioned in the novel, we are assured by German critic Hubert Winkels that “[b]oxing against shadows is a leitmotif of the novel. The reader asks himself political questions that the various ways of writing and speaking only convey indirectly.”

On the contrary, The Distance, like The Folly before it, seems to me to very much rest on a gimmick. As for its political import, I must confess that it failed to trigger the relevant questions. For long stretches, I even forgot we were in South Africa, not to talk about apartheid. But then maybe I am just lousy at reading the subtext, however well-written the story.