By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
Ivan Vladislavić (Umuzi)
At the end of the last story in this startling collection, the vertex of a carefully calibrated arc of narratives, a Chinese businessman ponders a foreign city: “I wonder if all the travellers’ tales about this destination might be true … that they lie on principle, and eat their young, and fry strangers like us in the streets. I can well imagine it. They keep insisting that they are warm people, but their hearts are cold.”
The city is a discomfiting version of Durban, the lens on it queered and menacing, but the description of our society is all too familiar – especially given recent events – and punches the reader in the gut.
“Yes, it’s clearly a comment on contemporary South Africa,” says Ivan Vladislavić, “Unfortunately it’s a comment that would be apt on many days of the week, but on a day like today when foreign shopkeepers are being driven out of their homes in KwaMashu and other places in KZN, sadly it’s a very immediate comment on our society at the moment.”
Vladislavić is often described as a writer of place, specifically of Johannesburg, but in this new collection of stories he casts his eye further, to Mauritius and Oklahoma, to a literary reading in Germany, and to curious, unidentified cities.
In one, a corporate storyteller has writer’s block and struggles to compose a suitably uplifting parable to open the proceedings of the quarterly meeting of the board. She is stuck, and jealous of the corporate poet, who has an office on a higher floor, and who “speaks in lilting tones about the stormy seas of the futures markets and the vicissitudes of the trade winds on the floor of the bourse.”
This sly humour spreads in the title story, “101 Detectives”, where an anxious private eye attends a convention in a drab hotel. In delirious sequences of wordplay he tries to choose a persona: “He dug this snub-nosed lingo slubbing out of his pug-ugly mug. It was good. It was endings in -ub and -ug. He could get a grip on stuff with it. Solve shit.” It’s a delicious satire of gumshoes. Vladislavić smiles mischievously. “I happen to find that particular world of crime fiction a fruitful area for comedy.”
But as mordantly funny as many of the stories are – like the launch of a new car, the Ford Kafka – there are others that unsettle and worry. In Germany, a Ugandan writer reads her account of the atrocities she survived in her native language. The academic audience is smug, pleased with their culturedness, until her translator breaks down reading the account in German and they are appalled at this display of emotion.
Vladislavić’s range, his tessitura if you like, is varied, but there are echoing notes scattered over the stories, notes that cast back to earlier works in other collections, notes that chime in other stories in this book. It’s as if he’s picking up dropped stitches. There is also, intriguingly, a section of Deleted Scenes, outtakes from the stories that were prompted, he explains, by the idea of deleted scenes from movies on DVDs. “It fascinates me. In a sense they’re a key to understanding the film. The scenes in the book were bits and pieces taken out of earlier drafts which I cast aside, but then I went back and looked for material that would show the finished work in a slightly different way.”
He is a subversive, demanding writer. The meaning does not float easily on the surface. His hallmark is an intense, forensic attention to detail, and his work demands of us that we look more closely around us, too, into the fissures, the liminal spaces, the strangeness beneath the banal.
But as such, he is a deeply affecting writer. He prods and troubles the reader. You do not finish a Vladislavić book unchanged.
He is also a writer in supreme form, and his recent receipt of the prestigious Windham Campbell Prize means that his work is at last receiving the international recognition it deserves. It also means, more prosaically, financial security for the first time in his life. “It’s great to have some money in the bank,” he laughs. “When you’ve worked as a freelancer for as long as I have you don’t have money in the bank, believe me.”
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