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.

Honouring the unwritten: The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavić

“Not writing is always a relief and sometimes a pleasure. Writing about what cannot be written, by contrast, is the devil’s own job. Yet words on a page make all things possible.”

Central to this collection of brief odes to the fictional inspirations that once planted, failed to germinate, refused to take root and grow, or died off before even hitting the soil; is one full and essentially complete story – the magical titular “The Loss Library”. Surrounding this tale, to either side on the book shelf of South African author Ivan Vladislavić’s imagination lie a selection of meditations on the curious nature of the creative process and the many ways that an intriguing idea can lose its way on the path to realization, finding itself shelved in the place of the might-have-been, filed away in a writer’s own personal loss library. Looking back at the notes and outlines he explored during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the unsettling years of transition from apartheid to a democratic state, Vladislavić notes that his inspirations tended to arise from documentary sources – the past perhaps seeming more sound than the bloody history being made on the streets of his country at the time. Moving forward, within the scope of the “case studies” selected for this book, the pieces and fragments he gathers turn to dictionaries, reference materials and the “means to read and write – or not read and not write – books.”

2015-12-09 15.08.34But let us begin in the middle, at “The Loss Library”. With a clear nod to Borges, the master of the library of the imagination, a young man arrives at a most unusual archive, a repository of the all of the unfinished works, possible and impossible of all the writers who have ever lived. He is greeted by an attractive librarian. Fit and tanned she is the antitheses of what he expects. As she guides him into the library she first steps into slippers and advises him to do the same. They literally glide across the polished floors of the rooms and corridors as she directs his personal tour of the premises. The first room contains a single glassed in cabinet containing the books that would have been written had their would-be authors not chanced to die young:

“‘Arranged alphabetically and classified by cause of death.’ A wave of her slender hand. ‘Accidental death. Booze, of course. Disease – those old standbys, consumption and syphilis, and the new one, AIDS, a growing collection. Duels – little sign of growth there. Motor accidents. Murder. Suicide. A disproportionate number of Russians and Japanese, as you’d expect, and quite a few of your countrymen and women too.’”

As our protagonist leans in for a closer look, he can recognize no words on the spines. He tells the librarian he is looking for Bruno Schulz. Filed down with the war dead, six little volumes are found but he is not allowed to see them… after all, opening such a book could have consequences in all the others, in essence I suppose, the way fiddling with the future given access to a time machine might. In this library of potential works, one can’t risk having people “talk them into being.”

2015-12-09 15.02.54Together they encounter a room filled with books that remain unwritten because their authors lost faith in them, and he is shown a collection of the books that lost their way or were talked out of existence before they had a chance to be realized. They pass through a room containing books that were destroyed, stop at a shelf of books that comes into being by evocation of the proper author’s name (any guesses?) and, finally, enter a room of floating, ghostly, ethereal books – those that presented themselves to their would-be writers in dreams. In the end, is this excursion through the Loss Library a fantasy, the beginning of book that the young man himself will write into being, or another story that might have been, relegated to the back of a notebook, the bottom of a drawer or, in this day and age, lost somewhere on a hard drive?

Returning now to the startling opening essay, Vladislavić describes his attraction to the famous photograph of Robert Walser lying dead in the snow on Christmas Day, 1956, and reflects upon the way that the isolated image fueled his imagination before had even read any of Walser’s work. He contemplates writing a story about the writer’s last days, about that fateful final walk, the curious absence of footsteps or bystanders around the body, the precision the photographer must have employed to capture this solemn record, and with particular fascination, the dead man’s hat lying in the snow. However, before he sits down to write, Vladislavić engages in a little research and finds another photograph, taken from a different angle. From this vantage point he can now see many footprints in the snow, two men off to the side, and realizes that even the hat has fallen differently than he imagined. The curious, romantic and uncomfortable questions – the necessary elements of the creative process – are shattered.

As he continues to rifle through the pages of his notebooks, Vladislavić explores a variety of mislaid ventures, the inspiration or ideas behind them and the reasons they fell off the rails or, perhaps, only flickered for a moment or two. “Gross”, an intended venture into the land of the OuLiPo in which he set for himself a series mathematical constraints within which he would construct a novel, proves unsuccessful. Along the way, the character he was creating to take centre stage, morphed into someone else who would, ultimately wander off to join the cast of another novel,The Restless Supermarket, but more critically, he found himself completely overwhelmed by the prospect of the challenge he had set and decided that this type of approach was best left to Perec, et al.

In a later example, he describes his fascination with an unassuming sign on the side of a building in his Johannesburg neighbourhood that simply reads “Gravity Addict” with a phone number. He begins to wonder what a gravity addict is and how that might be imagined in a story. He thinks about the post 9/11 performance artist in Don Delillo’s The Falling Man, contemplates the structural format of that novel, and eventually imagines a woman, an aspiring writer, sitting on her sofa watching endless episodes of old cartoons – the ones where characters repeatedly chase each other off the edge of cliffs – and then, when one day the innocuous meaning behind the mysterious appellation “gravity artist” is revealed to him, his interest in the story instantly dissolves and he can go no further.

Finally, in light of the recent re-release of Vladislavić’s first novel, The Folly, the story “The Acrobats” special attention. In this outline for a story we see a man in a library reading a book. At some point he closes that book and retrieves a copy of Tristram Shandy from the stacks. He seeks out a particular passage which in turn, is a lengthy quotation from Gragntua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, so he stops and wanders off to fetch that text and goes on to read from the original, or rather a translation of the original, the same quoted passage describing the wild acrobatic exploits of Gymnaste, performed on horseback, as he faces down an enemy combatant. As such, Vladislavić envisions a post-modern inversion of a book within a book within a book, the initial level being, of course, at once the book that both the man and his reader are reading. However, the idea is set aside, in part due to the complication of modern versus contemporary translations of the nested passages.

Several years later, in the writing of The Folly, Vladislavić sees his character Nieuwenhuizen, the eccentric stranger who arrives out of nowhere to take ownership of and build a house on a vacant lot, as a direct descendant of Gymnaste. As he marks out the foundation of the ephemeral house that he will ultimately construct out of imagination and thin air, Nieuwenhuizen engages in his own acrobatic measurements, leaping, somersaulting, and throwing himself around the lot. Could the earlier story now be revived, with The Folly as the third book in the line, he wonders, could he develop the idea that his “ostensibly post-modern novel stood in a pre-modern tradition”? Ah, but for the paradox that his outline for “The Acrobats” was written three to four years before The Folly, how could a story refer to a book that had yet to be written?

Yet Vladislavić was, it would seem, not quite done with his potential story. Several years later he encountered the 18th century French writer, Diderot, who was a contemporary of and acquainted with Laurence Sterne. Although the publication of Rameau’s Nephew would arise through a circuitous route, there was an indication apparently, that Diderot’s initial sketches for the eccentric, rambling character who engages the narrator of his novel could have roughly coincided with the publication of Tristram Shandy. Now he wants to fictionally trace the lineage of Nieuwenhuizen from Sterne via Rameau… except for a new paradox that arises. The Folly was written before his discovery of Rameau’s Nephew. How could his own novel be influenced by a work he had not read?

In his note at the end of this account of the stubborn death of a story idea, Vladislavić can look back and recognize that, as a young writer, he demonstrated too great a concern with precedent. Wiser now, he remarks:

“Every writer belongs to one bastard bloodline or another, and laying claim to one can be a liberating lesson in perspective. But standing on the shoulders of giants is a skill that comes from long practice. When you start out, you are more likely to get under their feet. Don’t be surprised if the giants – or their legitimate progeny – come stomping after you in the playground: ‘We walk straight so you better get out of the way!’”

And herein lies the true gift of this slender collection of artistic musings,and inspirational dead ends – the insertion throughout of the author’s updated reflections on his varied false starts. There is no writer or would-be writer who does not have an accumulated hoard of ideas, outlines and abandoned projects. If they don’t, one ought to be suspicious.

Wandering through The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories is a rare privilege to spend time in the company of a thoughtful, gifted writer who truly appears to be without pretensions. This journey, contained within the covers of a finely crafted hardcover from the singular Seagull Books and accompanied by the original collages of Sunandini Banerjee, is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and treasure to return to time and again. After all, there may well be, within these pages, the inspirational seeds of other stories just waiting for the right gardener to plant them and bring them to fruition.

Castles in the air? The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić

Imagine an empty lot. A curious stranger arrives one evening. He steps into the lot and makes his way across the dry winter grass, stopping when he hits a large anthill.

“It seemed a pity to waste this discovery, so he stood on top of the hill and turned his face ceremoniously to the four corners of his inheritance. It was a big face, with a crack of a mouth and a stump of a nose, with unfathomable sockets, craggy brows and a bulging forehead dented in the middle, altogether suited to the play of moonlight and shade. His survey revealed a single tree in the elbow of the hedge, and he chose that spot for his camp.”

As this newcomer sets up camp, the residents of the house next door are settled in front of the TV consuming prepared dinners on tray tables while they watch the usual turmoil and violence exploding on the evening news. Yet for Mr and Mrs Malgas, the quiet, unassuming domestic existence they have enjoyed is about to be changed – disturbed, unwound and distorted – by the very presence of this most unconventional new neighbour.

follySuch is the premise of The Folly. Newly released in North America, this haunting modern day fable, originally published in 1993, was the first novel by South African author Ivan Vladislavić. Mr Malgas, the owner of a local hardware store, reaches out to this oddly eccentric character who has suddenly taken up makeshift residency on the dusty patch of veld next door. He imagines the newcomer with the best intentions, excited when he learns that, true to his name, Nieuwenhuizen does in fact plan to construct a “new house” on the vacant lot. The Mrs will not be appeased. She is suspicious at every turn.

When convenient, Malgas’ enthusiastic assistance is welcomed by his fickle neighbour but the building project is unlike anything he has ever known. Nieuwenhuizen is methodical and will not be rushed. He deliberates, meditates and paces around his piece of land, frequently flinging his ungainly long frame about in the most unusual manner. Prancing, jumping, spinning and throwing himself to the ground. All the while Mrs keeps an anxious eye from behind the lace curtains of her lounge. When the “construction phase” finally gets into full swing things get even stranger.

Nieuwenhuizen is an enigmatic character, he can be pleasant and sociable one moment, suddenly turning to shower insults on his eager helpmate the next. Malgas takes it hard. Back at home his wife feels increasingly powerless against this mercurial influence. One evening when her husband, exhausted from a long day working beside his neighbour, collapses in the La-Z-Boy in front of the TV, she confronts the state she has come to:

“Mrs went into the bedroom, seated herself before the winged mirror of her dressing table, and said, ‘Although I appear to be thin and small, and fading away before your eyes, I am a substantial person. At least, it feels that way to me.’

Her pale reflection repeated the lines in triplicate.

Yet she saw through the pretence. It was clear: she was made of glass. And under the bell-jar of her skin, in a rarefied atmosphere, lashed by electrical storms and soused by chemical precipitations, her vital organs were squirming.”

Parable or fable, comparisons to Borges, Calvino and Beckett have been suggested by reviewers, but this timeless allegory owes its intensity to the brilliant descriptive power and sly humour of Vladislavić’s prose. As this tale rises (and falls?) to a stunningly surreal and dramatic climax, we are, as readers, as completely enmeshed in Nieuwenhuizen’s architectural chimera as the hapless Malgas.

Originally published at a pivotal moment in South African political history, it is tempting to read politics into the allegorical dimensions of this tale. I read it more broadly as a parable of our complex anxieties and attractions to others. Malgas is drawn to Nieuwenhuizen immediately. Mystery, curiosity perhaps, but there is a romance in his simple camp life and his creative fashioning of implements out of found objects and trash that evoke the magic of boyhood adventure. As a man ensconced in a secure, if unexciting, domestic life this appeal sets the groundwork that will allow him to be drawn into Nieuwenhuizen’s scheme. The ephemeral success of the envisioning and realization, however fantastic and temporary, of their dream mansion depends on Malgas’ desperate desire to believe and his longing for companionship. For the Mrs however, the new neighbour is a source of fear at first, of danger, and then of loss. He threatens their privacy, their way of life, and ultimately their marriage. The “other” forever holds that mixed appeal and repulsion.

The past two years have seen a growing awareness of and appreciation for Vladislavić’s work outside South Africa. It is well deserved and long overdue. The Folly was released in North America by Archipelago Books in September of 2015, the UK release from And Other Stories is due in November.