by Ivan Vladislavich
published by: Archipelago Books, March 2017 (first published by Random House, 2004)
Ivan Vladislavic is largely unknown outside his native South Africa, but if The Exploded View is representative of his work, it’s amazing that he isn’t an international name read as widely as Raymond Carver or Alice Munro.
Originally published in 2004, The Exploded View is four interlinked short stories, or, as Vladislavic prefers to describe it, a novel in four parts, and has a strong focus on art and architecture. Each section deals with one of four ordinary men living and working on the margins of the sprawling city of Johannesburg: a statistician taking the national census, a sanitary engineer out on the town, an artist with an interest in genocide and a contractor putting up billboards. The minutiae of their daily lives are examined, echoing and underlining the choices each of us makes: where and how to live, what we try to create, and our expectations and disappointments.
This being South Africa still coming to terms with the end of Apartheid, racial tensions and poverty are never far away. There is a constant underlying, sometimes explicit sense of unease and menace, as if at any moment the daily predictability of life might be threatened, as in the section, The Exploded View where the reassuring image of plans and instructions that the character has relied on suddenly changes: as if every solid thing had been exploded gently.
Vladislavic is a writer with a dazzling array of linguistic and narrative skills at his command. His language is fresh and exciting, as well as playful and satirical, throwing up unexpected images and ideas. When the artist is unpacking a crate of masks of dubious origin:
Every time he threw out a handful of shredded newsprint, expecting to see the blond pine bottom of the box, he found another layer gazing up as astonished as stowaways.
Through his spare prose we glimpse ordinary things from a new and almost alien point of view:
Egan always found it strange to set foot for the first time in a place he knew from the plans. It was like folding out of two dimensions into three. You could almost hear the creases popping as you broke through the barrier.
This is a novel to savour, and it lingers in the mind long after it has ended. As a reader new to Ivan Vladislavic’s work I’m looking forward to reading more of his novels and short stories, and will be recommending him widely.
Ivan Vladislavić was born in Pretoria in 1957 and lives in Johannesburg. His books include the novels The Restless Supermarket, The Exploded View and Double Negative, and the story collections 101 Detectives and Flashback Hotel. In 2006, he published Portrait with Keys, a sequence of documentary texts on Johannesburg. He has edited books on architecture and art, and sometimes works with artists and photographers. TJ/Double Negative, a joint project with photographer David Goldblatt, received the 2011 Kraszna-Krausz Award for best photography book. His work has also won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the Alan Paton Award, the University of Johannesburg Prize and Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. He is a Distinguished Professor in the Creative Writing Department at Wits University.
Notes: his website can be found here: www.ivanvladislavic.com