AiW Guest: Thando Njovane.
As demonstrated by his substantial and sophisticated body of work, South Africa’s Ivan Vladislavić is certainly one of the most remarkable and versatile writers of our time. Vladislavić’s latest gift to letters is the insightful, elaborate, and amusing short story collection, 101 Detectives (Umuzi; And Other Stories, 2015), a collection which does not disappoint. The stories which make up the collection interrogate the intricacies of human relationships, the multiplicity of perception and, in a characteristically Vladislavićian fashion, explore the difficult questions of creating and interpreting various forms of art. Many of the plots involve seemingly ordinary occasions such as going to the dentist, attending a convention, or meeting your partner’s family, situations which then take on mysterious dimensions – often with open endings. This is coupled with sensuous descriptive passages and provocative fluctuations in style and genre. Above all, Vladislavić offers us mysterious, uncanny, ordinary, and extraordinary journeys in both the literal and the figurative sense.
“‘We are stories,’” the narrative voice of “The Trunks: A Complete History” (“The Trunks”) contemplates, “It’s a notion so simple even a child could understand it. Would that it ended there. But we are stories within stories. Stories within stories within stories. We recede endlessly, framed and reframed, until we are unreadable to ourselves” (147). If this is the case, Vladislavić appears to ask, then what is the role of the storyteller, the writer, and the artist? Is s/he an archivist, a corporate tool, the custodian of untold stories, or is defining this role as elusive as the stories themselves? These concerns recur throughout the collection in various forms and guises.
“The Trunks” is itself a rewriting and extension of the extract, “Dr T” from Vladislavić’s collection, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories (2011) in which the narrator laments his “inability to write” about the “complicated paper trails of two complicated lives [of father and son]… obsessively documented but jumbled together in chaos”. The expanded story picks up this narrator’s sense of responsibility for yet another set of documents and memorabilia. “A decade earlier,” the writer protagonist laments, “Louis Fehler…had left me his papers to look after while he went abroad, travelling light, and then promptly died…Of course, there’s more to it than storage. These papers are entrusted to me”. There is a tremendous sense of duty attached to these gestures of trust, a duty which at times feels like a burden. Upon struggling to unpack, relocate, and organise the trunks, the protagonist wonders, “Why had I taken on these other lives? Did I hope to ballast my own record with others that were weightier, more complete?” The story thus interrogates the writer’s relation to both his own and others’ stories and possessions.
Like Vladislavić’s earlier works The Exploded View (2004) and Double Negative (2011/2013), 101 Detectives raises questions about the production, interpretation, and consumption of artworks. “Mountain Landscape” in the latter collection is, for instance, concerned with subjective readings of a painting by various characters as they come into contact with it. The story is furthermore named after a painting by renowned South African artist known for his landscapes, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s ‘Mountainous Landscape’ finished in 1917. As an artwork which exists both in the real and in the imaginative world of the story, the painting functions as a transitional object whose meaning shifts depending on context. It is precisely these shifts that the protagonist of the story concerns himself with. “Mountain Landscape” also engages us on the themes of correspondence and the archive which is carried over into stories such as “Dead Letters”. The latter story consists of extracts from letters written by characters drawn from its intertext, Double Negative, in which the photographer Neville Lister narrates a novel which challenges conceptions of memory and representation. One of Lister’s projects, the subject of 101 Detectives’ “Dead Letters” and introduced by Double Negative, involves a stash of undelivered letters and his photographs of the locations to which they were sent, and is the basis of the partial transcriptions of strangers’ lives and glimpses into private correspondence. 101 Detectives fleshes out this latent project and there is, of course, a redoubling of the fragmented nature of memory the novel pursues through its reappearance in the 101 Detectives story itself, as well as the accompanying images annexed to the end of the collection.
Several of the stories involve protagonists who travel outside of South Africa and attempt to imagine their positions both in the global and the local space. “Hair Shirt,” for example, is told from the perspective of a South African in America and chronicles his journey through an unfamiliar landscape which invites somewhat nostalgic comparisons with places in South Africa. The protagonist’s wistfulness is juxtaposed with him witnessing a rather bizarre encounter between his girlfriend and her abnormally hairy outcast uncle.
The finely crafted existential allegory, “Exit Strategy,” explores the complexities involved when writing and capital collide. This story, much like “Industrial Theatre,” directs our attention to what happens when writing and indeed theatre-making are used instrumentally as a means of gaining capital. These narratives provoke questions about the motivations behind artistic production and the process of creating itself; they illustrate that this preoccupation with the conditions and motivations underpinning artistic creation results in an unlikely melding of the corporate with the artistic and, consequently, the dilution of art for the purposes of sale. While “Mountain Landscape” and “Dead Letters” are predicated on intersections between writing, painting, and photography, “Industrial Theatre” has as its inter-text Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. As the title suggests, the industrialisation of theatre culminates in an unrecognisable new form, “a disappointing Kafka” which is paradoxically disheartening and intriguing.
Following on from the general motif of artworks and their reception, “The Reading,” is one of the most insightful stories in 101 Detectives. The story critiques the well-meaning yet deeply misguided consumption of biographical and autobiographical writing about suffering by the ivory tower of the academy, the literary-minded, and the public. In “The Reading,” a survivor of abduction in Uganda and slavery in Sudan, Maryam Akello, reads from an autobiography she has written in Acholi to an audience of “practiced listeners…lovers of literature and keen observers of political developments in the South”. Akello is at once an object of wonder and a fetish in a context where none of the audience understands her language. Despite this however, the audience still conclude that she is “not a good reader”, but listen in silence nonetheless. In addition to questions of presentation and reception, the story also provides insights into the audiences’ inner thoughts and perceptions of Akello. With perhaps one exception, these insights reveal a variety of responses ranging from admiration and curiosity to prejudice and contempt. One of the listeners, for instance, remarks to a friend that “Akello [is] a brave girl, and [the friend replies] that she [is] pretty too, although [she’s] had the stuffing knocked out of her, understandably so, and they agreed that it was a terrible thing that had happened to her, but that she’d overcome adversity in a way that was truly inspiring. To himself, [the friend] noted that people in Europe were tired of stories like this, sad as they were”. These passages are interrupted by an English translation of Akello’s story, a narrative strategy which highlights the problematic politics of such encounters.
In its critique of Europe’s and, indeed, academia’s consumption of narratives about suffering, the narrative exposes the mediations which occur whenever difference is involved and the limitations of the word (both written and spoken). This story suggests the possibility for lack of recognition and understanding which come about as result of us being linguistic subjects, especially where the issue of translation is involved, leaving it up to us to decide whether or not our capacity for communality is determined and/or restricted by our linguistic capacities.
Delivering on the promise of the title story which features a quirky, insecure detective trying to make sense of the purpose of his vocation and his life, 101 Detectives is a provocative and mysterious literary journey into the lives of others and into artistic production. The collection is very much a testament to Vladislavić’s creative and intellectual acuity which is equally matched by his keen vision into human and artistic concerns.
Thando Njovane is a literature doctoral candidate interested in psychoanalysis, philosophy of language, and fiction. She has published on Uwem Akpan, Mia Couto, trauma in the postcolony, and on politics and higher education in South Africa. Njovane is also the founder and chair of Finding Africa, a cross-continental independent interdisciplinary postcolonial African Studies platform associated with various bodies, including the University of Leeds’ Centre for African Studies.
Ivan Vladislavić is the author of several story collections, including 101 Detectives and Flashback Hotel, and novels, The Restless Supermarket, The Exploded View and Double Negative. Portrait with Keys (Portobello Books, 2006) is a sequence of documentary texts about Johannesburg, where he lives. He has edited books on architecture and art, and sometimes works with artists and photographers. In the eighties he worked as a fiction and social studies editor at Ravan Press, where he was also the assistant editor of Staffrider magazine for several years, compiling the anthology Ten Years of Staffrider with Andries Oliphant (1988). His work has won many awards, including the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction and Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize. He is a Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand.
For more AiW posts about Vladislavić’s work see: Publishing a Double Negative and A Gofer wins the Inaugural International Proofreader’s Derby (after The Restless Supermarket)