BY CHRISTINE EMMETT
‘I’m building a new house,’ said Nieuwenhuizen.
Mr Malgas looked over his shoulder.
‘I haven’t actually started yet,’ said Nieuwenhuizen with a crackly laugh. ‘I’m still in the planning stages.’
Ivan Vladislavić’s writing has a particular bent for the specifics involved in being a South African. Details of language, place and character build up in his books like brick upon brick of some maniacal structure. The characters in his books are proofreaders, hardware store owners, statisticians, engineers and photographers who all experience the world around them in peculiar and unexpected ways.
Not only has he managed to convey the experiences and perceptions of some fairly singular characters, but he has been able, perhaps more than any other novelist, to track the changing landscape of South Africa after the political transition. His landscape is one of postmodern ironies and weird juxtapositions which represent both the newness of South Africa and the continuation of its conflicted past. For over 20 years, he has reconstructed Johannesburg and its inhabitants on the page, highlighting the surrealism which hovers over much of South African city life.
To start my interview with him, I decide to take him out of Johannesburg for a change, pushing his gaze back to Pretoria where he grew up. Pretoria, spoken of as the crumbling capital and old seat of the apartheid government, is much maligned. We talk about the scarcity of imaginative writing based on Pretoria, the dilapidation of the inner city, the current use of the once impressive Capitol Theatre as a car park. Beyond the losses and degradations, new life has also emerged. Pretoria is probably more cosmopolitan now than it ever was, and has quite startlingly become a hotbed of construction: malls, golfing estates, Italianate housing projects, mega churches – so many buildings rising up from the earth.
As someone who grew up in Pretoria, I’ve become accustomed to the encroaching malls and the spreading of themed estates. One of the few places where an estate has poked its head up into representation is Vladislavić’s “Villa Toscana” in The Exploded View:
“Villa Toscana lies on a sloping ridge beside the freeway, a little prefabricated Italy in the veld, resting on a firebreak of red earth like a toy town on a picnic blanket. It makes everything around – the corrugated-iron roofs of the old farmhouses on the neighbouring plots, the doddering windmills, the bluegums – look out of place.”
This description of an Italianate housing estate in Johannesburg represents a feature of the South African landscape which is particularly familiar to me. I ask him what he makes of these themed estates and their attempted escape from their surroundings. Is this a specifically South African affliction?
“Look, I think it began as an American phenomenon,” he says. “I was in America in the early 90s. I went to Florida and stayed with people who lived in a gated complex, with themed houses and so on. I’d never seen anything like it, and of course it wasn’t long before it arrived here. So we can’t claim to have invented the idea of the themed complex and the lifestyle estate, it’s very largely an American impulse. It’s Las Vegas and it’s Hollywood. It’s the idea that it’s better to live on a film set than in a normal house. They’re sets for the staging of your life. I think that’s part of it.”
The themed housing estate in Africa rings of a kind of irony which would understandably attract a writer like Vladislavić. “Ja, that’s true,” he tells me, “because it’s such an invented environment.” He pauses. “You know, a place like Montecasino – if you wanted to explain postmodernism to someone, you could take them out there and just show them around.” Montecasino, a massive casino on the edge of Johannesburg is a perfect representation of big money and kitsch: it’s painstakingly rendered as an ancient Tuscan village. “David Goldblatt took some extraordinary pictures of Montecasino from a helicopter, so that you can see the entire structure; it’s massive and monolithic seen from that perspective… He also photographed one smaller structure, which is where the builders tried out all the effects they were going to use. So they erected a little building and it’s covered with plaster and cobbles and archways. It’s the most bizarre looking structure. It was their test area. It’s a kind of artwork, it’s a crazy collage.”
Some aspect of these buildings rings true, even in their artificiality, of the South African psyche. There’s something undeniably idealistic (or deluded) about transplanting Europe into Africa. These aspirations appear in Vladislavić’s The Restless Supermarket where the conservative and anal-retentive proofreader, Aubrey Tearle, spends much of his time fantasising about a bizarre European mural in a café in Hillbrow. The painting represents a conglomeration of European architectures nonsensically heaped together, a place where, in Tearle’s words, “[a] Slav would feel just as at home […] as a Dutchman.”
Asked about this distinctly South African impulse towards the foreign, the exotic as a way of packaging our lives, Vladislavić notes, “If you look at South African history there’s always been some big plan to remake the place as something else. If you go to downtown Pretoria, and you stand on Church Square, you could actually be in a European city centre. It’s an 1860s or 1870s version of Europe… Even apartheid itself was a mad vision of making something else. It’s in our social genes in a way: to want to remake, not just to adapt to, but to remake the place as something else. It’s never been good enough, or it’s never been acceptable.”
Similarly, a bizarre creative vision drives the plot of The Folly, Vladislavić’s first novel published in 1993. In it, Mr and Mrs Malgas obsessively spy on the slyly named Nieuwenhuizen while he squats in the erf next door, without implements or materials, fabricating a crazy scheme for the building of a mansion out of very thin air.
I ask Vladislavić why these kinds of details of construction and constructedness seem to play such a large role in his writing. “I don’t know if I can give you a sensible answer to that,” he cautions me, “because that goes to the heart of why I am writing in the first place.” He pauses. “I suppose I get a particular pleasure from assembling these things. So the actual writing is the fun part, that’s finally why I do it. And I get some of the same pleasure from editing, which is about perfecting something, getting all the working parts to fit properly – constructing something.” When I ask him, he acknowledges that this may, in part, be the result of spending his early years in Pretoria watching his father work as a mechanic. “I certainly spent a lot of time in my childhood watching my father fix engines and take things apart and put them back together again,” he says.
Beyond writing, Vladislavić works as an editor, having contributed to a variety of different publications from fiction through to essay collections and research publications. As both an editor and writer he has managed to occupy the precarious space between a vicarious creative life in publishing and the need to write books. “There’ve been very productive cross-fertilizations,” he tells me. “Things that I’ve worked on and read that’ve really nourished my imagination, or that have taught me something I would not otherwise have known.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for Vladislavić’s success in both areas is that the focus on construction running through his writing also informs his work as an editor. I spend some time griping about what I consider the rather dismal state of current fiction publishing in South Africa – from lazily written books to poorly edited copy. Having worked as one of the judges for the 2014 Sunday Times Fiction Prize, Vladislavić is well-placed to respond to these claims. “Certainly many of the books would have been improved by better editing. I think in general the publishers aren’t doing enough,” he says. Though he quite even-handedly counters this assertion: “I also understand that they have quite extraordinary financial constraints, because the book-buying market has changed so much.”
But perhaps the more formidable challenge in book production is the change from the manual, mechanical production of books to the digital age where the publication process has been sped up. “There was something to be said for the slow mechanical process of editing the book by hand and then getting it typeset and then proofreading it three times – the slow, labour-intensive effort that finally arrived at a book… It took a lot of work, and people had to focus on trying to get it right.”
This emphasis on methodical construction is clearly at the heart of the novel for Vladislavić, and accounts for the fine attention to detail and nuance in his work. Like the crazed builder, Nieuwenhuizen, Vladislavić clearly works through a deliberate and creative assembling of parts and narratives. “Now it’s so easy to tinker on a digital copy, and I think tinkering and cutting and pasting and moving things around often gives you the impression that you’re working, or that you’re thinking more than you really are.”