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Interview Ivan Vladislavic

'Where can we always find happiness? In the dictionary.'
Aubrey Tearle

Ivan Vladislavic
Stacey Knecht

The Restless Supermarket

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SK — (switches on microphone, smiles, stirs coffee)

IV — I was about to start asking you questions...

SK — Go on...

IV — I was just wondering, how long you’ve been in the Netherlands. You’re American originally, and you’ve been here for... how long?

SK — Since 1980.

IV — But your surname is German rather than Dutch.

SK — Yes. My family is probably about as mixed-up as your family, from the little I know about your background. I had a grandfather from Dresden who came to America as a baby - that explains the name ‘Knecht’. His wife, my grandmother, was Hungarian, and my mother’s parents were Polish. An Eastern European mish-mash.

IV — But you didn’t come over to trace roots, or anything like that?

SK — I came to study music. I went to England, and then eventually came to Holland. Where I ended up studying Czech and Hungarian! So, no, not literally to trace roots, but I do think that a lot of my movement ‘eastward’ has to do with finding something I miss. When you grow up in an immigrant city like New York, as I did, you get bits of it, but you never get the whole story.
How about you? You’re South African, but with a name like Vladislavic...

IV — Well, yes. I’ve always been drawn to Europe. My background is Croatian, on my father’s side, my mother’s side is Irish. So I have a kind of affinity for those places. I sometimes think, in the case of Ireland, it’s almost a kind of romantic thing: my ancestors came from there, so I have an attachment. But Eastern Europe is something else. It’s a temperamental thing. And I like a lot of the literature.

SK — Yes, so do I. What is it about Eastern European literature that so appeals to you?

IV — I think what drew me initially... I began reading those writers when I was at university, and that was at the heart of the apartheid period. In a lot of the literature that was coming out of Eastern Europe there was a real social and political engagement. Much of it struck me as more sophisticated, more open, than the literature that was being produced in South Africa at the time.

SK — Open? In what sense?

IV — In the sense of: more imaginative, less bound by the particular politics. Or maybe it was simply that they weren’t my politics, so I could see it that way, more objectively. There was a series, actually, which was really quite important to me, called ‘Writers From the Other Europe’. It was edited by Philip Roth . I think Kundera might have come out in that series initially... The writing appealed to me because of its particular blend of a poetic and political interest.

SK — That reminds me of a quote I came across recently, something you said in another interview, I just happen to have it with me –

IV — This’ll be interesting (laughs)...

SK — (laughs) Here goes: ‘Familiarity with a place is part of what gives a writer the authority to write. When the place with which one's life is caught up changes completely, you lose that special armoury of knowledge and observation, and it's as if you've lost a set of materials.’
I’m sure that holds true for many Eastern European writers. How about in a South African context?

IV — Many Eastern European writers of that earlier period lost their ‘place’ when they went into exile. And something similar happened to a fair number of South African writers, too, that they had to leave the country for one reason or another. Either forced out, or felt they couldn’t live there, and so went to live elsewhere.
I think the context in which I made that remark, though, was that something similar happens in societies that transform rapidly, something more analogous to what happened in Germany, after the Wall came down. A lot of writers lost the world that they were comfortable with, the world that they had built their imaginative lives around. I have a particular interest in the city, and architecture, and urban change – I’ve done a lot of editing in that area, and written about it. In the last fifteen years, South Africa has changed out of recognition - which is a good thing, of course! - probably because the old system was written so strongly into the landscape. Apartheid was built around a reshaping, a remodeling, an imposing, of a rigid physical border.

SK — On the city itself?

IV — Yes, and on the country, the whole country. Even on the relationship of the country to the rest of the continent. When I was growing up as a young person under apartheid, I couldn’t travel in the rest of Africa, because South Africa was that isolated - and justifiably. So, the political and social change that has happened has led to a breaking down of all of those divisions. A very fluid situation, in which that large shape of a country begins to melt and shift shape, and neighborhoods change, the particular areas of the city that one’s become familiar with and feels completely at home in, has one’s memories invested in - they change. It can be difficult for a writer, but it’s a challenging thing, too.
I was always worried about that comment afterwards. When I first saw it in print, I thought, that sounds a little defeated. Which is not what I intended. I mean, it’s certainly challenging to have to begin to find a new kind of purchase on what’s out there, and understand it again. I think it was particularly not a bad thing in South Africa, because a lot of writers had settled into a rather comfortable, stable position, within what was a very difficult system.

SK — Writers from all points along the political spectrum?

IV — Yes. It was pretty clear what you should be ‘for’ and what you should be ‘against’, and it was easy to occupy those positions in a lazy way. And one of the big benefits for writers, when everything gets shaken up, is: find a new position, start thinking again, try to understand what’s really going on. And on a physical level: learn what the new city is about. Learn what the new spaces are about.

SK — Which brings us, conveniently, to Aubrey Tearle, the protagonist of your novel The Restless Supermarket. He has to adjust to the new situation. Or not adjust.

IV — Aubrey, in a way, is an exaggerated, condensed version of a lot of what we’ve been talking about. I chose a character that was older, more set in his ways - obsessively so - to try and deal with exactly these questions, to try and deal with the change, but reflected through a character that could allow one to charicature certain positions, or exaggerate them a little. Also, someone who wasn’t particularly likeable - I wanted to try and make the reader like a character they shouldn’t (laughs).

SK — Do you like him?

IV — I do, yes. I lived with him for so long (laughs)... I didn’t always like him, but the book was written over quite a long period, seven years, so I had to learn to like him.

SK — Or fight with him, grapple with him.

IV — Yes... it was actually quite an interesting part of the writing process for me, because it wasn’t something that I set about consciously: I hadn’t intended him to be quite as irritating and offensive as he sometimes is, and I found myself, especially when the book was nearly finished, beginning to try and clean it up, there were passages where I thought: this is a little bit uncomfortable, he actually is becoming a little bit offensive, and so on. Then that became a test for me - which passages will make people a little queasy? - because that can be a good thing.
Aubrey occasionally goes too far, says things that are a bit close to the bone, but people who found him annoying eventually got past that. There was a nice response from Lionel Abrahams, the South African writer and critic who died recently. He was a personal friend of mine and someone I really admired ... He said that he felt he liked the character more than the author had intended him to, that he was really supposed to disapprove, but didn’t. And that was exactly what I was hoping for.

SK — How do you know so much about Aubrey?

IV — I knew the world that the book was set in really well: this kind of cosmopolitan neighborhood was an actual neighborhood in Johannesburg where I spent a lot of my time. How can I describe it... It was a sort of Greenwich Village of Johannesburg, but not really... It was the one part of the city that had some kind of a café society, the high-rise buildings and dense, urban space, because Johannesburg was a big suburban city, in most ways.

SK — So it was an exceptional area? Or still is?

IV — Was. It’s still exceptional, but for different reasons. The character of the area has changed. Radically. But in that period it was the place where the best bookshops were, and continental cafés, and it was always a place that a lot of newcomers to Johannesburg moved through.

SK — Newcomers, meaning: immigrants?

IV — Yes, immigrants. But white immigrants. We’re talking the apartheid period. So: cosmopolitan, but within racial limits. I used to go there a lot, that was the area where my friends and I hung out. I then worked for about ten years in the area, so it was the part of the city I was most familiar with and at home in. And there were a lot of people like Aubrey, elderly people who lived in these high-rise apartment blocks, a very nice mixture, a cross-section of people. I used to observe a lot of potential ‘Aubreys’ –

SK — I wonder if they knew...

IV — (laughs) And the other thing is, I picked up quite a lot of his mannerisms and characteristics from the response of people to the new situation, in the early years when South African society began to change. For instance, elderly white people, retired, who had time to write to the papers and complain. Like Aubrey. I also think there’s a lot of my own experience in Aubrey, because I work as an editor, and I have some of the same obsessive interest in these little details in language, and I’ve worked as a proofreader for years, so I’m sorry to say that there’s quite a lot of me in there. Over a whole career of proofreading and editing I've picked up bits and pieces and found oddities in the dictionary, and a lot of it fed the book - it became a kind of receptacle for a lot of the quirky things that I discovered. I even began collecting proofreading errors on Aubrey's behalf!

SK — Did you choose Aubrey, and his obsessions, as a metaphor for the situation in South Africa, or did he grow out of that theme?

IV — I started with the character. I had the character from the beginning, as someone who could be used to check the resistance to change - that’s how I was thinking of it initially. I was doing a lot of proofreading at the time and thinking about the oddness of the whole activity, and laboring over getting these things perfect, and does anyone really notice (laughs), that kind of thing, and what the hell am I doing, checking all of this... And then at some point, the character occurred to me... someone who’s obsessed with getting things right, which, in a sense, is an obsession with making them stay the way they are. Stopping a flow, and saying, we can’t spell things that way, we have to spell them this way, this is how it is. Somebody who’s obsessed with rules and regulations. He also grew out of a kind of lineage of characters: there are a couple of similar characters in short stories which I’ve written and published before. This was something I realized afterwards. For instance, I’ve written a story called ‘The Book Lover’, about a man, a secondhand book collector, who discovers the name of a woman in the cover of a book, and then in the cover of another book, and he slowly becomes obsessed with her and finding all of her books. When I finished that particular story, I remember having the feeling that I’d almost wasted the voice on short fiction, and that it should have been a novel. But looking back, I think the idea itself wasn’t big enough to have sustained over a long work, though it works perfectly well as a story. But reading backwards, I can see that I wasn’t quite finished with that voice, which was a slightly pedantic, slightly obsessive voice. And so, I picked it up again in the novel, unconsciously, and it’s something I only become aware of later on.

SK — Aubrey is a corrector of telephone books, among other things, and one of his aims – perhaps an unconscious one – is to maintain a kind of order, or in any case, to restore it. Are there really people who have succeeded in completely ignoring, or not seeing, what’s been going on around them in South Africa?

IV — Yes, I think there are people who do that. It’s hard, because the country has changed so much. But there are certainly people who have managed to maintain a lifestyle that’s not very different, partly by retreating into private spaces. That’s something that particularly interests me, as a fictional theme. It’s partly what my book The Exploded View is about, but it’s also something that interests me generally, in my life: that the disappearance of public space in South Africa recreated a special version of American mall culture and the ‘gated community’. I know these things are not unique to South Africa, there are versions of them around the world, but the South African version has really allowed people to keep the new society at bay, outside the walls, and also to regulate who and what gets admitted into that world. We don’t actually call them ‘gated communities’, we usually refer to them as ‘complexes’, or ‘residential estates’, but they’re essentially the same kind of thing you get in Florida, say. Wealthy suburbs with big walls around them. And some of them are, relatively speaking, racially diverse, but they’re people with money, basically. It’s the expression of a new class of business people and professional people. People with money. People of the same class. They play golf. They do the things that people in those kind of communities do.

SK — But it is a racial mix. Which is an enormous change, isn’t it?

IV — It’s a change of a particularly controlled, regulated kind. And some of these communities exist almost cheek by jowl to incredibly poor, squatter areas which are not racially diverse at all - which are black.
The thing about Aubrey is that his keeping of order is, finally, a kind of pathetic and desperate - and hopeless - task. And he’s still there, at the end - he’s actually still there, he doesn’t retreat. I think there are people in South Africa who have retreated into a closed community and yet feel that they’re very much part of the new society. But the new society isn’t actually there, they don’t have to deal very much with it on a day-to-day basis.

SK — They’ve closed themselves off from the rest of the city, and from South Africa, basically, but have they also detached themselves from the rest of the continent?

IV — There’s not much movement of South Africans into the rest of Africa. There are people who travel, and who are doing business in the rest of Africa, but the flow still tends to be towards South Africa - for obvious reasons. It’s the wealthiest country on the continent, and many people are fleeing desperate situations, civil wars, collapsed economies, and so on. So the traffic tends to be down south.
But you know, there is a lot of really fruitful new contact between South Africa and the rest of the continent, some of it happening on the international political level. The country is slowly becoming re-integrated into the continent.

SK — And it’s only been fifteen years - that isn’t really that long.

IV — No, it isn’t.

SK — There’s a passage in the first chapter of The Restless Supermarket that I’d like to ask you about. I’ll read it - it’s Aubrey speaking: ‘One Sunday morning not too long ago, on an overgrown plot in Prospect Road, I saw a body in the weeds, under a shroud of pages from the Sunday Times. I saw it from the window of my own flat, where I stood with a carton of long-life milk in my hand, and I could almost smell the pungent scent of the kakiebos crushed by its fall. It lay among the rusted pipes, blackened bricks and outcrops of old foundations that mark every bit of empty land in this city, as if a reef of disorder lay just below the surface, or a civilization had gone to ruin here before we ever arrived.’
That last sentence, especially, struck me as significant, those layers under the ground.

IV — Yes, that’s kind of a key sentence for understanding the book, because it packs a lot of different things. One of the things it’s playing on - and you don’t necessarily have to know this as a reader - is the fact that Johannesburg is a mining town. The entire city is only there because it’s the richest deposit of gold ever discovered in one place. But the gold reef in that area slopes down at an angle, into the ground. When gold was discovered there, it was discovered on the surface, and the assumption was, initially, that it would be relatively easy to mine, because it was an extremely rich deposit. A series of mines sprang up along this reef, over a very long distance - 60 kilometers at least, with outcrops here and there. So of course it became a Boom Town. And as I said, the city is only there because of that. It’s really an inhospitable place to put a city otherwise, there’s no major river, it’s not a great place to have a major city (laughs). But when the mining started, they discovered - to their disappointment, I’m sure - that this reef sloped away. The process of development over the last century has been to find ways of mining at deeper and deeper levels, and sinking longer, more difficult shafts. The deepest mines in the world are on the Witwatersrand, they're now mining at nearly four kilometers under the surface. And that idea, the idea of Johannesburg as a city that is ‘undermined’, is a very powerful metaphor that’s been used by several writers, the sense that we’re on the surface and underneath is a kind of honeycomb - no, that’s too pleasant an image - the whole place is undermined, the tunnels and so on.
The interesting thing to me, which I’m exploring in the work I’m doing now, is that the entire shape of the city was determined by where that reef was. It happened to be here (draws a line in the air, west to east), and so the city grew up along that spine. If it had been this way (draws another line in the air, north to south), it would’ve gone like this.

SK — What are the implications of something like that, for a city?

IV — The extraordinary sense of how the topography shapes the actual spaces that we finally live in. A text is also like that. A text is also ‘undermined’, and layered - worked out, mined out. Proofreading is a bit like that, too, a kind of mining-out. Aubrey’s ‘nuggets’ are the errors he finds. He even saves them, he makes something new of them. So there’s definitely a submerged, mining metaphor that runs through the book.
The other thing that feeds into it, which is an ironic thing and which a non-South African might not pick up, is the sense that white nationalist history, the kind of history I would’ve learned at school, taught us that South Africa was an empty country when white settlers arrived there. That there was nobody there. It was one of the major justifications for why the land belonged to us. One of the great lies of apartheid thinking. In fact, there were lots of people there: they were all driven out. So, Aubrey’s sense that there were once other civilizations there is kind of ironic, because Aubrey himself doesn’t actually see it that way. When in fact it’s true: there are civilizations that have gone.

SK — You just said: ‘the kind of history I learned at school’, and it suddenly occurred to me: you learned to think one way at school, and ended up thinking a very different way, as you got older. How did that happen?

IV — Well, I think it’s largely a case of making some lucky choices, like where I went to university. That was the key thing, because I grew up in Pretoria, which is a very conservative city, and I grew up in a conservative family, people like many other white South Africans, who are not active supporters of the system, but certainly passive supporters of it. Probably the majority of people in most wicked systems are like that. And - I’ve said this often in interviews, but I may as well say it again - the period of my schooling was probably the most extremely oppressive period in South African history. It was the 60’s, when the white apartheid state really had a grip on the country. My childhood fell exactly into that period. I went to university in 1975. In ’76 was the student uprising in South Africa which changed everything. I’ve always admitted quite freely that I was extremely ignorant about the country I was living in. But like many other young people, too, I had an uneasy sense that everything was not right... I think young people, no matter how indoctrinated they are, understand if people are unhappy. That the country is full of unhappy, poor people. You had this sense of unease, and the black world - what was going on? Why were all the black people walking around in rags? On one level you accepted it, you bought into this idea of: well, they deserve to. But as much as adults pretended that everything was fine, there was always a sense of threat, and fear, in the white world. Even at the height of the apartheid period, when everything was apparently great, and business was booming for white South Africans, they lived in a fearful, threatened way.

SK — Keeping the cracks sealed.

IV — Yes. Exactly. There was a danger. I think young people pick that up. But it was only really when I went to university, in Johannesburg, that I really began to see. I was there at a time when there was a growing radicalism among certain university lecturers - it was the post-’68 generation - who had studied and were beginning to teach in the universities, and there was a strong Marxist tradition emerging.... so I had my eyes opened to where I was living, and came to a completely new understanding of what South Africa was about.

SK — There’s a woman in Aubrey’s life, named Merle, who opens his eyes. Maybe not completely, but still. The book would have been very different without her. Where did she come from?

IV — I needed her... she opens possibilities to Aubrey which he’s incapable of taking. I think it’s that simple.

SK — She’s very playful.

IV — Yes. And I think, in his awkward way, he learns things from her that allow him to make the very small change that he makes, this tiny growth, scarcely perceptible. He’s a slightly more open, more aware character at the end. And that’s really what Merle does. Unfortunately, also, by her absence. I liked her, too, because she’s one of the only characters in the book, if not the only one, who is fond of him, and at the same time is able to provoke him, tease him, and have a different kind of relationship with him. I wanted him to have at least one relationship that was sort of vaguely fun!

SK — Aubrey spends much of his time in a place called the Café Europa, which apparently, as we read at the beginning of the book, is about to close down. Aubrey regrets the loss of these familiar surroundings - he’s ‘their most venerable patron’. ‘The impending loss that grieves me most,’ he says, ‘was Alibia, the painted city that covered an entire wall of the Café’, a mural ‘of great sentimental value’. Now that I know about your interest in cities, it sheds a new light on that mural. And makes me very curious about what Alibia really is.

IV — Alibia is - I was going to say it’s a kind of utopia, but it’s not really. It’s a kind of dystopia in some ways, too, a place where things really don’t change. It’s difficult for me to unravel exactly what it’s doing there. I guess it’s a projection, from Aubrey - it parodies a South African sense of what Europe is: a jumble of quaint and ridiculous things that Europe represents for people who aren’t there.

SK — Is Europe something one longs for, as a South African?

IV — I think these days much less. It’s always been rather mixed. Obviously a lot of white South Africans have a European background of some kind. But for some people Europe is just not in-the-picture at all - that’s probably most true of Afrikaans-speaking South Africans who have often been more rooted in Africa and defined themselves as Africans for much longer. But English-speaking South Africans often come from more recent immigrant families. Among some of them is a sense that Europe is actually ‘home’.
I think it was a way of also practicing a sense of superiority. There was this terminology under apartheid, where white people were ‘Europeans’: the racial categories have changed over the years, but for many years, it was Europeans and non-Europeans, which is bizarre, when you think about it. I mean, ‘Europeans’ were often sixth and seventh generation South Africans.
So there’s a bit of parody of that in Alibia, of that hankering after a Europe which is really just a set of clichés, about chestnuts and gondolas and stuff like that.
We were talking right at the beginning about the sense of Hillbrow as a cosmopolitan area. Café Europa is a kind of ironic reflection on that, because you had these continental-style cafés, where you could sit around drinking espressos and eating bagels and so on. But the fact is, it was still in a city in the middle of Africa. So there was something of the stage-set about the kind of spaces and lifestyles that white South Africans created for themselves. The Café Europa was not a real place, it was a composite of half a dozen cafes of that kind. Some of the people who would sit around there were recent immigrants who were at home in that environment. And also a lot of people who sat around feeling, in a way, that they were ‘in Europe’.

SK — When I first found out you were coming to Holland, Ivan, I was told that you were a ‘post-apartheid’ writer. Whatever does that mean, and why?

IV — Well, let’s put it this way: there are people who need categories in order to understand what’s going on. Sometimes they’re academics, or reviewers, who are trying to get to grips with the new situation. Yes, I’m often put into the category called ‘post-apartheid writing’, where, predictably, there are a whole lot of writers that have very little in common with one another, except that we’re writing after apartheid. In a sense, it’s an absurd category, because everybody nowadays is a post-apartheid writer! But I think it arises because academics and critics are looking for ‘the new thing’. They’re looking for something that reflects the new society. And they need boxes to put things in, I suppose. My earlier work, The Folly, for instance, was always categorized as magical-realist.

SK — And was it?

IV — Well, as I told another interviewer, I don’t think anyone’s ever admitted to being a magical realist (laughs). It’s another category that doesn’t really make sense. The box is too big: you can put almost anything that’s not conventional realism in that box. It makes sense to me to talk about a certain kind of Latin American fiction as magical realism, and then I think I understand what holds those books together. But I think it’s also a marketing thing. There was a period when everyone was running around looking for the next magical realist of Argentina, or Ireland, or South Africa, so we could have that shelf in the bookshops. I try not to think about it. And my readers didn’t seem to have the need to describe my books in those terms. Some people do respond to the fact that the books are amusing, because South African literature has not, on the whole, been a barrel of fun.
The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
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Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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