Ivan Vladislavić made his way past the police barriers on Halloween for an engaging Q&A at The New School with John Reed’s Advanced Fiction workshop. A South African author, Vladislavić was in New York to celebrate the publication of his book Double Negative by the UK-based press And Other Stories. He kindly agreed to continue the conversation via email.
ET: The main character of this novel, Neville, is also its narrator. The story follows his intellectual and artistic development over several decades against the backdrop of recent South African history. The passage of time, and the relationship between past, present, and future, is crucial to the story’s power. Do you feel that your authorial preoccupation with time, at least in this book, is shaped by your experiences as a South African?
IV: The seed for the novel was planted in a chance conversation about the passing of time. In 2006, I went to see the play Sophiatown at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, a revival of a piece first staged in the same theatre twenty years earlier. In the foyer afterwards, I bumped into the social historian Jonathan Hyslop and we discovered that we’d both been at the original opening night. We talked about how much had changed in the intervening decades and joked about getting old. One of the compensatory benefits, he told me, is that you begin to see the patterns of history, the rises and falls, within the short span of your own life.
After this conversation, I found myself thinking actively again about the mid-eighties, when South Africa was under a state of emergency and apparently sliding into civil war. In the space of just twenty years, apartheid had been dismantled and a hopeful democracy established, and already disillusionment with the new order had set in. The eighties were vanishing behind a smokescreen of myth and forgetfulness.
The idea of a novel structured around cross-sections through time, about a decade apart, with echoing spaces in between, came out of these thoughts. The time structure was the starting point, before I found the characters, and arose directly from my thinking about South Africa. History is visible in the fabric of this place – unless you close your eyes, of course.
ET: England plays a vital role in much of the novel. At first, it’s personified in the character of a British journalist. Later, it serves as a geographic cure to Neville’s political and professional ills. Both encounters with British influence are portrayed as complex and not entirely positive. Only in the third, most contemporary portion of the book do the South Africans seem to be dealing with each other on their own terms and away from British influence. Is this a representation of the way things are actually going?
IV: There are traces of the British colonization of South Africa everywhere in our culture, and indeed in the makeup of the population. I myself have an Englishman or two in (up?) my family tree. In my university years, when I faced some of the same dilemmas as my narrator Neville, a few of my friends left South Africa for Britain, because they had ancestral ties to the country, and this story found its way into my book easily enough. Today it’s quite common for young South Africans to work in Britain for a while and there are large numbers of expats in cities like London. This includes many Afrikaners, something that was unimaginable in the past, given the historical antagonism towards the English.
The relationships between postcolonial societies and their former colonizers are often peculiar. A few weeks ago, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe gave an address at a university in which he took his customary swipe at Britain: ‘I am not a colonial product because I am a complete Zimbabwean.’ You have to imagine him saying this in sash and mortarboard, in his plummy English. Later he said: ‘Goodness me! How can I think like them? I would be a rotten thinker to think like them.’ Who speaks like this? Billy Bunter. Colonialist cads! Rotters!
I think you’re right that the third part of the novel shows South Africans dealing more directly with one another. It also seems to be concerned with a globalized media and consumer culture. These days South Africa feels the influence of the US and China at least as strongly as that of Britain.
ET: One of my favorite passages in the book describes Neville as a young man, poised with an imaginary angel hovering over his head. Specifically, the oversized angel represents Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, made famous by Walter Benjamin. The passage is a riff on history and ruin and unbearable truths, as well as a rebuke of blind progress. You return to Klee’s angel several times throughout the book. How did this image make its way into the narrative?
IV: Benjamin was one of the liberating intellectual discoveries of my student years. His work was read and discussed very animatedly here in the seventies and eighties. He was one of the critical thinkers who offered subtle, poetic ways of orienting oneself in a conflict-ridden time and place. In my novel, Neville carries Klee’s image around with him from home to home; I carried Benjamin’s texts instead. His ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in which the angel of history appears, are endlessly provocative, partly because of the elusive language they’re couched in. In these few pages, he says extraordinary things about memory and history. For instance, that in telling the past one must ‘seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger’; or that the historian must know that ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins’. He says that the angel of history is propelled into the future by a ‘storm blowing from Paradise’, which we call progress. You might have thought an immortal being would be in a good position to read the ‘chain of events’ that humans make of the past. But a creature out of time, unable to feel its passing, cannot have a sense of history. There are signs of the angel in the work of many South African writers and artists. In 1989 – a momentous year – Penny Siopis made a painting called ‘Piling Wreckage upon Wreckage’.
ET: Neville strikes up a friendship with an elderly woman, which proves to be disquieting in a “Latin American way.” It also leads to a departure in the text from straightforward realistic fiction into an interlude of magical realism. Can you describe how the novel took off in that direction?
IV: Perhaps it’s an extended play on words. The second part of the novel is set in the magical early years of democracy in South Africa. In the midst of bitter conflict, a new political dispensation was conjured up at the negotiation table. It was unimaginable that people could talk their way out of the apartheid impasse, yet that’s what happened. A political solution born of rare pragmatism came to be seen as a miracle.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a darker vein of magic running through it. For all its failings, which became clearer as time went by, the Commission created a space in which people were brought to life or laid to rest in the rituals of storytelling. Antjie Krog is the exemplary writer on this subject. I think the second part of my novel may be trying to tap into these currents. Whereas the first part is almost reliably realist, appropriate to the apartheid years, the second has elements of ‘magical realism’ about it.
The magical flourishes are also a joke about my own style. When I published my first novel in 1993, I was called a magical realist. You may recall that Ben Okri’s The Famished Road appeared in 1991. For the next few years, publishers and scholars were looking for homegrown African magical realism in every flight of fancy.
ET: The title “Double Negative”appears in the novel as a metaphor comparing the photographic process to a clash between viewpoints: in effect, two negative positions cancel each other out. Neville persistently approaches life from a negative place, he doesn’t seek to make an impact and he seems distrustful of those who do. Passivity, retreat, refusal—is there a way to see these as a positive action?
IV: I don’t see Neville as quite so passive and negative, and I’m surprised that other readers do. I think he changes slowly in the course of the novel. I felt similarly about Aubrey Tearle, the narrator of The Restless Supermarket. When I got to the end of that book, I felt he’d changed in small but significant ways. Many readers think he’s completely resistant to change.
In your first question, you remark that Neville is both the main character and the narrator. To me this is a crucial perception. If we accept the convention that this is Neville’s story rather than mine, then even the magical flourishes in the second part of the book are his.
I think there may be something positive in a principled refusal. I was touched, as Neville says he is, by Mrs. Magwaza’s refusal to let him enter her house. Defending your privacy, defending the very idea of privacy, is important to me.
ET: I’m curious about the “revolutionaries who signed their name to the protest list long after the fight was won.” Is this something you often come across in contemporary South Africa, what I interpret as lip service to reform backed by a willingness to linger in class inequality and race-based privilege? How does one avoid it?
IV: There are people who actively cover their tracks. Once the political dust subsides, both the winners and the losers may have reason to retouch their images. Things become true by repetition and the official histories obscure the messy reality.
Alongside the dedicated liars, I suppose we all tell ourselves bedtime stories. Questions about how and what we remember, how we shape the past into consoling fictions, are close to the heart of my book. Memory is an inventive faculty. As someone who makes things up for a living, I’m aware of how capricious my own memory is. The writing of the book challenged me to try and remember what the past was like. Time travel is one of the possibilities of fiction – but you don’t necessarily come back with the truth.
Ivan Vladislavic is the author of the novels The Folly, The Exploded View and Double Negative, and has edited volumes on architecture and art. His book Portrait with Keys documents Johannesburg, and his short stories have been collected in the volume Flashback Hotel. His work has been published and translated widely and has won many awards, including the University of Johannesburg Prize and the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. He lives in Johannesburg.