/ 5 July 2006

Jo’burg stories

The Exploded View

(Random House)

While The Restless Supermarket had about it an air of comic and curmudgeonly nostalgia for an era rapidly dissolving into the past, this collection of four longish short stories is set, all too recognisably, in the present, and leaves the reader both comforted and disconcerted.

And although it is very much a book about Johannesburg or Gauteng, the stories could conceivably happen in any South African city today.

The protagonists of these polished gems are all men; each earns his living in some sensible way, in which he engages the post-liberation, transforming society around him. There is a man from the Department of Home Affairs who is working on the new census forms, making sure they ‘speak to everyone”; a sanitary engineer for a low-cost housing project; a popular artist; and a man who puts up billboards for developers.

Vladislavic takes the reader into ordinary South African scenes with simple grace and warmth, which belie the complexity of each story. For example, Budlender, the home affairs statistician, on his way to interview someone who is commenting on the new form, ‘took the Marlboro Road off-ramp. As he waited at the robot, a vendor thrust a bird into the car, some sort of sock puppet with a stiff comb and a scarlet tongue flickering in its throat.” Later on he says, ‘Driving, always driving.”

Threaded through each story is a preoccupation with building, with urban space, with people in this built environment. We cannot fail to recognise ourselves here, in this search for home, for shelter, for a space in which to feel comfortable and safe. As Budlender approaches the home of the woman whose comments he is using on the census form, he appraises the gated community, the Villa Toscana, where she lives.

The author observes: ‘The boundaries of Johannesburg are drifting away, sliding over pristine ridges and valleys — where the city fades momentarily into the veld, unimaginable new atmospheres evolve.”

In the second story with the hot and delicious name, Afritude Sauce, we relive, with Egan the sanitary engineer, his day in Hani View where he has had to face not only the simple reticulation issues, but the real people who live in this place where the houses are, as one old lady tells him, ‘fucked”. Already.

He visits the site with an official, not ‘the great man” himself, the town clerk (also know as the municipal manager), but some underling. The problem is that although the sewers have been installed, the water has been cut off — so the toilets don’t work. Understandably the residents are not happy. This event is catapulted into the realms of farce by the arrival of a media team ‘doing a piece on housing”.

Egan finds himself trapped in the middle of it all, well-meaning, uncomprehending, exhausted. And then he has to have dinner with them all. Suffice to say, Afritude Sauce sums it up — Egan tries to cope but is out of his depth, ridiculed and manipulated. He consoles himself with the bottle of good whisky meant for ‘the great man” and filling out the complaints form in his hotel room.

In Curiouser Vladislavic, ever an amusing word-spinner, invests this title-word, which one might previously have thought had a life only in Alice in Wonderland, uttered by the Cheshire Cat, with a sharply pragmatic new meaning.

Here the protagonist is a very successful young black sculptor and this story airs some of the current issues and debates around fine art and craft, including notions of exploitation and appropriation, and some finely worded blather.

Simeon, the sculptor, uses curios, brought into the country by traders from the north, as the raw material from which he constructs new works — very postmodern, very faux, very saleable. So it seems, even in the arts, integrity is eroding. Vladislavic leaves it to the reader to judge.

From these bleak scenarios, echoing with painful laughter, the author takes us into the final lap. In Crocodile Lodge we spend a fateful late afternoon with Gordon Duffy, a simple enough fellow, who makes a living out of putting up billboards for developers and developments like Villa Toscana.

He is on his way home on the freeway when he realises he does not have his cellphone with him — he has left it on the building site for Crocodile Lodge. This gated complex has not even been built yet when violence and crime as a way of life move in.

Duffy goes back for his phone. There is a moment when one thinks that as a maker of billboards he deserves whatever is coming to him, but the real menace is not so much to this working man, but to those who think that by buying a unit in this complex they will secure a desirable ‘lifestyle”.

Duffy recalls, on his way to the site, afternoons spent reading his father’s Popular Mechanic magazines: ‘It was an American world he entered there, its surfaces airbrushed to perfection, gleaming with old-fashioned optimism …” He particularly loved a picture of a holiday chalet on the edge of a lake: ‘He had spent many hours gazing at this picture — This place, impossibly distant and unreal, filled him with painful longing, an ache for containment that was peculiarly like homesickness.”

These stories explore our deepest notions of home and shelter in a way that cannot fail to ‘speak to everyone”, even the refugees and homeless among us. The ‘exploded view” refers not only to the way instructional diagrams — such as those in Popular Mechanics — show how in the Fifties it was thought that anything and everything could be taken apart and put together again, but also to the more current disintegration of a vision of a way of life.

Be glad that you are not the minister of housing, nor even a municipal manager. Be glad that you are just some poor clueless sod, stuck in the traffic with the rest of us. Hopefully you will be on your way to the mall to buy a copy of these unforgettable stories to muse over when you finally get home.