Over the past two decades Ivan Vladislavić’s varied oeuvre has cemented his position as one of the most critically respected novelists currently at work in South Africa. Yet unlike several of his contemporaries, outside of his home country Vladislavić remains a relatively obscure writer. As well as Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, the likes of Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink, Athol Fugard, Damon Galgut, and Zoë Wicomb have attracted global recognition. In contrast, despite winning several of South Africa’s major literary prizes, Vladislavić’s works, such as his 2001 novel The Restless Supermarket, have until recently struggled to find international distribution.
While the stylistic merit of Vladislavić’s work is immediately discernible, it is also easy enough to see why it might be regarded as a somewhat harder sell than that of some of his contemporaries. The hard-hitting racial politics of apartheid-era novels like Gordimer’s July’s People and Brink’s A Dry White Season, or more recent works like Fugard’s Tsotsi or Coetzee’s Disgrace, make them relatively easily assimilable to an international perception of the social issues facing contemporary South Africa (a sort of political straitjacketing against which Coetzee has in the past often complained). In contrast, Coetzee’s earlier novels characteristically avoid directly representing or commenting upon the South Africa of their conception, and consequently tend to be assigned an honorary place within a lineage of form-driven European writing following on from Kafka, Beckett, and the nouveau roman. While Vladislavić’s novels share some of Coetzee’s penchant for formal inventiveness, they are also emphatically of their time and place, in a way that renders them potentially more opaque to non-South African readers. Their politics are generally subtle and exploratory rather than polemical, and therefore fit less obviously into the sort of grand narrative constructed and imposed from the outside.
Vladislavić is frequently described as a writer of place, and his work is as intimately interwoven with the local detail and idioms of contemporary Johannesburg as Joyce’s novels are with those of early twentieth century Dublin. Indeed, this richness of local color is one of the few immediately obvious characteristics uniting The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative, two stylistically different novels separated in composition by a decade, and now brought to a wider audience in the US and UK by the innovative and increasingly indispensable And Other Stories. While the former is stylistically exuberant and often bawdily (if misanthropically) comedic, the latter is measured in tone and laconic in style. While The Restless Supermarket is narrated by a politically reactionary old crank in the downwardly mobile Johannesburg neighborhood of Hillbrow, Double Negative initially takes the form of the narrator Neville Lister’s reminiscences of his youth as a smart but directionless college dropout with pretensions to political radicalism, from a bourgeois-liberal household in a cushy white suburb.
Narrated by the cantankerous Aubrey Tearle, a retired proofreader of telephone directories with a penchant for verbosity and an evangelical mania for linguistic propriety, The Restless Supermarket is among other things a remarkably sustained act of ventriloquism. A self-styled guardian of the word-hoard, Tearle sees the “declining standards” of linguistic propriety in a South Africa on the cusp of revolutionary change as not only an affront to intelligibility, but also continuous with a wider decline in “standards of morality, conduct in public life, personal hygiene and medical care, the standard of living, and so on.” Brandishing his holy scripture, the Oxford English Dictionary, Tearle is on a quixotic quest to “correct” a South Africa in a period of flux; narrated in the final years of the century as it “declines to its conclusion,” the novel’s main events take place in late 1993, on the eve of the birth of the new South Africa.
The novel is sparsely plotted, sustained by Tearle’s densely referential voice and obsessive wordplay. Tearle is described as an “incorrigible European,” and his narrative is in a sense the story of his local, the Café Europa, which becomes a kind of metaphor for the declining apartheid state as it comes under “new management.” The closure of the Café Europa provides the occasion for Tearle to reminisce about his time as a frequenter of what he sees as a last outpost of colonial civilization in a society beset by unwelcome change. Initially a loner, Tearle develops a companionship with a group of fellow spiritually homeless Europeans: Spilkin, Merle Graaf, and Mevrouw Bonsma. The Café Europa forms a stronghold from which Tearle conducts his one-man jihad against the “declining standards” of a South Africa in flux, compiling a grand compendium of corrigenda (“things to be corrected, especially in a printed book”) and pursuing “that most genteel form of activism, the letter to the editor.”
The Restless Supermarket’s enigmatic centerpiece is a remarkable embedded text, “The Proofreader’s Derby.” The text, Tearle’s magnum opus, is a composite of the diverse “corrigenda” that Tearle has painstakingly compiled over the years from a variety of written sources, woven together into a surrealistic narrative. “The Proofreader’s Derby” literalizes his prescriptivist fantasy of a correspondence between the structures of grammar and those of the world at large. The central character is an alter-ego named Aubrey Fluxman, part of a proofreading committee tasked with the perilous task of maintaining linguistic standards in Alibia, a world in which textual errors have resulted in a state of cosmological disarray:
There was movement everywhere, not just in the outlying industrial zones, but in the heart of Alibia. The signs pointed to massive geological instability. Nothing would stay put. Structures were shifting closer together or further apart, skylines were rising and falling, streets were narrowing, views were opening up, cracks were appearing.
Tearle’s central conviction, then, is that there is a correspondence between structures of linguistic correctitude and the structure of society at large: “Once you’re free to spell a word any way you like, chaos comes marching in.” This view is a version of one of the enduring myths of conservative thought, placing Tearle within a long lineage of European linguistic prescriptivists. The Oxford English Dictionary is Tearle’s ultimate symbol of authority, and his convictions echo those expressed by Samuel Johnson in the introduction to his first English dictionary:
By tracing . . . every word to its original, and not admitting, but with great caution, any of which no original can be found, we shall secure our language from being overrun with cant, from being crowded with low terms, the spawn of folly or affectation, which arise from no just principles of speech, and of which, therefore, no legitimate derivation can be shown.
Tearle’s imaginative tendency to equate linguistic decorum with the structural stability of society has also served as a time-honored literary device, from Shakespearean tragedy to Victorian realism. King Lear depicts a world thrown into cosmological disarray by a dislocation of the semantics of language, while Thackeray’s anti-heroine Becky Sharpe enacts her first subversion of the established order in Vanity Fair by flinging Johnson’s dictionary out of the window of a moving carriage. Yet if the dictionary for Becky Sharpe is a weapon of subversion, for Tearle it serves as a shield; both figuratively and, in the end, literally. In the novel’s chaotic final scenes, Tearle’s Pocket Dictionary saves him from being stabbed.
In his combination of linguistic verve and petit-bourgeois paranoia Tearle is reminiscent of the eponymous protagonist of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and taken at face value many of his bugbears are versions of those that might be held without any particular censure by a conservative white pensioner, opposed to multiculturalism and post-1960s social liberalism, anywhere in the Western world. But of course, in the context of late-apartheid South Africa Tearle’s lexicographical prescriptivism is freighted with political significance. Some of this significance is visible, and some lurks malevolently off-stage, casting its shadow on his casual racism and pseudo-patrician disdain for Hillbrow’s lowbrow multiculturalism. Vladislavić, who as well as being an author is a highly sought-after literary editor, has referred to Tearle as a “monstrous” version of aspects of himself, and South Africa in the wake of apartheid is a time and a place in which the politics of language, and notions of linguistic propriety, are issues with monumental stakes.
Though Vladislavić mostly chooses to leave it in the margins, what is at stake in the attitudes implicit in Tearle’s lamentation of a dissolving social order is made explicit in another book on which Vladislavić was working—this time in his editorial capacity—during the same period. Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog’s wrenching and brutally stark nonfictional account of the traumas of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, was published in 1998, three years before The Restless Supermarket. The bulk of Krog’s book consists of numerous harrowing accounts of torture, murder, and abuse, delivered by both perpetrators and victims. While most of the latter are black, they also encompass all races and political affiliations, laying clear the way in which the apartheid struggle dehumanized participants on all sides. At roughly the same time as he was editing Krog’s book, then, Vladislavić was writing a novel about a cranky old white man, in a former whites-only neighborhood undergoing a period of reverse gentrification—mass immigration, spiraling crime, and “white flight”—whose fundamental assumption, though Tearle never addresses the issue at any particular length, is that apartheid is a good thing.
First-person narrative offers a necessarily partial view of a fictional world. Whereas the omniscient narrators of Victorian realism or the multiple-character internal monologues of modernist novels like Ulysses, Nostromo, or Mrs Dalloway offer strategies for achieving panorama and polyphony, The Restless Supermarket locks us claustrophobically into the consciousness of Aubrey Tearle. The form of the novel therefore works to silence the counterpoint to Tearle’s social conservatism: the outrageous and intolerable injustices of the apartheid system with which his instinct for the maintenance of the status quo more-or-less explicitly aligns him.
Like David Lurie and Mrs. Curren, the respective protagonists of Coetzee’s Disgrace and Age of Iron, Aubrey Tearle approaches the new South Africa through an inherited European sensibility and cultural frame of reference. Lurie and Curren are both liberal intellectuals who are forced to confront some of the complex ways in which their cultural value systems are implicated in the enabling structures of colonial power. In contrast, for all his linguistic endowments Tearle demonstrates little capacity for conceptual thought. His guiding assumptions are just those—largely unquestioned conservative commonplaces regarding the a priori legitimacy of the status quo, combined with a convenient ability to block out or disregard any evidence to the contrary.
Tearle’s linguistic virtuosity and sneering social condescension sometimes makes him sound a bit like a Martin Amis narrator, and he embodies a peculiarly British conservative combination of eloquence and hostility to ideas. Indeed, Tearle’s unreflective character is vital to the form and effects of the novel. From the limited evidence presented to us through Tearle’s partial perspective, his prejudices are, while by no means admirable, at least partially understandable—no worse than those of a fairly regulation Daily-Mail–reading Middle Englander. It is the unspoken continuity of those values with the horrors of the apartheid system that constitutes the gravity of Tearle’s folly, but by stripping him of any manifest comprehension of this continuity, Vladislavić prevents him from being as straightforwardly detestable a character as a self-aware intellectual who held similar views might be. Indeed, our ability to resent all that Tearle represents without entirely resenting his character underscores the admirable subtlety and nuance with which the novel handles its social and ethical themes.
While the events described in Krog’s Country of My Skull form an unspoken backdrop to Tearle’s instinct for maintaining the status quo, in using Tearle’s insulated perspective to shut them out of the narrative Vladislavić is able to prevent the novel’s political themes from overwhelming its human concerns. Indeed, part of the achievement of The Restless Supermarket is the way in which it manages to humanize an objectionable narrator and render his odious views partially explicable without in any way excusing them. In this, it is a triumph of precisely the sort of sympathetic imagination of which apartheid seemingly stripped its subjects, and of which Tearle himself is almost entirely bereft.
Danny Byrne is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He studied literature at Oxford and UCL.