Ivan Vladislavić. Photo: Minky Schlesinger/And Other Stories
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Lost in Joburg: Ivan Vladislavić's The Restless Supermarket

One of South Africa's most accomplished prose stylists gets a timely reissue.

The Restless Supermarket 
Ivan Vladislavić
And Other Stories, 304pp, £10

Do copy-editors of today still use the time-honoured signs: the confident slashes, “stets” and arrowheads, the fallen-down S that means transpose? Or is everything now done through the garish bubbles of MS Word track changes? Midway through Ivan Vladislavić’s 2001 novel, The Restless Supermarket, the narrator Aubrey Tearle gives a disquisition on the delete mark of old.

As a retired proofreader, frequent writer of letters to the editor, and grumpy but occasionally endearing old man, Tearle suggests that, of all his erstwhile profession’s charms, this is the most beautiful and mysterious: “Through this soap-bubble loop, this circus-lion hoop, this insatiable and unshuttable maw, an endless quantity of bad copy has passed and been voided.” Repetitions, verbiage, misspellings, solecisms, anacolutha – “Throw them in, sear them, make them hop. Keep our country beautiful. Imagine, if you can, the mountain of delenda purged from the galleys of the world. Who would build on such a landfill?”

Reissued this year by the innovative, subscriptions-based publisher And Other Stories, The Restless Supermarket grows from just such a rich compost of error. Living out his retirement in central Johannesburg on the cusp of the 1990s, Tearle obsessively records the corrigenda (plural of corrigendum: “a thing to be corrected, esp. an error in a printed book”) that he sees multiplying all around him: the “wanton dumplings” of fast-food signage, the “Muslin fundamentalism” threatening the very fabric of society. He is a walking encyclopaedia, a “seedy rom” (as one character puts it) who also keeps mishearing the name of “Conrad Mandela” as negotiations towards a political settlement begin at the nearby World Trade Centre. Instead, Tearle takes up his pen on other, more pressing matters – “T-shirt” v “t-shirt”, for example – and scours newspaper deaths notices for their inadvertent gems: “dried tragically”, “knowing you enriched our livers”, “loved by al, missed by many”. “I wished,” he remarks, “that I could pass this entire city through the eye of a proofreader’s needle.”

The result is a book that feeds some of the most complex and crucial years of South African history through an outdated word processor, an entirely unsuitable narrator who clings to the sanctuary of the Café Europa, where he is a long-standing patron – “an incorrigible ‘European’”, even though he has never left the country. Behind a narrative patter that is by turns witty, sardonic and sad, we see Tearle bungle a love affair, estrange old friends and fail epically to understand the changing society that he is a reluctant part of: “Great gouts of change came sluicing out of the television set, to make up for the petty trickle from the one-arm bandits.” The punning is just one reflex of an oeuvre that tacks constantly between linguistic surface and deeper social grammars.

The name “Vladislavić” is Croatian. A second-generation South African, also with Irish, English and “a dash of German” in his family background, he grew up in the conservative suburbs of Pretoria, the son of a motor mechanic. His debut collection of short stories, Missing Persons (1989), registered their impress while also announcing a writer who had arrived fully formed, and undertook a most peculiar transect through the subconscious of a damaged society. In an early interview, he made the important but often unvoiced point that it is possible to engage deeply with your social reality without producing realism: “I think there’s a case to be made for the work of fiction as a highly designed imaginative structure, with a more complicated relationship to its context than realism usually allows.”

The formulation is all the more convincing given Vladislavić’s involvement in some of the most progressive political ventures in South African literary history. In the 1980s he left the world of copywriting to become social studies editor at the radical imprint Ravan Press – the first publisher to accept J M Coetzee’s bizarre 1974 debut, Dusklands. By this time, Vladislavić had also encountered the “light political touch” of eastern European writers such as Zbigniew Herbert, Milan Kundera and Danilo Kiš, whose influence can be felt in the ironic and often very funny collection Propaganda by Monuments.

The title story of this 1996 collection imagines a tavern owner in post-apartheid South Africa corresponding with a bureaucrat in post-communist Russia. Boniface Khumalo asks for a decommissioned Soviet statue to be shipped over in order to revamp the Boniface Tavern of Atteridgeville into the V I Lenin Bar and Grill. The recipient, Pavel Grekov, is another of Vladislavić’s wrong-headed glossers, appending explanatory notes for his Moscow superiors in a style developed by Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything Is Illuminated and by Borat: “In a nut-case: His overweening desire is to buy a statue of Lenin. One can’t help but bravo.”

With The Restless Supermarket, the surreal manoeuvres of the short stories settled down into a smoother prose surface and the result was a novel widely regarded as one of the major books of South Africa’s transition: that “parenthetical era, in which a provisional country asserts itself, but drags its history behind it in brackets”. It also marked the beginning of Vladislavić’s long meditation on Johannesburg, one of the few world cities not built on a coastline, navigable river or other visible geographical feature – but rather on what lies below ground.

The novel garnered South Africa’s premier Sunday Times Fiction Prize; five years later Vladislavić won the equivalent non-fiction award for Portrait with Keys (2006), a sequence of more sober but still slyly playful documentary texts about living, walking and thinking in the city – or at least, the old city centre. The prose snags on the banal, the marginal, the everyday – what Georges Perec called the “infra-ordinary”. It is drawn to walls, reading off the various socio-archaeological strata encoded in pre-cast concrete, metal spikes, razor wire and electrified strands. A cycle titled “Engaging the Gorilla” concerns a brand of steering lock that once had the market cornered. Other sections note how urban poachers are gradually butchering Johannesburg’s animal statues for scrap metal – a tail here, hindquarters there – and how homeless people store their belongings below the iron covers of water mains: “I kneel on the pavement like a man gazing down into a well, with this small, impoverished, inexplicably orderly world before me and the chaotic plenitude of the Highveld sky above.”

Around this time, Vladislavić began to be spoken of as the most accomplished prose stylist in South Africa. So it is intriguing to think how his verbal operations differ from those of Coetzee, who might once have held that mantle. Coetzee writes a stringently non-South African, or rather non-national, English that owes much to literary modernism at its most high: one searches his novels in vain for a local brand name or registered trademark that might place the work too crassly. Vladislavić’s narrators, by contrast, compile entire taxonomies of them: Tearle notes down instances of the -rama suffix: (Hyperama, Meatarama, Veg-a-rama) just as he collects different Mr’s (Mr Delivery, Mr Meat, Mr Video). Dating himself as a pre-email specimen, he describes the symbol @ (“Hypermeat was flogging the dead sheep @ R16.95 a kilogram”) as “the very omphalos of consumerism”.

Tearle may cling to the delete mark, but his creator’s willingness to pass through this kind of loop – to enter into a linguistic world that is materialist in all the complex senses of that word – is another factor that might account for the sense of freedom in the work. It effects a “devolution” of the English language, as one critic puts it, allowing the prose to leave off the heavy literary responsibilities and brooding landscapes that have determined what “South African literature” is commonly imagined to be.

Nobody writes about faux-Tuscan shopping malls and the “complex country” of gated communities on the urban edge quite like Vladislavić – the Montecasinos and Villa Venetos where the city’s boundaries are “drifting away, sliding over pristine ridges and valleys, lodging in tenuous places, slipping again”. “Nature is for other people, in other places,” the narrator of Portrait with Keys remarks: “We have planted a forest the birds endorse. For hills, we have mine dumps covered with grass.” Taking certain things less seriously, it frees itself up for the very serious business of understanding what a relentlessly privatised world might be doing to us, to our subjectivities and our ways of relating to others.

There is a final loop or hoop through which one might fall – not a delete mark or an @ but one that is all too real. Near the beginning of Portrait, the speaker is hurrying to catch a football game when he is tripped up on the pavement and falls painfully. The cause is a strip of what seems to be plastic packaging; but when he gets it home the snare proves to be more mysterious: “a one-sided figure, a three-dimensional object with only one surface”. A Möbius strip, in fact: “I have fallen over a paradox.”

It is a cogitative writerly moment; but it is also embedded in a finely drawn street scene where a security guard behind a palisade fence sympathises with the narrator, as does a trader on the other side of the road. She clucks sympathetically, lifts her hand and drops it a couple of times: “If we were different people, if we were the same people in a different place, she might put an arm around my shoulders.” The passage gives us the double helix of Vladislavić’s style: now facing outwards towards the world, now turning inwards towards the medium, without one being able to see where the join might be: “I put my pen gingerly in the loop and run it along the surface, like a child guiding a hoop with a stick, and after a while I arrive back at the starting point.” 

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Bold frogs, helpful dogs and teen spies: the best children's books for the summer

From toddlers to discerning teenagers, there’s something out there for everyone.

Like soft fruit, summer books can be rich and juicy – or dull and disappointing. Why pick from the glut of American teen romances, stories about running away to join the circus, or books by the ubiquitous David Walliams when you could enjoy something with more flavour?

For toddlers, Once Upon a Jungle (Words & Pictures, £12.99), with its vivid animals moving through brilliantly coloured flowers, is stunning; its dreamlike shapes for children aged two and above are inspired by Rousseau. Nikki Dyson’s Flip Flap Dogs (Nosy Crow, £8.99) is beautifully original, taking the idea of mix and match to describe crosses in dog breeding and temperament that would appal Crufts. Lively fun for dog lovers of three-plus.

The Giant Jumperee (Ladybird, £12.99) brings together two titans of children’s books, Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury, in a tale of animals being tricked by their own fears – and by a bold little frog. It’s perfect comedy for reading aloud to children of three-plus, and an instant classic. The sublime Emily Gravett is less gentle despite her exquisitely imaginative illustrations, and any child that’s ever had a hint of bullying will appreciate Old Hat (Two Hoots, £11.99). Harbert has a hat that other creatures deride as “old hat”, and his increasingly desperate attempts to fit in go wrong until, in a wonderful twist, he shows his inborn originality. Neon Leon by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup (Nosy Crow, £11.99) concerns a chameleon who just wants to fit in, changing into a variety of colours before meeting his match. It’s joyously written and illustrated, for readers aged four and older.

Those too young for Pirates of the Caribbean will still enjoy Sunk! (HarperCollins, £12.99) by Rob Biddulph. With rhyming couplets and a rollicking story, its graphic elegance will inspire the over-fives. The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer (Words & Pictures, £14.99) takes readers on a journey to the centre of the earth, layer by layer; it’s imaginatively conceived for budding geologists aged six and up. In the same age group, the late Michael Bond’s hero returns (before the second film) in Paddington’s Finest Hour (HarperCollins, £12.99). Our most endearing fictional immigrant resists a stage hypnotist, redesigns a neighbour’s chairs, and has a run-in with the police.

In Meg Rosoff’s Good Dog McTavish (Barrington Stoke, £6.99), a rescue dog saves the chaotic Peachey family from late dinners, grime and lost keys. Common sense has rarely been so charmingly conveyed to readers of seven up. An enchanting debut is Lorraine Gregory’s Mold and the Poison Plot (OUP, £6.99). Dumped in a dustbin as a baby, big-nosed, big-hearted Mold must save his adoptive mother from execution when she’s accused of poisoning the king. To succeed he’ll need the help of an unlikely friend and a working knowledge of the palace drains. I love this book, as will any sharp-witted reader aged eight or up – it reeks with talent, great jokes and characters.

Tanya Landman’s protagonist Cassia in Beyond the Wall (Walker, £7.99) is a British slave girl raised for her master’s lusts; when she maims him instead, she goes on the run with a bounty on her head and a slick Roman spy by her side. Interweaving elements of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, the Carnegie-winning Landman has created her best heroine yet in a historical thriller that never releases its ferocious grip. Elizabeth Wein’s heroine also travels to Scotland, for a last summer in her family’s ancestral home. A prequel to the award-winning Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief (Bloomsbury, £7.99), set in the 1930s, is a vivid mystery from page one, when posh, fearless Julie is encouraged by her grandfather to shoot a poacher.

Reluctant teen spy Alex Rider makes a welcome return in Never Say Die (Walker, £12.99). In mourning for his housekeeper and mother-substitute Jack, Alex gets a hint she might have survived Scorpia’s vengeance. A heart-in-mouth pursuit of the rich and nasty begins. Anthony Horowitz is overdue for a gong as a writer who, like J K Rowling, has kept the nine-plus crowd reading long after lights out.

Acclaimed for her witty, topical teenage tales, Sophia Bennett has gone back to Victorian times in Following Ophelia (Stripes, £7.99). By day a scullery maid, Mary becomes after hours Persephone, the stunning red-headed muse of a handsome Pre-Raphaelite painter who takes London by storm. How long can she maintain this double life? Virtue battles vice, and sense succumbs to sensibility in a luscious story that readers aged 12 and over will devour. Keren David’s hero River is another deceiver, and The Liar’s Handbook (Barrington Stoke, £6.99) is both funny and suspenseful for 11-plus. His inventive excuses for flunking school are rooted in unhappiness about his absent father – but the truth, based on a true story, is stranger than you might guess.

My favourite young-adult novel for those aged 12-plus is by Sebastien de Castell (author of the superb Greatcoats fantasies). In Spellslinger (Hot Key, £12.99), Kellen’s dilemma is that he seems to have no magic in a world where teenage mages are required to duel. Brave, funny and vulnerable, he discovers that his true problems lie closer to home. With a talking squirrel and a fabulously hard-bitten trickster on his side, his steps into both magic and manhood are told with the conviction of Ursula Le Guin and the dash of Alexandre Dumas. It’s a peach of a summer read.

Amanda Craig’s new novel “The Lie of the Land” is published by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder