Review by Leo P. Neufeld
Ivan VladislavicAnd Other Stories
Search online for "African postmodernist literature" and you'll see from the results why Ivan Vladislavic is ahead of his time. He may be the only African postmodernist writer. But despite being a lone wolf in that sense, Vladislavic is plenty respected in South African literary circles. The list of awards he has won over his twenty-plus year career proves it.
Double Negative, Vladislavic’s fourth novel, accounts for chunks of time in the life of Neville Lister. Neville, when the three-part story begins, is an anti-war, anti-apartheid, consummate college dropout living with his parents in '80s Johannesburg. As he puts it, “My studies had awakened a social conscience in me, on which I was incapable of acting.” Not knowing what to do but full of information from his high-level college courses, Neville takes a menial job. When he gets into a fight over politics with his family’s racist neighbor, his parents send him out to spend a day in Johannesburg with a photographer named Saul Auerbach, a famous friend of the family.
Neville’s father lauds Saul, terming him “a man with strong convictions” who has “learned to direct them.” Saul ends up taking Neville under his wing for a day, along with a man by the name of Gerald Brookes who is made to seem (strangely) more significant than he is. Once together, the three of them walk to the top of an anonymous hill in Johannesburg where they have a great view and pick out houses in one of the city’s slums. Then they drive to those chosen houses and have Saul photograph the lonely people who happen to be inside.
In Double Negative, the way Saul treats his subjects might just be a lesson in how to be a great photographer. Vladislavic displays a beautiful respect for photography as an art form. The novel doesn't include actual photographs, but it doesn't need to: The inspiration for the novel was a series of photographs by Vladislavic’s friend and fellow South African, David Goldblatt. Not surprisingly, Vladislavic has stated that Double Negative’s Obi-Wan-like Saul Auerbach is loosely based on Goldblatt himself. His mixed-media collaboration with Vladislavic explains not only why the novel feels like a photograph, but also why so much of the novel takes photography as its subject. A large part of the first half of the story stems from Neville's and Saul's (and Gerald’s) fateful photography-themed day trip. The latter half of the book centers around Neville’s adult life in Johannesburg, as he revisits more than ten years later one of the houses that the three men had chosen to visit but never did.
Although the crux of the book is dedicated to simple events and themes—men alone and men together, men contemplative and men driving around, men talking and men being spontaneous with photography—to view the events as simple would be a mistake. When reading Double Negative, you have to appreciate the richness of the seemingly minor details, the subtle motion of everything. Otherwise you might miss the significance of the man at the bus stop whom Neville notices while zoning out in the back seat of Saul’s car, the “scrap of rubber torn from a doll’s head” in a photo. Neville's thoughts, the things he observes, and even language all emerge subtly throughout Double Negative like clues. Only by paying attention to every detail can you enjoy the full spectrum of what Vladislavic offers.
Though photography-saturated, Double Negative is also interesting because of the linguistic idiosyncracies that it highlights. When Vladislavic intersperses Afrikaans-inflected dialect into his characters' conversations, it's like entering a bizarro America. Some of the terms are just slightly different from American English, but in ways that you might not expect: Street curbs in Afrikaans are called "kerbs" and front porch stoops are called "stoeps," for example. These quirky variations on terms that help people parse out their cities are likely to dismissed as just that: quirky. Yet they exemplify that same subtle movement that Teju Cole points to in the introduction to the book. Language can and does move like anything else moves, and in Double Negative, Vladislavic shows us how true that is, and with the same clarity that he shows us a Johannesburg sunset.
In sum: Read this book. The recent loss of Nelson Mandela makes Double Negative that much more of a fascinating read, as an objective series of snapshots of a transitioning world. Although Mandela is hardly even mentioned in Double Negative, his influence is implicit on each page.
Ivan Vladislavic may not have much current company as a post-modernist African writer, but Double Negative is sure to inspire African writers young and old to push structural boundaries in their own work. Then, we might have more African postmodern writers as far as online searches are concerned.
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