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Thursday, 26 December 2013

Double Negative - Ivan Vladislavic

Maybe I was a little premature in putting together my top 10 of 2013 as I’ve managed to read one more offering from this year since that post and will probably get through yet another before 2013 is complete. That’s one of the issues of supporting a number of independent publishers, it seems as though the backlog of books is growing faster than I the ones conquered. I still have the Mexican “Quesadillas” by Juan Pablo Villalobos and “Paradises” by Iosi Havilio from Argentina (two offerings from And Other Stories) as well as the Serbian “Ekaterini” by Marija Knezevic from Istro Books and two eBooks sitting on the iPad, “I Stole the Rain” by Italian Elisa Ruotolo and “Under This Terrible Sun” by Carlos Busqued from Argentina, published by Frisch andCo, to read.

The latest novel I’ve just finished is the South African “Double Negative” by Ivan Vladislavic, published by And Other Stories.

And Other Stories, independent publishing in Britain, where your yearly subscription assists them in bringing fringe novels to our attention, their values being “Collaborative, imaginative and ‘shamelessly literary’”. I have reviewed five of their works here before and if you’re interested in assisting them with getting new works into print please visit their website at for details of their subscription packages.

Our protagonist in Neville Lister a university drop out, who has returned to live in his parents home, working meaningless jobs (painting the signs or roads or car parks). A family friend , the famed photographer Saul Auerbach, agrees to take Neville on a tour for a day , and they team up with a journalist seeking out a story and associated images in the pre Apartheid era of South Africa. From a hill they choose three homes and agree to visit them and find out the stories within. As it transpires the light fades and they only get to two of the houses, with Neville’s being abandoned. We then move to the period of South Africa’s change (whilst Neville is dodging military service in London) and find that our story teller is now a small time photographer longing to return to his homelands.

There were hours of calm pleasure, when Jaco went off to buy paint or do his banking, or more secretive duties in the service of the state that he hinted at too broadly and left me behind in some parking lot to join the dots. Working alone, in silence, I sometimes thought I was achieving something after all. In my jackson-pollocked overalls – I had to stop Paulina from washing the history out of them – in a clearing among the cars defined by four red witch’s hats, I was a solitary actor on a stage: a white boy playing a black man. In a small way, I was a spectacle. Yet I felt invisible. I savoured the veil that fell between my sweaty self and the perfumed women sliding in and out of their cars. I flitted across the lenses of their dark glassed like a spy.

In this section of the novel Neville manages to go back to the home they missed that day, as the fame of Saul and exhibitions that include the two photos Saul took in the other homes come to the fore. Of course the past of South Africa and how it was before the change of power is always niggling at Neville, this period of transition is an era where he doesn’t quite feel at home anymore.

The end of apartheid put my nose out of joint, I must confess. Suddenly the South Africans were talking to one another. They wouldn’t shut up. Every so often one of them would wave a fist or shout a slogan, but it did not stem the flow. The world looked on amazed that these former adversaries had come together to talk the future into a different shape. After a decade of wilfully excluding myself, I felt left out of the club.

We then move to the post-apartheid era with Neville now a semi successful photographer, with his own works exhibited, photographs of walls and letterboxes. The majority of the last section of the novel being taken up with Neville being interviewed by a young digital age blogger, writer, photographer who has no idea of the past.

It was no longer possible to imagine a different future, let alone a better one. Tomorrow always looked like a recycled version of yesterday. It was already familiar.

Outside of our linear story we have the “Double Negative” coming to the fore, two negatives make a positive right? The concept of photography, the first section black, the middle section grey, the last section white but the power is in reverse with whites with the control in section one and blacks in section three, whilst the middle is blurry, muddled and confused, a stage of transition.

The introduction points out the heavy use of metaphor throughout and I must admit it was a way too liberal dose for my liking with just about every paragraph containing some kind of metaphor. Some were wonderful, others just distracting and although the whole structure, the characters and the references could be read as a metaphor for South Africa moving through transition it became a little to laboured like an overloaded donkey traversing a rocky mountain path.

Overall a nice study of a country and the moving powers, the uncertainty of the inhabitants and loss of a homeland. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t read it prior to my “best of” list for the year, it wouldn’t have made the top 10.

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