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Ivan Vladislavic: Mystery of a detective’s language

101 Detectives (Umuzi) sees Ivan Vladislavi? return to his metier, the short story. This new collection of short fiction ranges from translators’ struggling for words to industrial theatre shenanigans and a convention of private eyes. The extract below is from the title story, 101 Detectives.

He knew there were tricks – no – not tricks, techniques, there are techniques for getting to see what you’re not supposed to. Let’s say the register at reception in the hotel lobby. You drop the pen or you fake a cough and ask for a glass of water, and while the clerk is distracted you quickly turn the book your way and scan the page for what you’re after. Let’s say the room number of a particular person. Or let’s say the name of a particular person occupying a certain room the number of which is no mystery. He knew all that.

But as it happened, the counter was a slab of granite and there was no book to mar its smooth extension, not even a computer screen, which complicated things. Also there was nothing he needed to know. For now. He was simply waiting for the receptionist to give him his key and number so that he could go up to his room. This lack of knowing, or rather this lack of a need to know, made him feel less like a Detective. And the feeling rankled because he was unsure what kind of Detective he really was to begin with.

While he was examining this lack, trying to locate it precisely in his body, the receptionist handed him his key. She pointed out the breakfast room to the left and mentioned the hours. Then she pointed out the assembly room through an archway to the right, and beyond that the lift. She also offered to call a porter but he said no, he could manage, he was travelling light, just the one suitcase with wheels. He was the kind of Detective who did not like to be followed to his room. That was one thing he was sure of.

When he passed the assembly room on his way to the lift, he saw a noticeboard on an easel, an oblong of black plastic to which white plastic letters could be attached. ‘Welcome!’ the board said. ‘101 Detectives: Sub-Saharan Africa. Meet and Greet 6pm. Private (eye) function :).’ He glanced at his watch and saw that it was 3pm and this pleased him, because it gave him enough time to settle in and take a shower and maybe nap and then think for a while about what kind of Detective he was or wanted to be.

His room was on the third floor, the top floor, and he had booked it for that reason. For the escape routes. But he got out on the second floor in case anyone was watching the dial in the lobby that ticked off the numbers. Then he walked swiftly up one flight to the third and went along the corridor to his room, pulling the suitcase on wheels, noting cupboard doors and emergency exits and the herringbone pattern in the carpet and especially the trolley full of mops and brooms and crumpled sheets that might spell trouble.

The key was a plastic card with holes in it. When he inserted it into the lock a green light blinked and then he stood to one side and pushed the door open. He wanted to case the joint, but the door was on a spring-loaded elbow and shut itself. So he reinserted the card in the lock and wedged the door open with his foot. Voices. For a moment he froze. But then he saw from the flickering light in the room that it was just the TV set talking to itself. He went in.

The voice was describing the facilities and attractions but the image on the screen was still. A lion licking its paw like a kitten. He remembered this later. There was a message on the screen: ‘Sunny Bonani welcomes Mr Joseph Blumenfeld to 101 Detectives: Sub-Saharan Africa. We are at your service.’ The message was in white letters but “Joseph Blumenfeld” was in red and it leapt out at him like a suspect from the shadows. For a moment he froze and a tight fist of fear clenched in his gut. That name rang a bell.

And then he remembered that he was undercover. ‘I am Joseph Blumenfeld,’ he thought. For a moment he felt like an impostor. Until he recalled the words of his mentor, Long John de Lange, who used to say that all Detectives sometimes feel like charlatans, it comes with the territory, and the memory of his dear friend and teacher, with his quirky fluency in dead languages and his flawed understanding of the martial arts, cheered him. He found the remote and switched off the TV. Then he sat on the bed and looked around.

Nothing exceptional. Yet he felt at home. He felt at home in this unremarkable room, which he had entered a moment ago. And that made him wonder whether he was not at heart a very ordinary Detective. He had worked so hard to identify his flaws and quirks, those traits that would set him apart from his flawed and quirky peers. But now he wondered whether being unremarkable might not be his special quality. Although he suspected that many another Detective was ordinary too. Exceptional, ordinary, it was a matter of choice.


Hobson would be a good name when travelling incognito, he thought, reaching into his jacket pocket for notebook and pen. His fingers brushed an edge there and he froze for a moment. Then he recalled the wide-eyed man at the airport who had pressed a leaflet into his hand and how he had folded it in half lengthways without even looking at it and put it away in his pocket. He wondered whether that had been wise. He took out the paper and unfolded it. The cold fist in his gut unclenched.

‘How toxic are you?’ he read. ‘Take this simple test and find out.’ There was a list of questions with two small blocks before each one for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. ‘1. Have you felt fatigued for no apparent reason? 2. Do you sometimes feel “wooden” and lifeless? 3. Do you feel less alert than you used to? 4. Do you sometimes get a feeling of light-headedness?’ In his head, which felt light and wooden simultaneously, like a balsawood lantern on his flesh-and-bone shoulders, he ticked one ‘Yes’ block after the other.

Yes. He felt less alert than he used to. As he tried to locate this feeling in his body, Louella Scarlozzi, the femme fatale of the Coroner’s Office, Italian-American, gruff, tall, came to mind. He flew in through her ear, down an earhole where wax clung like wasps’ nests, past the hammer and anvil, making a beeline for her secret thoughts. What kind of Detective am I? Eardrum or tympanum? Gullet or oesophagus? Pussy or pudenda? A Detective needs a language almost as much as a language needs a Detective.


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Ivan Vladislavic
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