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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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist