Academic journal article ARIEL

Fictions of Rebuilding: Reconstruction in Ivan Vladislavic's South Africa

Academic journal article ARIEL

Fictions of Rebuilding: Reconstruction in Ivan Vladislavic's South Africa

Article excerpt

In the aftermath of mass violence, how can one imagine a communal future while acknowledging the horrors of the past? This question pervades the work of the South African novelist Ivan Vladislavic, who immerses his readers in the haunted landscape of Johannesburg after apartheid. A second-generation South African writer of Croatian, Irish, English, and German descent, Vladislavic began publishing fiction in the late 1980s. His short stories, novels, and nonfiction writings, ranging from Missing Persons in 1989 to Portrait with Keys in 2006, frequently examine South Africa's political transformation through the shifting architecture and infrastructure of Johannesburg. A freelance editor as well as a fiction writer, Vladislavic edited one of the most famous accounts of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC], Antjie Krog's memoir Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa (1998). In the same year, he also edited and contributed to a collection of work on South African space called blank--: Architecture, apartheid and after (1998). These two works, one concerning the TRC and the other mapping urban development, together prophesy the connection between ethical and material transformation that emerges in his fiction. Vladislavic's work invites us to consider how important confrontations with atrocity emerge not only in the well-publicized hearings of the TRC, but also in the physical character of everyday life. Confronting the past, his writing suggests, requires thinking about how to build and inhabit the future. Vladislavic's work thus reflects on the changing urban space of Johannesburg and calls attention to fiction as a kind of built structure in itself, a form of metaphorical architecture haunted by a violent past but possibly capable of encouraging civic renewal.

The physical texture and shape of Johannesburg constitute an important preoccupation in many of Vladislavic's writings. It animates his novel The Restless Supermarket (2001), which concerns a conservative proofreader struggling to make sense of a changing Hillbrow; it provides the governing trope for his nonfiction collection Portrait with Keys, which invites readers to travel many different itineraries throughout the urban landscape. In this essay, however, I focus attention on The Exploded View (2004), where the question of building achieves a particularly powerful expression. A segmented novel that consists of four independent but thematically linked stories, The Exploded View hints in its very title at the need to link the possibilities of rebuilding with the legacy of violence. In technical terms, an "exploded view" is a construction diagram that represents all parts of an object separately while it preserves their positions within the whole. In giving the work this title, Vladislavic aligns his own literary project with the design of mechanical objects. Since each story conceals some aspect of its production that then is brought into "exploded view" by a subsequent tale, the formal structure of the collection exposes the hidden relationships between material and cultural life. This work meditates on social space in its fullest sense, the kind that (in Henri Lefebvre's words) "subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity" (73). In The Exploded View, Vladislavic represents ecologies of building as specifically collective events that bespeak a larger yearning for imagined community.

Yet if the idea of an exploded view thus affiliates the text with generative plans for building and rebuilding, the wordplay of "exploded" also implies the spectre of uncontrolled destruction. From a sanitary engineer captivated by brutality on television to a sign maker who finds himself beaten, the tales suggest that postapartheid urban space offers no easy end to violence. The metaphor of explosion is central to Vladislavic's vision of Johannesburg, reappearing in his nonfiction writing as well as in his stories. …

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