TagIván Repila

The Emperor’s New House: The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić

FollyThe South African writer Ivan Vladislavić now has the most titles of any author on And Other Stories‘ roster; and when they keep plucking gems like this from his bibliography, it’s not hard to see why. The Folly is Vladislavić’s first novel, originally published in 1993 towards the end of apartheid; it’s as delicious and disturbing a tale of one succumbing to another’s illusions as you might wish.

We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Malgas, who live a mundane suburban existence:

The frog-mug had been bought at a sale of factory rejects, and for that reason it was Mrs Malgas’s favourite, warts and all. Mr Malgas thought it was in bad taste. He stirred the coffee, scraping the frog on the murky bottom maliciously with the spoon. He fished the tea-bag out of his own mug, which was chocolate-brown and had I ♥ DIY printed on it in biscuit. He thought this one was gimmicky too, but it had been a Father’s Day present from his spouse and he used it out of a sense of duty.

The couple watch a shanty burning on the evening news, but the distance of the television (and the cosseting effect of that Vladislavić’s prose) ensures that this doesn’t intrude unduly into their lives. They are known to us only as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, which increases the sense of them as cartoonish figures, but also – subtly – denies them the dignity of their own names.

A mysterious figure called Nieuwenhuizen moves on to the plot next to the Malgases’ house and sets up camp, using the rubbish around him for furniture. After a spell of observing him for a distance, Mr Malgas goes up to Nieuwenhuizen to find out what he’s doing. It turns out that the newcomer is building a house, though he hasn’t started yet. The owner of a hardware shop, Mr Malgas is inspired by this, and is soon helping Nieuwenhuizen out: clearing the ground to lay down a grid pattern, hammering in nails for cat’s-cradles of string that somehow correspond to the great plan… Actually, Mr Malgas does rather more than help out, and since Nieuwenhuizen insists on being called ‘Father’ (and Mr is quite happy to oblige), you can imagine what sort of relationship is established between them.

To recall another And Other Stories novel, Nieuwenhuizen is like Joe, the salesman from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, in his ability to manipulate others through language and rhetoric. Vladislavić’s approach is a little different: where DeWitt immerses her readers in Joe’s business-speak and does not allow them to gain purchase outside it, in The Folly we see Mr Malgas’s willing capitulation; Nieuwenhuizen’s contempt for him; and Mrs Malgas looking on aghast. As a result, we don’t quite get caught up in Mr’s enthusiasm, but we are swept along in the wake of its unstoppable tide, and we fear where it might end up.

As the novel progresses, the idea of Nieuwenhuizen’s house grows stronger – stronger than (or perhaps indistinguishable from) the reality. Here, The Folly put me in mind of The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila, in the blurring of its imaginative and physical space. But the transformative power of The Folly is all its own. Let this novel whisper in your ear, and listen closely.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Folly (1993) by Ivan Vladislavić, And Other Stories paperback

Lightning Rods (2011) by Helen DeWitt, And Other Stories paperback

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013) by Iván Repila, tr. Sophie Hughes (2015), Pushkin Press paperback

Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013/5)

RepilaSometimes the design of a book just hits the mark. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse has the characteristic small paperback format of the Pushkin Collection, With David Roberts’s cover illustration, the physical volume has a timeless, ‘storybook’ quality – as does Iván Repila’s novel itself.

Repila tells of two brothers, Big and Small, who are trapped at the bottom of a well for reasons unknown, and are determined to get out. When attempting to throw Small out of the well doesn’t work, Big takes to exercise, keeping most of the food for himself– but that takes its toll on Small, so Big then has to look after him. Dreams and hallucinations abound as time passes. You can get a flavour for the writing from this passage, where Big and Small can hear animals approaching the well:

The steps become and more and more clear, and the sound of panting coming from the animals has taken over the night. Inside the well, the brothers’ stillness is catching the insects have stopped buzzing, the water has stilled in its tracks; at last, nature is silent. For a moment, the well slips its bonds and breathes like a home that the brothers don’t want to lose. The siege appears to be a fleeting assault. A wash of calm crawls up the walls, stills the mouth of the well and extends beyond its sheer edges to where the baying creatures howl. They go quiet, and for a split second the forest settles like an implosion of peace.

The translation from Spanish is by Sophie Hughes. I particularly like this passage for its use of personification, and the way the imagery transforms the physical space of the well. Each chapter brings a slightly different tone and perception; I could imagine The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse as a stylized animated film, its palette shifting with each scene.

It would be a dark film, too, because there’s a solemn allegory of metaphorical imprisonment lying beneath the surface story. It makes for a potent brew, and I hope we see more of Repila’s work in English before too long.

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