Imagining a life lost: In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González

For aspiring novelists, the greatest inspiration sometimes lies very close to home – at the heart of their own families. And most often, it is not a happy circumstance they are seeking to reconcile when setting pen to paper.

seaIn the late 1970s Colombian author Tomás González was struggling to build a career for himself as a writer. The murder of his brother Juan, on a farm where he had retreated to find a refuge, would provide the central focus of his debut novel In the Beginning was the Sea, first published in 1983, but not released in English until 2014.

There is a distinctly sober, calculated tone to this tale of J. and his girlfriend Elena, two faded hippies who seek to escape a life of drugs, alcohol, and partying in Medellín by purchasing and moving to a remote tropical farm. J. dreams of a simpler life, a new beginning. It soon becomes clear that he has absolutely no business sense at all. He repeatedly allows himself to be swindled and makes a series of reckless investments. As his debts mount, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to dig himself in deeper, disregarding the warnings of those around him. To add insult to injury, Elena and J. have a volatile relationship at best – one that the isolation of their new home does nothing to mediate. She tends to be caustic and unpleasant, especially to the native blacks who work for her or live in the area. The dislike is instantly reciprocated. J. is much more affable with the locals, a nature lubricated by increasingly copious quantities of cheap alcohol. But as time goes on, his world continues to spiral downward. In the end, as we are repeatedly warned, it will cost him his life.

As the story unfolds, González maintains an emotional distance from his subjects, but he excels at bringing the tropical farm to life. His language is highly evocative.

“Smells. The murky smell of the mangrove swamps carried sometimes on the breeze. The musky, resinous smell of crabs, dead and still raw. The smell of paddocks pounded by the immovable hammer of the noonday sun. The smell of mingled smoke and coffee from the kitchen. The lunchtime smell of fried fish, fried plantains, the heavy scent of
coconut rice. The smell of the suntan lotions and the moisturizers that made Elena’s skin more perfect.”

If there is a weakness here, it is the lack of a solid reference for the hostile and unpleasant behaviour Elena demonstrates throughout this novel. From the opening scenes where her precious sewing machine is damaged, we see a woman who refuses to tolerate any perceived incompetence in others. One is left to wonder what is behind this and what she ever saw in J. A history of divorce and depression is hinted at. His weaknesses are examined a little more closely and we know that he is torn between attraction and frustration with Elena, and that he harbours a deep personal sense of despair and failure. But again, the why’s are never fully explored.

Though some factors or circumstances may, in truth, defy full explanation; In the Beginning was the Sea does draw to a close with an imaginative and heartbreaking elegy, perhaps the one of the finest moments in the entire book.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Pushkin Press deserves to be praised for bringing long ignored works and authors to an English speaking audience. Frank Wynne’s translation is clear and vivid. I hope we will see some of González’s more mature work available in the future.

Let’s do the timewarp… Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

The year is 2011. A disoriented Adolph Hitler awakes in an abandoned lot in Berlin. Yes, that Hitler. He doesn’t know how he got there, but in 66 years he has not aged a day. Taken in by a newsagent who marvels at his uncanny resemblance to you-know-who, right down to the authentic uniform, he has to accommodate himself to a world which is alien. But accommodation is not his strong suit. What follows is a biting commentary on our modern world and, as such, it is fitting that he finds an audience for his rehashed rhetoric through TV and You-Tube. An audience that does not always interpret his “performance” as satire. After all, in his mind he is dead serious.

2015-03-25 11.23.17As you might imagine, this premise affords Timur Vermes, the German author of Look Who’s Back, an opportunity for much humour. The newly revived Hitler faces a host of curiosities  and surprising sights. He marvels at plastic bags, satellite dishes, the computer with its “internetwork” and all the residents of “dubious Aryan heritage.”

His first encounter with a modern television set is quite funny.

“To begin with I assumed that the flat, dark plate in my room must be some bizarre work of art. Then, taking into consideration its shape, I speculated that it might serve as a means of storing my shirts overnight without them creasing.”

Once a hotel maid introduces him to the secrets of the TV and its remote, he is very dismayed to find one cooking show after another. Naturally it is a waste to have such an effective tool for propaganda dedicated to such bland mediocrity. No worries though. Before long Hitler will be making his way on to the televised airwaves.

Even after more than six decades, he has not mellowed. His naivety is amusing, but his single-minded commitment to the visions, ambitions, and speeches of his past is chilling. It creates an abiding discomfort in the reader. That is, of course, the purpose, but the satire does wear a little thin over the course of the novel.

Author Timur Vermes does manage to maintain a consistent and steady voice throughout this accomplished debut. He keeps his Hitler grounded in reality, at least as he perceives it. Translator Jamie Bulloch does an excellent job of incorporating words that are most effectively kept in the original German, and in creating a realistic English slang for the younger characters. Together this all works to produce a quick, entertaining, if somewhat disturbing, read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Look Who’s Back is well crafted and provides ample food for thought. It has a strong commercial appeal which may act in its favour for a spot on the short list.

Portents of death: The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed

“The brook here in the forest – where did it begin —
Don’t think like that!
Not about beginnings and endings, but just about what is.
Throw in a stone and make time stop.”

The passage of time, the flow of seasons, the repetitive routine of life on the farm – these are the currents that course through The Ravens, the English-language debut from Swedish author Tomas Bannerhed. The landscape is rugged and raw. The land, reclaimed from peat bogs, is stingy and unforgiving. The weather is harsh and unpredictable. It can break a man’s back and, if he is not careful, it can drive him mad.

ravensThe events of this dark rural novel unfold over the span of one year from spring to spring. Our narrator, Klas, is a sensitive and intelligent 12 year-old boy with a passion for birds. His ear is finally tuned to the songs and calls of the species that nest in the trees and marshlands near his home, he knows their habits and is on the lookout for the chance visitors who may happen to appear outside their normal range. Birds are not only an obsession but a refuge and distraction from the pressures at home.

Klas has a troubled relationship with his father who, as the year progresses, is clearly losing his grip on reality. Ange is haunted by the cries of ravens that only he can hear. He constantly worries away at a huge pile of scrap metal and bemoans the endless work that weighs down on him on the farm. The more he complains and beseeches the Lord for the trials he suffers, the more he drives his older son to the marshes. Klas’ mother exercises a weary stoicism, continually working to pull her family together, while his younger brother spends much of his time retreating to increasingly juvenile behaviour. Hanging over the family is the legacy of mental illness. Klas’ grandfather committed suicide, his father is becoming more unpredictable and eccentric, and, in his heart, Klas is terrified that he too will inherit both the farm and the madness.

The summer sees a hint of respite for young Klas as the attentions of Veronika, an attractive girl from the city, set his hormones reeling. True to form he takes her on a late night birdwatching outing, but she disappears to the city soon after. Before long Ange overdoses on pills and is committed to a psychiatric hospital. As his father fades, Klas will be forced to question whether he will be able to carry the weight that will be placed on his shoulders. And as Klas appears to be pursued by voices and superstitions of his own, the reader has to wonder if he is not already haunted by demons. An eye he imagines above his bed disturbs his sleep, the voices keep driving him to the marsh’s edge.

“Stare down into a mirror.
No sign of life. Just my own blurred face and the tiniest ripples if you looked really carefully, like vibrations in the air from the silently whirring wings of the circling gnats. A pond skater came shooting across the water on its sewing-thread legs. Here and there, gas bubbles percolated gently to the surface and popped with a wet sigh.
Is that all?
No toothless Marsh Wife leering down there, no long arms and yellow nails like claws to draw you down into the black hole?”

There is much to love in this novel. The landscape comes alive. The language is achingly beautiful and spare, smoothly translated by Sarah Death. As someone who grew up in a rural environment in the 1970s, I found that the cassette tapes, aging hippies, and city fashions that Klas encounters when he visits Veronika brought back memories. The darkness that seeps through and builds as the story progresses is well managed. My only criticism would be that I felt it might benefit from being edited a little more tightly in the first half.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: This is certainly one of the more ambitious of the long listed novels and I would be pleased to see it make the short list.

A nuclear folktale: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

lakeAt the beginning of The Dead Lake, by Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov, an unnamed traveller encounters Yerzhan, a 27 year-old man seemingly confined to the body of a young boy, playing violin on the platform of a railway station. Fascinated by this odd character, he invites him to join him on his  train journey where Yerzhan proceeds to share his account of growing up in a two-family railway “stop” on the steppes of Kazakhstan during the years of the Cold War. The landscape of his homeland, vast and underpopulated, is seen to be the ideal testing ground for the Soviet side of the nuclear arms race. The tremors and explosions that rock the “Zone” become a terrifying feature of daily life for the nearby residents.The resulting radiation will take a much more devastating toll.

Early on Yerzhan finds respite in music. At the age of three, he shows exceptional musical aptitude for playing his granddad’s dombra, graduating quickly to the violin. For years music consumes him. A Hungarian worker at the Mobile Construction Unit is found to tutor the young musical prodigy. He absorbs the music, quickly learning to read and play many classical masterpieces.

“He dreamt these phrases, together with the sounds of the violin in the different-coloured, rounded notes. His dreams had never been so jolly before. The notes walked about like little men. This one was fat and pompous, with a huge pot belly, while these minced along on skinny legs.”

reedHe also finds a personal hero in the handsome Dean Reed, the American born pop and rock singer who became a celebrity behind the Iron Curtain, and imagines himself growing in the image of his mentor and securing the heart of his beloved Aisulu. But when he suddenly stops growing at the age of 12, his intended continues to grow, eventually reaching an unusual height for a woman. His heartache, which he seeks to answer in the songs, magic, and legends of his people becomes an allegory for the very real and tragic legacy that atomic fallout has left on the land and people of this remote part of the world.

This moving novella is part of Peirene Press’ Coming of Age series. Ismailov breathes life into the steppes, from the snow dusted barren slopes, to the ubiquitous worms, lice, and flies. The silence of the landscapes is contrasted with the violence of the test flights and explosions. The musical tones of violin meet traditional folksongs. Andrew Bromfield’s sensitive translation form the Russian is especially effective in maintaining the lyrical quality of the songs that are woven into the tale. The result is a simple, but thought-provoking read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: It is good to see small, subscription supported presses like Peirene receiving the attention that these nominations bring to the wonderful stories that deserve to reach a wider audience.

The law of being average F: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann

“How can anyone live with the fact that they’re not Rubens? How does anyone come to terms with it? To begin with, everyone thinks they’re the exception to everything. But hardly anyone is an exception.”

This rhetorical question, posed by Martin to his half brother Ivan, is indicative of the truth that lies at the heart of F, the latest novel by German/Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Learning to live with mediocrity is something all of the Friedland boys struggle with. Martin has found everything he requires in the priesthood – everything, that is, but faith. The Rubik’s Cube, that multi-coloured plastic puzzle that was all the rage in the 1980s, retains the soul of his devotion while God has remained absent. Ivan is a would be artist who doubts his own ability but will ultimately find artistic expression forging “masterpieces” in collaboration with an elderly lover who agrees to take the credit. His twin brother Eric channels his personal insecurity into a career in asset management, complete with trophy wife, daughter and mistresses, until his increased involvement in fraudulent financial transactions drive him to a state of paranoid psychosis.f_dhb

Faith, forgery, fraud. See a pattern? Don’t forget family. And, of course, father. As the book opens we see Arthur, a remarkably unambitious writer stagnating in his second marriage, as he takes his three young sons to see a performance by a hypnotist. Ivan and Arthur, both skeptics about the entire process, are invited to take turns on the stage. Their experiences that day could be said to set in motion the events that unwind and unspool as the boys grow up and try to find their footing as adults in the world. Or is there another, “F” word at play? Either way, Arthur disappears from the lives of his sons and their mothers on that very same day and none of them will hear from him for many years.

Confused yet? This is not a straight forward narrative by any means. It is told in parallel intersecting threads, a sweeping backward genealogy and a glimpse into the possible prospects of the next generation of the Friedland clan – prospects which rest rather heavily on the shoulders of Eric’s daughter Marie. At times insightful, sometimes funny and at other times drawing in elements of the gothic ghost story, F: A Novel endeavours to wind a tale too slippery to be tied down.

Ah but does it work? I was looking forward to this novel and, for pure entertainment I think it works quite well. The translation by Carol Brown Janeway is clean and precise. However, I am not convinced that it holds up to the critical reading expected of a potential prize winner. I found the characters too one dimensional and the coincidences just a little too neat and convenient for my tastes.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: There are four German authors on the IFFP longlist this year. Compared to the two I have read so far, I am less inclined to feel this one is shortlist quality, but of course, we shall see what the jury decides.

Survival, but at what cost? The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

Okay, first a warning. After all you, the reader, deserve to be warned. Nature, in blind disregard, does not grant that privilege. Survival affords no foresight. But here it is: If you require a sympathetic, likeable protagonist this is not your novel. If you want a story with redemption, turn away. But if you want to read a book that is intelligent, darkly satirical, and beautifully illustrated, The Giraffe’s Neck (Bloomsbury), the second novel from the young German author Judith Schalansky, is an original, engaging and, ultimately, gut wrenching read.

giraffeInge Lohmark is a biology teacher at a school in the former East Germany, where reunification has shifted the economic environment so rapidly that the native inhabitants are struggling to adapt. The population is declining. Within four years the school where she has taught for the past three decades will close its doors for good. For all her passion for natural history, teaching is not a vocation for Inge so much as a call to arms, a battle in which she faces down the enemy year after year, employing the tools of the evolutionary biologist – define, classify, and label the specimen who pass through her classroom with the faint hope that she can force some knowledge into their adolescent heads.

Outside the classroom her life is similarly ordered and seemingly devoid of compassion. Her husband Wolfgang has become obsessed with ostriches, tending to his beloved flock, expanding his business, and frequently going days without crossing paths with his wife. Their daughter Claudia is in America, she left for study years earlier but has always found a reason to stay. Inge is clearly emotionally conflicted as she looks forward to looming retirement but her resolute, stubborn nature leaves little room for cracks to form in her tough facade. Until a curious attraction to a female student sets her off balance.

Much of The Giraffe’s Neck takes the form of a misanthropic monologue. The language is spare, direct. Human beings, individually or collectively, take much of the brunt of her bitter and darkly humourous rants (think Thomas Bernhard with short clipped sentences):

“Marie Schlicter was standing at the bus stop. Head thrown back. Stuck up. High horse. The brain a windfall, ideally packaged in the shell of a skull. Doctor’s daughter. Moved here to get some fresh air. But Marie Schlicter didn’t take the air. Did she breathe at all?”

Balanced against Inge’s internal tirades are truly lyrical passages describing the countryside and clear indications that her self control is hiding pain rather than pride, interspersed with delicately beautiful illustrations by the author. The overall effect is original and impressive. Evolutionary biology, in Schlansky’s hands, serves as a metaphor for the challenges facing the former GDR as it struggles to adjust to a rapidly shifting environment. Adaptation is critical for survival, but even successful strategies come with advantages and costs. Change the circumstances too fast and yesterday’s asset is today’s weakness.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: This is my fifth read from the longlist. Again it strikes an entirely fresh tone from the books I have read to date. The translator, Shaun Whiteside, has translated a wide range of German authors (as well as also working with French, Italian and Dutch). The distinctive and fresh character of this exciting young German author comes through nicely. Some readers are likely to find the narrator’s character difficult but with a strong affection for Beckett and Bernhard I found it to be a delight. There is, after all, a deeper and important thread beneath the surface, as in all good dark satire.

Ah look at all the lonely people: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

“Kind of a major paradox, wouldn’t you say? As we go through life we gradually discover who we are, but the more we discover, the more we lose ourselves.”

After his last novel, 1Q84, which spread out across three volumes and over 900 pages, Japanese author Haruki Murakami has reigned himself in to about a third of that length with Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (translated by Philip Gabriel). Many of the hallmark features familiar to readers of his work – lonely protagonists, idiosyncratic obsessions, surreal dreams and fantasies, musical reference points – are all present here. But is it enough to satisfy fans who might have drifted away or, at least, have been overwhelmed by his previous offering?

colorlessThis time out our hero, or rather anti-hero, is Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man from an upper middle class family in Nagoya, Japan, who is part of an especially close group of five friends throughout his high school years. The only thing that sets him apart from his friends, two other boys and two girls, is that they each have a name that incorporates a colour while he does not. His “colourlessness” is a huge source of distress for him as he seems destined to continue to encounter people who also have colourful names. When his friends inexplicably cut him off one year after he moves Tokyo to pursue his dream of constructing train stations, Tsukuru falls into a deep depression and his long years of pilgrimage begin (cue the Franz Liszt). No matter what success he achieves in his career, his friends’ rejection not only haunts him, but continues to create a barrier to his ability to form long term friendships or relationships.

There was a time when I eagerly devoured Murakami’s work, delighting in its dreamlike quirkiness. I don’t know whether I have changed or he just isn’t trying as hard. I found it difficult to engage with the main character or any of his friends or acquaintances. The long straightforward descriptive passages of each character’s personality, appearance, clothing seem indicative of what I would expect from a much less accomplished writer. I wanted to shout “show, don’t tell”. I will admit that about halfway through, the story did become more engaging as Tsukuru began to actively seek explanations to the cause of his estrangement from his friends once he was well into his 30’s. And on a personal level I found moments of connection with the underlying themes of loneliness and alienation, but I still found myself less satisfied than I might have hoped.

It saddens me to reflect that, more than anything, this novel appears to make a great effort to live up to its title – Colorless. The charm of Murakami’s earlier work – birds, cats, surreal spaces are gone. There are dreams and odd connections but none sustain a significant element of magic for me. I was left with the sense that its spare, fable quality would have been far better suited to a work half the length.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Many predicted this would make the longlist and so it did. (Published in the UK by Harvill Secker.) My feelings may be ambivalent but I do know that many other readers thoroughly enjoyed this book so we will see how it fares going forward.

A song of the 20th century in five parts: The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

“Some are destined to stay behind, some are destined to depart, and yet others to arrive.
That’s how life works.”

The metaphysical truth that binds the five overlapping narratives that tell this story of one German woman’s life is simple: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from the end of days.

end1Like waves crashing upon the shore and retreating again, in each section of this mesmerizing novel by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, the unnamed female character at its centre dies. Born in Galicia, in 1902, to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, the first section imagines her dying before her first birthday. While her mother sits shiva, her father escapes to America in his grief and the young family never recovers.

But then, the narrator steps in and asks us to reconsider the possibility that the infant’s life might have been saved and that another fate unfolds. Now, a second daughter follows the first and the father relocates his family to Vienna in hopes of improving his ability to support his wife and daughters. But war breaks out and life is cold, unimaginably cold, and meagre provisions are meted out to the hungry residents who line up each night, through the night, clutching their ration cards. As her father obsessively copies out earthquake reports brought home from his work in the department of meteorology and her mother assumes she is leading a questionable life, our heroine is simply in her late teens, trying to understand all of the normal passions of adolescence in an atmosphere that seems to hold out little hope. This time she will lose hope and conspire to take her own life.

In her third incarnation we find her in Moscow, having aligned herself with the Communists and trying to write and re-write her own story in a desperate attempt to save herself and, if possible, her husband who has already been arrested. This central section, the longest and densest, forms the axis upon which 20th century European history and the life of the woman at the heart of The End of Days seems to turn. Her own allegiances are complicated, everything she had believed in is tested, and the ground shifts so quickly that holding fast to moral or political ideals is like, well, surviving an earthquake. Her fate, like so many of her relatives is seemingly inescapable.

Or is it?

New Directions edition
New Directions edition

As well as being a writer, Erpenbeck is also an opera director; and the hypnotic, haunting images and motifs that arise, disappear, and resurface throughout this exquisite novel are reminiscent of the phrases that are repeated and built upon in an extended piece of classic music. The mood is mournful, as themes of loss and the experience of death and grief are revisited, each time within vastly different contexts. Susan Bernofsky’s deft translation sustains the rhythm and music of the language. In the hands of a lesser writer this would seem contrived, but here, the bones are bare, the emotions raw and the result heartbreaking, horrifying and beautiful in its sheer humanity. The prose is spare, evocative. It gets under the skin, works its way right into the reader’s heart.

I could say so much more, but quite honestly, this book deserves to be experienced not described.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: I finished this book on the eve of the announcement of the IFFP long list and I am thrilled to see it included. (Published by Portebello in the UK, I have the New Directions edition.) I feel confident that it will be one of my personal top reads of the year and I will be looking to read more of Erpenbeck’s earlier work in the future.

Looking to distant horizons: A few reflections on reading from afar

It is not entirely clear in my memory, but by this time last year, the stress of trying to hold myself together in the face of mounting pressures in what had become a deeply dysfunctional workplace, was taking a serious toll on my emotional and mental health. I have not been able to return to regular work since last June. I have struggled to gather the energy to attend to many of the regular household tasks that seem to pile up week after week. My cameras, once my faithful companions, have hardly been touched. The unbearable sameness of my city fails to inspire and seems to be closing in on me despite a remarkably mild winter. But one activity has remained undiminished and if anything has flourished with the extra time I have these days. I am talking about reading.

A fraction of my shelves, some read, most not (yet).
A fraction of my shelves, some read, most not (yet).

Most of the books I read take me elsewhere. As I turn my blog focus more and more toward literary themes, it is clear that I have a few idiosyncrasies. I have a definite interest in South African literature. This owes its genesis in part to my own experiences knowing a number of South Africans over the years, from watching the momentous changes that have taken place in the country during my adult years, and in the understanding that the new South Africa faces challenges that create a context for important discussions that we need to continue to keep open. Discussions we can all learn from in our increasingly global reality. The same holds true for another area with which I have an increasing literary interest – central and Eastern Europe. The political turmoil of the past century has provided ample inspiration for a wide range of exciting  literature, which, thanks to an increasing number of industrious small publishers, is catching the attention of English speaking audiences. Slowly but surely.

Of course, at the core of all great literature, classic and contemporary, is the essential quality of the human experience. We are born, we grow old, we fall in love, we lose those we love, we battle darkness, we face fear, we hope, we reach for those moments of joy. And the more I open myself to the stories of others from around the world, the less alone I feel.

But then there is this nagging guilt. As a Canadian, why don’t I read more Canadian writers? Well I do, but so many leave me unsatisfied and rarely reach my blog. And those I am especially fond of have tended to come from elsewhere; that is, they are Canadian with a hyphen and frequently write from that transitional perspective. I don’t think it was always that way. Maybe I have just been land bound too long. Maybe I crave the exotic just a little after all.

Well until I can travel, I will keep my bags packed, my options open and and a healthy pile of books standing by from near and far.

Behind the photographic impulse: Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavić

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

“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 NDouble 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.