Ivan Vladislavic: The Folly
One day Nieuwenhuizen arrives at a plot of land in a residential neighbourhood, which he seems to have inherited. The plot was smaller than he had expected, no more than an acre, and very much overgrown with weeds and grass. He settles down on the plot. He collects everything he finds – things that we might consider rubbish, such as a rusty metal drum and old tin cans – and keeps them, in case they come in useful. He starts a fire to keep himself warm.
There are neighbours. They are Mr. and Mrs. Malgas. Not only does the narrator call them Mr. and Mrs., they call each other Mr. and Mrs., no first names. Mr. Malgas owns a hardware shop called Mr. Hardware. Mrs. Malgas is a home-maker. As far as we can determine there are no children and, indeed, we do not ever meet any friends or relatives they may have. They see the fire and wonder about phoning the fire brigade but do not.
The next day, Nieuwenhuizen sets up a two-person tent. The Malgas are worried. They had just been watching a TV programme about a shanty town, with a shack being burned down. Will their new neighbour build a shack? Will he cause damage? Nieuwenhuizen goes round his plot picking up all the rubbish and storing it for future use. At the same time, we watch Mrs. Malgas surveying the contents of her prize knick-knack cabinet. Mr. Malgas is, of course, at work all day but Mrs.Malgas spends most of the day, when not examining her knick-knacks, watching Nieuwenhuizen and reporting back to her husband when he comes home.
Eventually, Mr. Malgas decides he must visit his new neighbour and ventures onto the plot and introduces himself. Nieuwenhuizen introduces himself as Father. No, he is not a priest, it is just the name he uses. (Only later will he tell Mr. Malgas that his name is Nieuwenhuizen (Afrikaans for new house) and then, later, says that he is called Otto.) He tells Mr. Malgas that he has come from far away, from a place which was in very poor condition and liable to fall down. He tells Mr. Malgas he is going to build his own place here. Mr. reports backs to Mrs. that their new neighbour is set to build a mansion, which has her even more worried. She is also worried about where he gets his water from and what he is using for a toilet.
However, Mr. Malgas gradually becomes interested in what Nieuwenhuizen is doing. He visits more often. He helps him. He gives him tools and equipment from Mr. Hardware. When they are moving compost heaps around. Mrs. Malgas notices that it is her husband doing all the work and Nieuwenhuizen doing very little. Mrs. Malgas is horrified. Her husband now seems to be spending all his time with Nieuwenhuizen, even taking time off work to help him, and neglecting her. You should be ashamed of yourself. We don’t have a clue who he is. He has no history. Are you listening to me? is her fruitless comment.
Nieuwenhuizen finds a huge nail in the fire they have made of the rubbish and wants Mr. Malgas to get him some more. Mr. Malgas thinks that this nail is far too big for house-building but Nieuwenhuizen insists. With great difficulty, Mr. Malgas manages to procure three hundred and then is astounded when Nieuwenhuizen nails them into the ground, presumably laying out a plan. Mr. Malgas does not, initially understand the plan, even though Nieuwenhuizen outlines the complexities of his wishes for the new property. But, as Nieuwenhuizen explains to him, he cannot understand it till he has seen the whole thing, fully assembled.
For a while Nieuwenhuizen seems to disappear. At least he appears to, though Mr. Malgas can hear him in his tent. Mr. Malgas feels that it is his duty to keep things in order, greasing the nails and waxing the string that Nieuwenhuizen has used to lay out his complex plan. Gradually, he starts to realise what the house is, what it looks like and even to be in it.
On the face, this novel, at least the early part, may seem to be a fairly conventional novel, about a man who moves onto a plot and builds a house and his relationship with a neighbour who, frankly, seems very unfulfilled in his life and is looking for something to make things more interesting. However, the basic plot is one we have seen in other works: Hilary Mantel‘s Fludd, Simone de Beauvoir‘s L’invitée (She Came to Stay) and Pasolini‘s film Teorema (Theorem). This is the theme of the stranger arriving in a family or community and completely disrupting their equilibrium. Nieuwenhuizen completely changes Mr. Malgas’s life. As in Teorema (Theorem), there is an element of magic or absurdity (or both) as Nieuwenhuizen seems if not larger than life, then outside normal human life. Whether it works depends on your ability to suspend belief in the normal rules of realism and human existence and accept Nieuwenhuizen’s otherworldliness. In any case, it is clearly a very original novel.
First published 1993 by David Philip, Johannesburg