TagIvan Vladislavic

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

Reading round-up: late November

Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative (2010)

dnIn early-1980s Johannesburg, young Neville Lister is angry at the injustices he sees around him, but that anger lacks focus. His family arranges for him to spend a day with the photographer Saul Auierbach, famed for his ability to capture the stories behind the everyday. Auerbach and Lister are challenged to approach three random houses and find a story in each; they get to two, and the resulting portraits become celebrated. Years later, Lister returns from London to the post-apartheid South Africa, sets up as a photographer, and, disoriented by his changed city, goes to find out who is behind the door of that third house.

As its title suggests, Double Negative is a novel of mirroring and inversions. In his youth, Lister is driven by an untamed social conscience; but he finds himself lost when apartheid actually ends. Where Auerbach seems to find truth with ease in his work, for Lister it is a struggle. By novel’s end, in 2009, Lister has become a fêted photographer in his own right, but appears to have become the kind of closed-off person that one senses the young Neville Lister would despise. In Double Negative, Ivan Vladislavić has created an intriguing character study, and an examination of social change refracted through the experience of one individual. Good on And Other Stories for picking it up and bringing it to a wider audience.

Trezza Azzopardi, The Tip of My Tongue (2013)
Tishani Doshi, Fountainville (2013)

These are the final pair of titles in Seren Books’ New Stories from the Mabinogion series (see here and here for my blog posts about some of the previous volumes). Reading these books has always been fascinating; I’ve constantly been impressed by the ingenuity with which the writers reshape their source material (as I don’t know the Mabinogion much at all, I’ve been grateful for the summaries of the original tales which appear in each book). The new titles are no exception.

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Trezza Azzopardi’s The Tip of My Tongue is based on the story of ‘Geraint, son of Erbin’. In the original tale, Geraint is a Cornish prince who marries the beautiful Enid; he forbids her to speak to him as they travel, even though she warns him of danger (I’m glossing over a lot of events here, but these Mabinogion stories are not easy to sum up in a sentence or two). Azzopardi’s novel begins in 1970s Cardiff, where Enid is a young girl and Geraint her spoiled cousin. Much to her annoyance, Enid is sent to live with Geraint and his family, the Erbins, in Devon. The Tip of My Tongue is more of a thematic interpretation of the Mabinogion story than a literal retelling; Azzopardi is perhaps most interested in exploring (as she comments in her afterword) ‘the idea of the female voice as powerful, as a tool – as a weapon.’ Young Enid’s voice is powerful because it is more or less the only thing over which she has control; in a sense, it’s the only thing we have as readers, because the novel is filtered through Enid’s perception. Her narrative voice is full of verve and delightful to read; but it also makes us aware of all the subtleties on which Enid doesn’t pick up – in other words, the power that she doesn’t have. That combination makes The Tip of my Tongue an absorbing book.

fvIn Fountainville, Tishani Doshi also reimagines a Mabinogion story from a female character’s viewpoint, this time the tale of ‘The Lady of the Fountain’, which sees one of Arthur’s knights, Owain, travel to a distant castle, kill its black knight, and fall in love with the knight’s wife, the Lady of the Well. Fountainville is set in non-specific frontier country that is something like India sprinkled with touches of the Wild West. Its Lady is Begum, keeper of the town’s fountain, who is married to a gang lord named Kedar and runs a ‘greenhouse’ for women rather than plants. Doshi’s narrator is Begum’s assistant Luna, who takes a liking to Owain Knight, a foreigner who arrives in Fountainville one day. The characters’ lives are shaken when Kedar is killed; then Owain disappears, and Luna discovers his secret. As with Azzopardi’s book, I’m struck by how Doshi has subtly altered the focus of the story in repurposing its elements. Fountainville strikes me as a story of change: Luna’s personal change, and the changing face of the town. It and The Tip of My Tongue are a fitting end to the New Stories from the Mabinogion.

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