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Ivan Vladislavic: The Restless Supermarket

Any novel that opens with the phrase A salesman buggering a pink elephant (excuse my Bulgarian) is likely to be a funny one and this certainly is. It tells the story of Aubrey Tearle, living in Johannesburg in 1993, a period of considerable political upheaval in South Africa, as apartheid is on the way out but has not gone. Tearle is a retired proofreader. He worked for the Post Office, proofreading phone directories. He remains at heart a proofreader. As he points out, there have not been many famous proofreaders. Indeed, proofreaders only gain any attention when they make a mistake such as the famous famous Bible misprints and words such as Dord. These are some of the many examples of linguistic aberrations and quirks that make this book so enjoyable.

Tearle has found the Café Europa a congenial space to spend much of his day and one of the key plot elements is his relationship with the Café, the people who frequent it and its story. The book opens with the news that it is to close or, at least, be sold. Tearle has known two owners. The first was Mrs Mavrokordatos and the current one is known only as Tony. When Tearle first discovered the Café, he took to it as a comfortable place to sit and do his crossword and sort out his System of Records, while being able to get food and drink, as required. He particularly likes the large picture of the fictitious Alibia on the wall, which seems to remind many people of their own country, regardless of what country that may be.

Initially, he keeps very much to himself but soon notices another man engaged in the crossword. After a very complicated introduction routine, they get to know one another, exchange information about the crossword and talk about other matters. He is called Myron Spilkin but as neither likes his own first name, they continue to address one another by their surnames. Spilkin, while not having quite Tearle’s love for matters linguistic, certainly enjoys the System of Records and Tearle’s regular letters to the editor of the local newspaper, some of which actually get published. All of them are, of course, critical of something or other and generally written in a pompous style, as we would expect from their writer.

The System of Records is a collection of notes Tearle has made of actual misprints, corrigenda and the like. He has picked these up from his own reading and copies them out and has set up an elaborate filing system to track down individual items. Spilkin asks him what he is going to do with it and Tearle has no ready answer. During the course of the book, however, it changes somewhat, as, with the encouragement of Spilkin and others, he decides to develop it into some sort of test. It then becomes the Proofreader’s Test and then the Proofreader’s Derby. The plan is to have a proofreading test open to the public, for which a trophy will be offered.

Meanwhile, their group enlarges with the addition of Suzanne Bonsma and Merlé Graaff. Mevrouw (i.e. Mrs.) Bonsma, as she prefers to be known, is the pianist in the café and has a wide repertory of tunes that she can play. Merlé Graaff is very knowledgeable about names and likes lists and what we would now call trivia. All are able to add to Tearle’s System/Test/Derby. Others join the group. In particular, we have met Wessels at the beginning, whom Tearle wittily calls Empty Wessels. It is Wessels who proposes the Goodbye Bash, inviting past and present customers to a farewell party. Tearle is not impressed.

Tearle feels things have gone downhill with the Café. Indeed, one of his general issues is how standards have declined overall. He inevitably feels that proofreading standards have slipped deplorably (and has proposed proofreading training to the authorities, to no avail). But other standards have also dropped: standards of morality, conduct in public life, personal hygiene and medical care, the standard of living, and so on. All these are symptoms of a more general malaise. Decline with a capital D. At the café, there are now customers from Eastern Europe and also black customers, mainly female and mainly, in his view, prostitutes. Even worse, as far as he is concerned, is the presence of two TVs, showing sports which, in his view, attracts the wrong sort of customer.

But, when not at the café or working on his project, he is trying to correct the fall in linguistic standards. He starts with the local shops and cafés. One example of this is the eponymous Restless Supermarket. The owner, whose English is far from perfect, means that the supermarket never rests, i.e. is open 24 hours a day. When Tearle tries to explain to him that that is not the meaning of restless, he makes no headway. Others are equally impervious to his changes. He writes to a publisher about the misprints in a book but with an equal lack of success. In short, no-one cares. As Merlé says to him You’re always picking nits.

However, the Goodbye Bash is approaching and Tearle is getting his Proofreader’s Derby ready. We get to see it. It is not a proofreaders’ test but more a fable of how the world will go to hell if proofreading is ignored, featuring, as its hero, Aubrey Fluxman, Head of the Proofreaders’ Society who, of course, saves the day. The novel is set in Alibia and inevitably features the Restless Supermarket. Tearle prints a dozen copies for the Goodbye Bash. The book ends with the Goodbye Bash and, inevitably, it does not go to plan and not just Tearle’s plan, as standards really do slip and a cataclysm ensues.

We can read this novel two ways. It can be seen as an indictment of falling standards in language but also in many other areas. Tearle has many reasons for this: the rise of the Blacks in South Africa, immigration into South Africa, particularly from Eastern Europe but also from elsewhere, the influence of the United States, the influence of TV (particularly sports on TV) and the failure of the various authorities including, in particular, the government and the press. However, the novel can also be seem as a criticism of nit-pickers. The world has changed and South Africa has changed. People do not attach as much importance to linguistic accuracy as they used to and, while in some cases this may be important, in most cases, a minor error, a missing comma, an obvious typo are not going to cause the collapse of civilisation. How you read the book may depend on your point of view on this issue.

Whatever side of the fence you sit on, this book is a very funny book and superbly well written. Tearle’s linguistic mockery, the interaction between the customers of the Café Europa and Tearle’s totally futile attempts to stem the tide of linguistic mayhem make this book far funnier than a mere outline of the plot may indicate. And, however knowledgeable you are about the English language, I guarantee that you will learn something new, even if you do not care.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by David Philip, Johannesburg