Out of place in a half-made world: The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić

Egan always found it strange to set foot for the first time in a place he knew from the plans. It was like folding out of two dimensions into three. You could almost hear the creases popping as you broke through the barrier. Sometimes it was disenchanting. You had convinced yourself, looking at the neatly inked blocks on the paper, at the street names, the community facilities, the cookie-cutter trees, that the place was rather pleasant. You imagined gardens, shady avenues and parks. And then you got there and found rows of impossibly small houses, not a leaf in sight, dust everywhere, shadowless walls, and the immense blue well of the sky, which reduced the world to sediment.

The end of Apartheid and the process of reconciliation offered great hope to the people of South Africa. It was, and still is, held up as a major achievement, a model to other nations, even if the dream has become tarnished in the realization. The plans always look better, more achievable, on paper. The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić, newly released by Archipelago, was originally published in South Africa in 2004, one decade after the first free elections. This collection of four loosely interlinked stories examines the uneasy space in which individuals living in and around Johannesburg find themselves as they try to adjust to—or exploit—a new social order where the shifting dynamics are not clearly defined. Too many loose edges exist, lines blur.

Vladislavić’s protagonists are ordinary men: a statistician, a sanitation engineer, a conceptual artist, and a contractor. Each one is a little neurotic, bearing hints of a vague identity crisis—the doubts of early mid-life in a world where the rules are changing. Their stories overlap with respect to place, a gated suburban development and a restaurant figure more than once, but each of the main characters is marked by particular degree of isolation.

“Villa Toscana” follows the misadventures of Les Budlender, a statistician seconded to help redraft the first non-racial census questionnaire that, in 1996, had caused great confusion. Shuttling between a diverse group of volunteers, and the Development Committee, his job is to help fine-tune a new form. And that brings him to a gated, faux Italian residential complex on the outskirts of the city where he meets a young Afrikaner named Iris. He is smitten; she is oblivious and eventually irritated by his increasingly odd behavior. Awkward, obsessive about detail, he tries to quantify everything as if comfort can only be found in numbers. He demonstrates a hyper sensitivity to his surroundings that, in the presence of Iris, is magnified and, in the end, unlikely to serve him well. But it allows for some striking descriptive passages:

She seated him in the lounge and went to make coffee. The rooms in Villa Toscana were small, square and white. The furniture, sparse and spindly though it was, seemed too large. He had the unsettling impression that he had strayed onto a page in a book, one of those picture books that were more interesting to adults than the children they had apparently been written for. He had lost all sense of proportion. He stood up, half expecting that he would have to stoop, and raised his hand above his head, measuring the distance between his outstretched fingertips and the ceiling. At least a metre. Probably, there were municipal regulations. Why did it seem so low?

The second and, for my money, standout piece in the book, “Afritude Sauce,” features Egan, a sanitation engineer on a business trip. He is out to visit a new RDP (low-cost subsidy) housing project called Hani View where there have been problems with the water and sewage system. He begins to sense that he is a prop in some sort of municipal drama. It begins with a seemingly staged (and photographed) demonstration of the inadequacy of the construction and, quite comically, the toilet facilities in one of the houses, and continues later that evening at dinner with a group of local business and council men at Bra Zama’s African Eatery. He tries to pride himself in being progressive, as a white man with a group of black men—the only racially mixed group in the room:

Mazibuko was right, Egan thought, it was going to be an experience. And he had an odd sense that it would be a significant experience too, that he would remember this evening, that he would look back on it. He could already see himself looking back on it, from a tremendous distance, and understanding, at last, what it was all about. He wishes he was there now, at that reassuring remove, on a height, filled with the wisdom of hindsight.

However, as the night progresses, he is increasingly at a loss to decipher how he fits into the political posturing that gradually leaves him sidelined as the conversation shifts into Sotho and he drinks too much for his own good. Later, back at his hotel, his embarrassment and irritation builds to a level of frustrated paranoia.

“Curiouser,” is the sole story with a black protagonist, in this instance an educated, middle-class artist, who has made his name with installation art pieces. Simeon also faces questions of identity, albeit from another angle. Questions about what is, or is not, appropriate for him to present in his art take on a different tone because of his colour. His own sense of himself is, to a significant extent, a private performance. Yet, when forced to consider the possibly illegal source of a large quantity of masks and curios he has purchased, it is clear that he, too, has an uncertain sense of how, or where, he fits in.

Finally, the collection closes with “Crocodile Lodge,” where the elements of the “new South Africa” meet with a devastating and brutal intensity. A contractor who specializes in erecting billboards for construction sites, caught in congested traffic reflects on his childhood love of Popular Mechanics, as he makes his way back to the location where he had been working earlier to try to find his missing cellphone. He remembers how the plans he absorbed from the magazine had shaped his idea of America and his ability to imagine the diagrams into virtual three-dimensional structures, from the smallest detail of a house, to the landscape outside:

Even the pines on the shore he exploded into their parts, so that each needle quivered beside a sheath in a stalk, each cone burst into separate scales, and each trunk shucked its bark like a coat. The world, disassembled as precisely as a diagram in a biology textbook, sucked in bracing breath and expanded. The universe was expanding, we were causing it to expand, by analyzing it.

This affinity for seeing how things fit together, for appreciating the “exploded view” had never left him though he wondered about its value in the modern world. Indeed, a new kind of awareness, alertness is required, when the world is in flux. Each of the protagonists in this collection find themselves out of step to a greater or lesser extent.

These stories, which could well be considered a novel in four parts, showcase Vladislavić’s great strength—an ability to burrow into the very human idiosyncrasies of the ordinary man. His attention to thoughts, mannerisms, and subtle details allow him to create, even in relatively confined spaces, characters that are honest, and slightly flawed, in a way that one can easily recognize and relate to. And his power of description applied to settings—interior, exterior, or imagined—carries an almost photographic quality. Well demonstrated in longer works like The Folly or Double Negative, this uncanny ability is likewise evident in his short fiction. The Exploded View is a welcome addition to the growing body of Vladislavić’s work to be made available outside South Africa, and, if you have yet to encounter his writings, is as good a place to start as any.

You do not own life: Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe

The first thing you notice from the opening words of Phaswane Mpe’s only novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, is an unusual, and to Western readers, unconventional narrative voice:

If you were still live, Refentše, child of Tiragalong, you would be glad that Bafana Bafana lost to France in the 1998 Soccer World Cup fiasco. Of course you supported the squad. But at least now, you would experience no hardships walking to your flat through the streets of Hillbrow—that locality of just over one square kilometre, according to official records; and according to its inhabitants, at least twice as big and teeming with countless people.

This is not, as some mistakenly assume, a second person perspective, but rather a communal first person plural voice, speaking from a universal omniscient viewpoint to a character who is dead. It is a narrative form that freely moves from the physical to the metaphysical and back again. By drawing on traditional storytelling techniques, language, and expressions to tell a story that is rooted in one of the most crowded, disadvantaged, and violent inner-city neighbourhoods of post-Apartheid Johannesburg, Mpe is able to explore the intersection of complex issues—linguistic and literary marginalization, xenophobia, suicide, AIDS, and rural superstition—with a dazzling immediacy and intensity.

mpeMpe (1970-2004) was born in Limpopopo Province (formerly Pietersburg) in northeastern South Africa and, like his main character, Refentše, he moved to Johannesburg at the age of nineteen to attend the University of Witwatersrand, which had recently opened its doors to black students. Unable to afford accommodation on campus, he lived in Hillbrow. He would go on to complete an MA in publishing at Oxford Brookes in the UK—an experience that he would, in his novel, grant Refilwe, the female character whose life crosses and parallels that of Refentše. Thus, Mpe’s urban and rural experiences, informed by his modern liberal arts education, contributed to the development of a distinctive new literary voice, one which would be cruelly silenced all too early when he died suddenly at the age of thirty-four.

The voice that carries the narrative directly addresses the primary character throughout the course of this short novel, and is at once challenging and understanding. The voice recounts Refentše’s actions and emotions for him, reminding or reinforcing a memory of his experiences because he and  most of the primary characters have met untimely or unfortunate fates by end of the book (or, if you would rather, before the account even begins). This is a narrative to the dead from the dead. This unusual approach not only allows for a surprisingly effective engagement with a tragic tale of unfortunate coincidences, misunderstandings, and consequences, but it also creates a unique dialectical context for the exploration of the deep and critical issues that lie at the core of the story.

In simple terms, although it does not unfold in a straightforward manner, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, follows two main characters: Refentše, who comes to the city to study, and settles in Hillbrow, becoming a sensitive observer of the community; and Refilwe, his childhood friend and former girlfriend, who arrives in the city shortly before his death. He falls in love with Lerato, the “Bone of his Heart,” who is also an academic. But his mother and fellow villagers are not happy to see him with a city woman—urban/rural prejudices are acute. When a couple of unfortunate moments of infidelity “shatter” his enthusiasm for life and lead to his suicide, Refilwe exasperates the situation by implying that Lerato is the daughter of a Nigerian man, a curse that plays into a deep-seated xenophobia toward African migrants that still exists in some black South African communities today. Tribal justice, more suicide, and madness follow in the wake of Refentše’s death. Yet the narrator continues to address him in Heaven, where he is able to observe the action that ensues but is, of course, powerless to intervene.

I do not own life, you often said when you tried to laugh your difficulties away.

Many people could not see that you were not merely throwing jokes around. You did not own your life when you were alive. Now that you are alive in a different realm, you know for sure that you do not own life. You have watched God and Devil, gods and Ancestors, wondering whether *they* owned it, this thing called life. As far as you could see no one seemed to own it, judging by the way they too cast their eyes in the directions of our Hillbrow, Alexandra, and Tiragalong, clicking their tongues in deep sadness or grim amusement as people devoured one another. You were right there with them, still on your way to finding out whether any of them owned life.

The novel opens with a vivid evocation of the riotous atmosphere of Hillbrow, an area populated primarily by migrants from the townships, rural areas, and from beyond the borders of South Africa. Unemployment and poverty prevail. Those who have arrived from other countries, especially Nigeria, are rudely referred to as Makwerekwere, and are accused of bringing drugs, crime, and prostitution. AIDS is also beginning to take a toll, but the disease is poorly understood and also seen as imported by the outsiders. Rural residents, like the villagers of Refentše’s hometown, Tiragalong, believe they are protected from this mysterious ailment because they don’t eat Green Monkey meat as some West Africans are rumoured to do, and they don’t engage in anal sex. Xenophobia and ignorance in the face of the rising AIDS epidemic are two of the key concerns that Mpe sets out to address. The distrust of immigrants is both timeless and exceptionally timely. Refentše often debates the matter with his cousin, who claims that the neighbourhood had been fine before the arrival of the Nigerians with all their drug dealing:

You, Refentše, child of Tiragalong (and, as you insisted in the days just before your death, also of Hillbrow), had never shared such sentiments. It was your opinion that the moral decay of Hillbrow, so often talked about, was in fact no worse than that of Tiragalong.

Think about it, Cousin, you would challenge. How many people are here in Hillbrow? How many of them are criminals? If you consider that the concentration of people in Hillbrow is dense, and work out the number of crimes in relation to the number of people, I tell you, you will find Tiragalong to be just as bad…. And while we’re so busy blaming [the Makwerekwere] for all our sins, hadn’t we better also admit that quite a large percentage of our home relatives who get killed in Hillbrow are in fact killed by other relatives who bring their home grudges with them to Jo’burg. That’s what makes Hillbrow so corrupt…

Refentše tries to remind his cousin that many of those coming into the country are fleeing violence and deprivation elsewhere—they are driven into exile. Yet his cousin’s response echoes that which so often meets refugees, no matter the time or place:

Cousin insisted that people should remain in their own countries and try to sort out the problems of those respective countries, rather than fleeing them; South Africa had too many problems of its own.

During his years in Hillbrow, Refentše completes his studies and becomes a lecturer at the university. He dreams of writing a novel about his neighbourhood, believing it to be the kind of place underrepresented in literature. He only manages to publish one short story, one that explores, through the fate of its female protagonist, the limitations of writing in traditional tongues in a country with eleven official languages, but where only two dominate to the practical exclusion of the others. Mpe quite effectively works his arguments into and against the prevailing dynamics in South African literature: his main character reads Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians), while later, in Oxford, Refilwe introduces an Irish barman to Zakes Mda (Ways of Dying). He can be seen as attempting to build a bridge between established authors—with novels that reflect themes in his own work—and a vision of a literature that could be more inclusive of other languages, such as his native Sepedi.

Toward the end of the novel, the narrative zeroes in on Refilwe as she finally has the opportunity to pursue her MA at Oxford, but the narrator(s) will not actually address her directly until the closing passages of the book. Several years have passed since Refentše’s death, and guilt over her treatment of Lerato, plus her experiences living and working in Johannesburg, have softened her own xenophobic tendencies. While she is overseas she meets and falls in love with a Nigerian man. However, their bliss is cut short when they learn they both have AIDS, and would have in fact been HIV positive for many years. Her fate will serve to challenge the prejudices of Tiragalong when she returns home. Subtle shifts in the narrative voice through the final chapter, serve to add power to its heartbreaking conclusion.

The critical examination of contemporary themes, within a narrative shaped by the rhythms and poetry of an African oral tradition, offers readers an experience that is both fresh and deeply moving. Echoes of Mpe’s work, together with that of K. Sello Duiker, another young and tragically short-lived black writer who emerged in the early post-Apartheid years, has continued to resonate through an entire generation of young South African writers who are producing vital and original literature today.

Welcome to Our Hillbrow: A Novel of Postapartheid South Africa, by Phaswane Mpe is available from Ohio University Press, with an excellent introduction by Ghirmai Negash.

2017 Africa Reading Challenge.