Ivan Vladislavic, one of South Africa’s most innovative writers, is talking with me about the recipe for “afritude sauce,” an imaginary condiment featured prominently in The Exploded View, his new novel, out this March from Archipelago Books. “It would definitely have peanuts in it,” he says. “The essential ingredients are peanuts and chili and coriander.” In the book, the sauce, “the flavor of the new South Africa, an exhilarating blend of earthy goodness and spicy sophistication,” is shared by a group of men—one white and four black—over a dinner that reveals the lingering racial, linguistic, and cultural divisions of the postapartheid era.
Vladislavic tells me that the novel, which was published in South Africa in 2004, reflects the period in which it was written—the years following the end of apartheid: “Aspects of culture that had been kept separate as people were kept separate were now occupying the same place. You were hearing languages you weren’t hearing before. You were hearing music you hadn’t heard before on national networks. There was a sense of flux and a sense of possibility.” Reflecting on that initial optimism, the 60-year-old Vladislavic strikes a wistful note: “Now we’re living in a much more disenchanted period. I think divisions in society have hardened again.”
I am speaking to Vladislavic in his Johannesburg apartment via Skype from the U.S., where I am seven hours behind. This seems fitting, given the lag time between the U.S. and South African publications of his works. “It’s great to have books brought back to life again,” says Vladislavic, whose imposing persona is belied by a soft-spoken amiability.“But getting oneself back into that imaginative head space you were in when you wrote the book can be quite tricky.”
All the trickier in Vladislavic’s case, given the stylistic range of his works. His first novel, The Folly, about an imperious eccentric who “survey[s] and subdue[s]” a vacant plot of land on which he constructs an invisible mansion, has an allegorical quality. The Restless Supermarket, by contrast, is an inventive social satire. Its prim, language-loving, and slightly delusional protagonist is a retired proofreader rattled by the changes ushered in by the postapartheid era. The nonfiction Portrait with Keys documents Johannesburg’s neighborhoods with lively inquisitiveness; Double Negative, spanning the apartheid and postapartheid eras, is a ruminative bildungsroman about a photographer; and 101 Detectives is a collection of short, occasionally absurdist stories that, taken together, present a baffling case for the reader-sleuth.
“I used to think all my books were different,” Vladislavic says, “but going back to early work helps me to trace particular threads of continuity.” One obvious thread is Johannesburg, the city in which he has lived for the past 40 years. Discussing the city’s evolution over that period, Vladislavic tells me that “the big change happened around the time of South Africa’s transition to democracy, when the apartheid urban planning and social control structures broke down.” He adds, “Black people were able to move freely for the first time, and there was a huge shift in where people lived.”
Vladislavic has long been interested in the organization of urban space as both a writer and a social sciences editor. Before joining Wits University’s creative writing department in 2015, he spent years editing projects in the urban development field. “It taught me quite a lot about areas I had never had access to, like sanitation,” he says. Vladislavic also worked as a freelance book editor on several ambitious projects, including the exhibition catalogue for Blank: Architecture, Apartheid and After. “The project was a great conjunction of my editing work and my own interest that drew in so many writers and theorists and architects, all thinking through how South African spaces worked and how they would change and look in the future.”
Vladislavic has watched Johannesburg shift from a European-style city to a more suburban, Americanesque city. The Exploded View, he says, “explores the new Johannesburg, much more spread out, suburban, and a much more defended, privatized, and dispersed space than the old city.”
The novel takes place on the sprawling metropolis’s periphery, where, Vladislavic says, “the extremes of society are rubbing up against each other,” often violently. The Exploded View is a car-guided tour of Johannesburg’s gated communities, far-flung construction sites, “periurban eateries,” ring roads. Its vignettes touch on infrastructure and urban planning, on blueprints and their flawed executions. “I suppose it’s a reflection on living in a society that has the unusual possibility of starting over, reconstructing on a new basis after decades of apartheid and centuries of colonial rule,” Vladislavic says. “It’s a reflection of the gap between those ideals and reality.”
In the book, this gap is most clearly visible in the disastrous construction of a subsidized housing development: half of the residents turn off the plumbing after receiving their water bills, there are already cracks in the structures, and a contractor has set one toilet comically high up on a cement plinth. The novel’s title captures the precarious balance between order and chaos inherent in building, or rebuilding, a society. An exploded view, Vladislavic explains, shows an object broken up into its component parts. “It’s an image of suspension in which things can either fit together perfectly or fly apart. Anyone who’s tried to assemble furniture knows the feeling.”
Vladislavic was inspired to write The Exploded View by certain images, though not any found in an Ikea instructional booklet. He shows me a book on Joachim Schonfeldt, a conceptual artist who, he says, “works on a very abstract level but is also deeply connected to the material culture of Johannesburg and South Africa.” Vladislavic notes, “This is probably more mystifying than illuminating.” Watching him page through pictures of three-headed lions, peacocks, and cows, followed by a yellow minibus taxi, I fear he might be right. But clarity emerges when he turns to an “exploded view” of the Castle of Good Hope, the “first colonial structure built in South Africa after the Dutch arrived,” and points to the “key image”—four disembodied faces in half-profile—that gave him the notion of writing a book about four men. “The images are quite stark, so stark and so schematic that I couldn’t really draw out the atmosphere or detail of a literary work from them,” he says. “Instead, I used repetitive patterns to structure the novel.”
None of the four male characters—a statistician, a sanitation engineer, a conceptual artist, and a billboard constructor—come into direct contact with one another, which leaves the reader responsible for making thematic connections among their stories. “It’s a model of how the book works: a set of components that are either going to fit together if you construct them for yourself or might just fall apart if you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t want to do that,” Vladislavic says.
The Exploded View opens with a story about a kind of model reader, a pattern-seeking man whose hobbies include observing highway traffic: “Entire lifestyles, dissolved in the flow like some troubling additive, like statistical fluoride, became perceptible to his trained eye.” He is charged with redrafting the questionnaire for the impending postapartheid census, the “first nonracial head count in the country’s history.”
Vladislavic calls this 1996 census “a watershed moment where the new government tried to understand who’s really where.” Previously, the government “counted by race in order to carry out apartheid planning.” Black people were rightly suspicious of such government actions—a suspicion that remained after apartheid ended, Vladislavic says. For a black South African, he wryly notes, “when government people came around to count you, it was not a good thing.” He adds, “There were lots of myths circulating about what the function of the census would be, turning what should have been completely ordinary into a charged event.”
Vladislavic depicts the charge in these ordinary events often in his novels, of which The Exploded View is one of the more enigmatic and muted. I bring up a statement made by the novel’s brash artist: “Excess is always interesting.... The world was so loud, and no one took seriously a thing that didn’t attract attention to itself. There was no room for subtlety.” What, I wonder, did that credo portend for Vladislavic’s own work, widely praised but less widely read? “We live in a period of declamatory culture,” he says. “Things that are quiet are either ignored or really treasured by people who value that. This book reflects that sensibility.”
Matt Seidel is a staff writer at the Millions.