“How can I say what these fragments mean to me? The awkward truths of my life take shape in their negative spaces. In the lengthening shadows of the official histories, looming like triumphal arches over every small messy life, these scraps saved from the onrush of the ordinary are the last signs I can bring myself to consult.”
When we first meet him, Neville Lister, the narrator of Double Negative, is a disaffected young man, uncertain and aimless in a fractured and troubled environment – apartheid South Africa. It is the early 1980s and he cannot quite find his footing, either in academic study, the political protestations of his friends, or the mixed allegiances of his parents’ generation. The stakes are high, but his ambivalence is a luxury well known to middle class youth. Being close in age to Neville and his creator, South African author Ivan Vladislavić, I could not help but chuckle at his repeated references to “Beerhunter”, (a party game we Canadians lay claim to, by the way) or recognize the insidiousness with which The Eagles’ Hotel California album seems to define our lives even if we never owned a copy of that recording. However, unlike our most reluctant hero, I did not have political unrest or the real threat of conscription bearing down on me.
Double Negative traces Neville’s evolution from long-haired, pipe smoking dropout to middle-aged late blooming artist, framed against the shifting political, cultural and socioeconomic backdrop of Johannesburg. In the first section, “Available Light”, his father arranges a meeting with a famed local photographer, Saul Auerbach, in the hopes that the encounter might inspire his son to reach beyond his current employment assisting a man who spray paints lines on roadways. As Neville tags along, Auerbach and a journalist friend devise a game that will direct their photographic pursuit for the day. Standing on a hillside with a panoramic view of the city below, each man choses a roof top. They manage to visit two of the three selected homes where Auerbach charms his way in, and coaxes photographs out of the inhabitants – a poor black woman with her two surviving triplets living in a backyard shack and a white woman in a lounge suffocated with furniture and curios. But before they visit Neville’s choice, the photographer’s energy and his necessary light have faded and they head home.
When our narrator picks up the thread of his story in the second section, “Dead Letters”, he has been in London for ten years and the first free elections have just been held in South Africa. Swept up in a wave of nostalgic homesickness he flies home. By this time he is also making a living behind the lens, but as a commercial photographer. He returns to a city already morphing under new dynamics, post apartheid – street names changing, houses and entire city blocks replaced. Cities are, at the best of times, constantly re-inventing themselves, shedding their skins. The effects are more profound under the pressures that have been released and confronted in places like Johannesburg, where, by the time we catch up with Neville again for the final installment “Small Talk”, he has taken to photographing the ubiquitous walls that have arisen to close off and protect the city’s inhabitants from each other.
Upon his return to South Africa, he had experimented with trying to enter a home to photograph the resident, drawn, of course, to the house he had first chosen so many years earlier. The experience almost swallows him whole but does, in turn, offer the direction that will inform his own artistic photographic ventures. He no longer wants to see what lies behind the walls that have been erected. He draws the resident out but refuses to enter. It is now 2009 and our hero is being subjected to an interview by an eager, self-promoting young reporter and blogger who intersperses her blog posts with a litany of handy household tips that would make Oprah proud. She is of a entirely new breed, neither weighed down by nor fully appreciative of the reality of her nation’s history. By contrast, Neville Lister occupies the transitional space. As photography has moved from film to digital, a medium with remarkable capacity for storage and the editing and altering of images, so is his country altering and editing its own collective memories.
More than anything, this is a story that unfolds as a series of images, captured with Vladislavić’s poetic eye for detail. He translates scenes, the photographic and the interpersonal, with a language so effortlessly descriptive that I often stopped to re-read a paragraph for the sheer pleasure. Neville describes “gumption” as a “word that stuck to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter”. A character “moulted” his jacket. In navigating the city he talks of following “the simple arguments of avenues and squares”.
This ability to transform language into imagery is nowhere more apparent than in his descriptions of the scenes, immortalized by the lens of the camera under the direction of the photographer. One of the photographs resulting from the initial outing with Saul Auerbach is described in vivid detail:
“Mrs Ditton sat in the armchair beside the fireplace. The coffee table had been dragged away – there is no trace of it in the photograph – to expose the floorboards and a corner of the rug. Looming on the left is the largest of the cabinets, so imposing you would say it belongs in a department store. The chair has wooden arms with ledges for tea cups and on each side of these lies a pie-crust of crochet work and a coaster. The chair sprawls with its arms open wide and its fists clenched, and she wallows in its lap.”
I imagine that anyone with an SLR camera and a tripod has experimented with long exposures and the creation of ghost images. It seems to be a rite of passage. Double Negative is, in many respects, a book of ghosts. Visiting with the woman living in the house he had selected so many years earlier, Neville feels weighed down by the voices swirling around her lounge. In referring to the annotated cookbook passed down from his mother, he reflects that the food “tastes better when the ghosts adjust the seasonings.” And ghosts haunt a collection of dead letters that come into his possession and, it seems, may be destined to lead him into his next “artistic” endeavour. If growing older is a process of acknowledging and coming to terms with the ghosts we carry, our narrator is older and wiser but still working away to make sense of it all by the end of this book.
And so is his country.
Note: Originally published in South Africa in 2011, Double Negative was released to an international audience in 2013 (with an introduction by Teju Cole) through the amazing publisher And Other Stories. Supported by their unique subscription model, this release was followed by the publication of an earlier title, The Restless Supermarket in 2014, and his upcoming collection of stories, 101 Detectives, will be released this year. Ivan Vladslavić was recently named one of three recipients of the 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for fiction along with Teju Cole and Helon Habila.