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Ivan Vladislavic: The Distance
Joe and Branko Blahavić are brothers living in Pretoria. Their grandfather had emigrated from Croatia and had planned to go to Australia but he was so taken with Cape Town when the ship docked there that he got off. However, as other Croats seemed to got to Pretoria so did he. Pretoria is a long way from the sea.
The book essentially follows the story of the two brothers, though they do have a sister who barely features. They tell their story, alternating between the two. We follow them as children but also much later, as adults. They are very different. Branko is the lively, practical one. He enjoys playing sports, has many friends and, as he gets older, does well with the opposite sex, eventually marrying Rita. He does not go to university. He enjoys wrestling, sometimes taking his brother to bouts. Joe is the quiet intellectual. He does not make friends easily. Indeed, when he first goes to Branko’s high school, he and his class are subjected to a hazing ritual. This is forbidden and it is reported. Joe is suspected, though Branko is convinced that his brother was not guilty. Joe is accordingly ostracised but is happy on his own, reading. Branko occasionally follows him and is surprised by his brother, who seems to be in another world. Joe is also not adept with the opposite sex though he will eventually marry Em.
Two things surprise Branko about Joe. Firstly, at school, the gym teacher gets him involved in a wrestling match. His opponent, a large boy, is convinced he will have no problem with his scrawny opponent. While he seem to be winning, he cannot pin Joe down. Joe has learned how to defend himself from fighting his older brother.
Secondly, and the key to this book, Joe becomes obsessed with Muhammad Ali. South Africa did not get television for a long time so all the information comes from the newspapers. Joe meticulously cuts out clippings about Ali from his father’s paper and stores them in special boxes. We learn, in some details about the famous fights such as the Fight of the Century, The Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila. However, we also learn about the other fights, Ali’s conflicts with the authorities, Ali’s opponents and what he calls Ali’s stylised boasting.
Why is he interested in Ali? It is not clear though he definitely likes Ali’s challenge to the authorities. (It should be noted that Vladislavic himself had a similar obsession.) Language, as in many a good book, is also key. Joe will become a fairly successful writer as an adult, so language has always interested him. As a child, for a period, he adopts a fake US persona and uses US slang. Later he will speak mock-Afrikaans. At school the boys use seemingly innocuous terms which have a special meaning. For example, It must be Thursday means you are behaving like a moffie (moffie is an offensive term for an effeminate man). Indeed, many Afrikaans terms appear in this book and you may found yourself having to check on some of them. Joe clearly takes to Ali’s versifying and colourful language.
Branko somewhat resents his brother’s interest in Ali, claiming that sport is his thing and he does not want his younger brother muscling in, so, like any normal older brother, he takes to mocking Joe’s interest and, indeed, to mocking Ali.
As mentioned, we learn a lot about Ali. One of the areas of interest is that Ali hints on several occasions that he is going to come to South Africa, either for a fight or to give lectures. He finally does come, in 1993, after he has retired from boxing and after apartheid has finished and Mandela is president. Joe is much less interested by that time and does not go to see him.
Branko has made his living as a TV and film editor. His father had advised him to get into the business when TV finally came to South Africa. Joe is a writer but, at least commercially, presumably not doing very well, as he lives in a poor and crime-ridden part of Pretoria. However, he now decides he wants to write a book about his childhood and gets out the boxes of Ali’s cuttings. Branko is bemused and even more bemused when Joe asks for his help.
Branko is not a writer and nor is he a reader. He did read Leslie Charteris‘ Simon Templar series when younger and will take them up again but be cannot see what he can contribute to his brother’s book. Joe insists that Branko can contribute what he remembers of their childhood but he is not convinced. He thinks that Joe really wants to write a Muhammad Ali book and is critical of him, given that there is now a huge amount on Ali available, both in terms of print and what is available online, including Youtube videos of all of his fights. The passing hours confirm what I’ve always suspected: everyone knows what my brother knows. There’s hardly anything new to be said about Ali and the chances of finding it diminish with every teary reminiscence. Joe insists the book is not to be about Ali but about them of which Ali is only a part. What a laughable double bill we make: his nickel-and-dime biography of Ali and my five cents’ worth of memoir, says Branko.
Branko struggles with his contribution but does make the effort. However, he is changing. Inevitably this book is also about race and, though apartheid does not feature very highly in this book, we see Branko becoming aware of racism. He reads James Baldwin (at Joe’s suggestion) and takes an interest in the shooting of Michael Brown.
While there is a fair amount about Muhammad Ali which, I must say, I found interesting though others may not, this book has a lot more to recommend it. Those who, like me, have a brother, will certainly find the brother-brother relationship interesting and, even if you do not have a brother, the differences between the two and how each one sees the other is key to the book. The changes to South Africa as the boys grow up are also interesting. Above all, it is the writing of the book, presumably, at least to some degree, the book we are reading , and how it has changed them, particularly Branko, that is also fascinating. Once again Ivan Vladislavic has shown himself to be one of the key living South African writers, particularly, as the week in which I read this book saw the sad death of another South African great, Achmat Dangor,
First published 2019 by Umuzi, Johannesburg