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The Restless Supermarket

Ivan Vladislavic
Querido, Amsterdam,




refered to by:
Triomf
Marlene van Niekerk


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the ledge - flash version*

*
English

THE RESTLESS SUPERMARKET — IVAN VLADISLAVIC

The Zoological Gardens were even more trying than I’d anticipated.
We went at night. The authorities had instituted special night tours to allow for the viewing of nocturnal animals. Learn more about hyenas, bats, civets and owls, the pamphlet said. Bring your own torch. Prying into the lairs of innocent creatures? It did not strike me as edifying, and I thought of staying away. But then I imagined Merle surrounded by animals like Wessels and Bogey.
Predictably, the Mazda was a jalopy. On the rear bumper was a sticker that read: Don’t look at my tits. I had come across this bit of smut before, emblazoned across the front of a harlot’s T-shirt. Distasteful as it was, one saw the logic: it gave lechers like Wessels an excuse to gaze at the breasts in question. But its import in relation to a motor car was obscure.
Bogey was scarcely competent behind the wheel. To make matters worse, he’d brought one of the Bogeymen along, a slab of gristle called Zbignieuw. Merle had to sit in front, next to the driver, who perched himself on a copy of the Reader’s Digest Book of the Car. That left Wessels, Zbignieuw and me to cram into the back, which was already cluttered with empty bottles and dirty laundry.
1.

 
THE RESTLESS SUPERMARKET — IVAN VLADISLAVIC

I refused to ride bodkin. I’d be squashed to a pulp. In the end, Zbignieuw piled in first and Wessels and I had to squeeze into the unoccupied margins. Just my luck to be on the driver’s side, where I could smell the back of Bogey’s head, wafted to me on the breeze like the aroma of a Sunday roast. As I’d feared, he was wearing the leather jacket. It was bound to incense the beasts.
The start of the tour was tiresome but innocuous. We ranged ourselves upon trailers, along with the other paying guests – two dozen of us all told, mainly mommies, daddies and little ones – and a tractor dragged us about from cage to cage. Those who had heeded the advice to bring their torches were able to rouse the nocturnals from their slumbers (evidently they were prone to unnatural behaviour) by shining the beams in their faces, while our guide, a nasal young woman dressed for a safari, provided us with useful information about their habits and habitats. I busied myself proofreading the little notices appended to each cage and maintaining an appearance of enjoying myself. I wouldn’t have them calling me a stick in the mud.
When we had finished eyeballing the owls, an encounter that should have signalled the end of our tour, our guide announced that there was a treat in store for us.
2.

 
THE RESTLESS SUPERMARKET — IVAN VLADISLAVIC

Whispering excitedly, we were conveyed to a cage concealed in a grove of trees in a distant corner of the gardens, and encouraged to winkle out the creature contained therein. Something vicious, to judge by the thickness of the bars, and the moat and railings that kept us at a distance.
Fingers of light probed between the bars. What was that? A table and chairs! A premonitory shiver passed through our party. A television set? A painting suspended in thin air. A kettle. The torch-beams slipped from object to object, settled on a bed in one corner of the cage, where something lay sleeping under blankets. After a while, the blankets were tossed back and a face appeared. Everyone twittered.
I turned my attention to the signpost: ‘Homo Sapiens. Mammal. Typical male (1.75 m, 76 kg). Omnivorous, omnipotent, omnipresent. Hunts profligately, including its own kind. Considered the most dangerous and destructive of all species...’ Profligately. That was good.
The man in the cage sat up on the edge of his bed and gazed back at us with an expression compounded of suspicion, belligerence and boredom. I recognized the look: it was the same one we had seen on the faces of a dozen other animals in the past hour or two.
3.

 
THE RESTLESS SUPERMARKET — IVAN VLADISLAVIC

Very cleverly captured. He must be an actor.
Abruptly, he lost all interest in us and stood up. Underpants, thank heavens. The members of our party, Merle not excepted, were engrossed, nudging one another and leering, like schoolchildren studying the reproductive system, as he crossed to the other side of the cage and opened the door of a refrigerator. An eerie, artificial light fell upon his body. Our guide seemed to be training the beam of her torch upon his loins.
The human animal – the term the guide urged us to use when we addressed our questions to her – removed a bottle from the refrigerator, slammed the door shut and went to sit in a chair. He switched on a lamp, took up a remote-control device and pressed a button. The television set started to life in the other corner of the cage. He stared at the screen and drank from the bottle.
While the others asked jokey questions – what does it eat? where does it relieve itself? does it talk? – I had time to examine my own feelings. I felt – what would capture it – threatened. No, that was too reminiscent of ‘endangered’. Certainly not merely affronted. I felt – I had to stop myself from quaking – that we were in mortal danger.
4.

 
THE RESTLESS SUPERMARKET — IVAN VLADISLAVIC

We were on the verge of extinction, I realized, and the fact seemed chillingly explicit. But what did I really mean? Who were ‘we’? The human race? People of good sense and common decency? The ragtag remnants of the Café Europa? Was it a royal ‘we’?
These were hardly the circumstances in which to consider such questions; in any event, while I was musing, scientific enquiry had turned, as it invariably does when the wrong minds engage in it, to mockery. There was something about the human animal’s disdain for us, the lack of a reciprocal interest to compensate for our own morbid curiosity, that was extremely provocative. Predictably, Wessels, who had never shown much self-control, was among the first provoked – although Merel assured me afterwards that he was not entirely to blame for what followed. She said a child had tossed a pebble at the animal to attract his attention. He ignored us. A little fusillade of twigs and sucking sweets rained down on him. A coin struck him on the shoulder, but still he gazed blankly ahead.
It was Wessels who flicked a cigarette end through the bars. The reaction was explosive. The man leapt up, brandishing a club that had been hidden behind the chair, and hurled himself at us.
5.

 
THE RESTLESS SUPERMARKET — IVAN VLADISLAVIC

He struck the bars a mighty blow, so violently that we started back in fright. A single metallic note resounded into the night. I wish Mevrouw Bonsma had been there to capture that sound precisely. All I can say is that it was deep, sonorous, and filled with rage.
The note subsided, calando, into a stunned silence.
Then a cackling and cawing arose in the cages all around and rippled outwards. At the same time, one of the children in our party, perhaps the one who had started it all, began to cry, which made the adults laugh. Merle giggled, the Bogeymen chattered like apes. I hesitate to say it, but only I fell back in shame, while the cacophony of grunts and cries rolled out over the treetops, and the man in the cage, switching off the television set and then the lamp, went back to bed.
6.


     
The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, info@the-ledge.com
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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