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Ivan Vladislavic: Double Negative

Vladislavic’s most recent novel is, in my view, not as good a novel as his previous two but, nevertheless, still a fine novel, showing South Africa during and post-apartheid. It is divided into three parts. The first is set in the apartheid period. The second takes place just after the end of apartheid but refers back to the apartheid period and the third takes place somewhat later.

Our hero is Neville Lister. At the start of the novel he has just, to all intents, dropped out of Witwatersrand University, to his father’s disgust. He does a few odd jobs, before his father sends him off with a photographer, Saul Auerbach, for a day. Auerbach is a moderately successful photographer, who is a friend of Neville’s uncle (his father’s brother). Auerbach, the key person in this book after Neville, is based on David Goldblatt, the celebrated South African photographer who has worked with Vladislavic and Nadine Gordimer.

Auerbach’s task on this outing is to accompany Gerald Brookes, a British journalist who covers South Africa and who is very critical of what he sees. In particular, he discusses what he calls the issue of the responsibility of good people in bad situations and feels that Auerbach and others who are critical of apartheid should do more to oppose it. This is one of the themes of the book as, throughout the book, Neville is critical of apartheid but is aware that he has not done too much to oppose it. At the same time, he is well aware, as is Auerbach, of the risks incurred by those who do oppose it. Neville will become aware, during the course of the book, of some of the unpleasant aspects of apartheid of which he was not aware at the time. However, as he says, The order we lived in was perverse. It could not be improved upon; it had to be overthrown. Kindness did not help. Guilt and responsibility were not the same thing.

The other key theme of the book that comes to light during the day Neville spends with Auerbach and Brookes is the nature of art and the role of the artist. Throughout the book, people refer to Auerbach’s work as art. He himself denies it. Brookes has noticed that Auerbach chooses his subjects very carefully and is quite prepared to wait a long time to get the right shot, the right light. I can’t tell you how I see. I can only show you the result. Essentially, the process is beyond explanation and what I say doesn’t matter. That’s the beauty of it, Auerbach comments, though he does mention that one of the reasons he takes his time is that film is very expensive. However, it is clear here and elsewhere that Vladislavic is saying that art cannot be clearly explained.

The trio come to a street, which is clearly a street where poor blacks live. Auerbach challenges the other two to pick one of the houses, which he will then photograph, if possible from the inside. Neville is reluctant but eventually makes a choice. They eventually go into the houses selected by Brooks and Neville. In both cases, they manage to gain admittance with Auerbach sweet-talking the occupant and, in both cases, he takes a photo which will later become famous. Seeing inside the houses has a profound effect on Neville.

Neville later goes off to London, primarily to avoid serving in the army. While there, he manages to get a job through a friend, of photographing places to be used in films. He had been adamant before that he did not want to become a photographer but now becomes a moderately successful one, primarily taking photos for adverts. He returns to South Africa after the end of apartheid.

South Africa has, of course, changed. He manages to get work, including taking photos for rainbow nation commercials. However, the key event in this second part is when he returns to the street he visited with Auerbach and Brookes. He goes back to the house he had selected and manages to gain entry. He becomes friendly with the woman who now lives there on her own and learns a lot about apartheid from her circumstances. In particular, he learns that her late partner, a doctor from Mozambique, had not been able to work as doctor but had worked in a postal sorting office. He had collected mail boxes in various shapes and this will influence Neville.

The third part finds Neville married and, at last, finding photography has become more than a job but also an artistic vocation, as he photographs what he calls threshholders, people standing outside their property, with their mailboxes in clear view. In particular, he is accompanied on a photo expedition by a blogger, Janie, who both shows up the difference between Neville’s way of reacting to the world and the modern way, that she has adopted. It also shows the difference between Neville’s (and, to a certain degree, Auerbach’s) vision of the world and the people in it and Janie’s.

As I said, while not, in my view, Vladislavic’s best novel, it is certainly a fine novel. It looks at the issue of the responsibility of good people in bad situations, it looks at the role of art and it looks at the difference between the current generation’s view of the world and the more traditional, pre-digital view. It also gives us a picture of some of the changes in South Africa. However, it also tells a good story of two photographers and how they see the world.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Umuzi, Johannesburg