Book Review: The Distance

Ivan Vladislavić The Distance (Umuzi/Penguin Random House, 2019)

Reviewed by Peter Beilharz, Sichuan University


(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)


Who is Ivan Vladislavić? Readers of this journal might remember his appearance in its pages a few years ago, in Thesis Eleven 136, 2016. His is an extraordinary body of work, and cowork with collaborators of different kinds, tagteams from artists to architects and photographers like David Goldblatt. There are Wunderkammer books like Portrait with Keys and Exploded View, figures and vignettes like those in The Loss Library and 101 Detectives, works on Ponte Tower and Architecture After Apartheid – the list goes on, a trove of wonders as tall as that tower yet scarcely visible across the Indian Ocean.

Vladislavić’s work is well-known in some places, but it is not mainstream. Writing South Africa is not easy. He is not hustling; and he is writing sideways. The latest instalment is The Distance. This is a book which is South African, global, colonial and modernist all at once. I do not say postcolonial; this does not refer to his sensibilities, which are as contemporary as they could be, but to the sense that the world we inhabit, here and there, remains colonial, rather than postcolonial in any significant way. Postcolonial, like postmodern, expresses a desire; and then there is the world we already inhabit, Noch nicht.

There is a sense in which this writing is local, and specific, and another in which it is transcolonial. The inequalities and asymmetries of the old imperialism are abundant, ubiquitous; poverty in South Africa, black deaths in custody in Australia. Everything changes, in the world system, and nothing changes at all.

Black and white and others cross over here in different ways. In The Distance, the central dynamic is between the white boy narrator, his contrary brother and their later selves, and Muhammad Ali. Everything doubles; Ali and Cassius Clay, and so on. Joe: in his opening line, ‘In the spring of 1970, I fell in love with Muhammad Ali’. White boy in Pretoria; strong and pretty black man, boxing’s colossus. Everything here is turned upside down, and mediated out through Hollywood, celebrity, show biz. No TV in South Africa then, but; a long distance love affair negotiated via the tabloids and radio and photocomics, a world of glue and paper-clippings and crystal sets.  A box of old clippings becomes, with sufficient passing of time, an Archive. Their fragments act as a kind of subtext in the novel, set in an alternate font close enough to the main text to elude the inattentive reader, or almost. The scrapbooks in time become a kind of time capsule, compelling the narrator to write. Branko, his fraternal muse, becomes his irritant and interlocutor. Ali becomes the icon through which, or whom Joe seeks his identity formation against his Dad and his brother; it’s a kind of delegated punching back against those who matter to him, but cannot see him. His Dad is lost in a world of cars, mainly British and American, while his mother works her fingers to bleed in her pursuit of knitting and bedecking the family in odd items of wardrobe. Poor whites, or close enough; these are not lives of desperation, or chronic shortage, but they are paths of hopes that may also prove elusive. Close to East London, caravan parks, they are boys’ stories of strut and pretense, presenced by pretty girls who remain elusive, also at a distance. Dull dailies, like those of Milnerton Market, and wilder fantasies of bigger worlds. Life is a flea market; not much to sell; little with which to buy. Time to kill. What are these white folk doing in South Africa?

Spiced with words that are Afrikaans, the images here could just as well be global as colonial. Grandpa way back was on his way to the Cape, but it could have been Chile or even Australia. Vladislavić, the South African, could just as well have found himself in Melbourne, or in Perth. In one moment Joe and his mate decide to become Americans; but they are still in school. It’s a fad, but a global fad. America doesn’t last. Writing takes over from boxing as the object of desire. Yet the presence of Ali persists: he is not a fighter, he is an actor, who in turn becomes an icon, even for an unlikely lad like the schoolboy Joe in Pretoria. There is something here about attitude, or defiance, and it is this which travels. Ali is modern, or postmodern inasmuch as he destabilises meanings, racial and other. And the encounter with the Archive is also, of necessity in its margins a revisitation of history, of apartheid itself.

Mandela himself was famously figured as a boxer. The echoes here are profound. I will not have succeeded, in this short notice, in communicating the flavour of Vladislavić’s prose, the power, art and wit of his writing. All that I can offer is a small flag on the desert plain, here or there. It is a remarkable book, even for a reader who is alien, distant to boxing and a world apart from South Africa. For it evokes a world, and worlds connected by empires and generations. As Sian Supski and I observed in that earlier Thesis Eleven, the writing is realist, and surreal; ordinary, and fantastic; quotidian and magical all at once. It offers social and political insights, but without the Lesson of that more plodding writing whose purpose is to instruct. It adds; it circles; it dances. We grow up, and grow old; there are traces left behind, dreams and ambitions in books and in clippings, hopes and objects of desire even when they fade.

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