(High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: And Other Stories, 2015)
At first glance, the eleven stories in Ivan Vladislavić’s collection 101 Detectives, recently released by And Other Stories, range so widely in style and subject matter, that the book can prove a puzzle for those unfamiliar with the award-winning, South-African author’s work. But on closer read, these decidedly experimental stories, taken together, betray Vladislavić’s thematic obsessions – identity, otherness, art as commodity, and the corporatization of a globalizing world – in a collection so adventurous it lithely bounds across borders (those of both genre and geography), careening between the intimate and the cosmopolitan and back again, all in the space of a single story.
The collection is well-titled, for the eponymous story, “101 Detectives,” reflects the challenge faced by an author as versatile as Vladislavić. The story is a stream-of-conscious recounting of a Detective’s thoughts and fears as he arrives for his annual Detective Convention. Once settled into his hotel room, amidst force-of-habit perimeter checks and the skeptical scrutinizing of small details, the Detective meditates on the pressure to differentiate himself from other Detectives in an industry where every Detective has his claim to fame, a niche identity. Notice the capital D of Detective, employed even when the word is used in the generic, reflecting a certain aspiration, a kind of coveted persona worn like the Detective’s undercover identity, Joseph Blumenfeld. The irony, of course, is that the Detective worries about distinguishing himself in a world where everyone is playing a role. And yet it is the language of the story – the hard-boiled lingo and rhythmic, alliterative meta-reflections on his own sentence construction – that mark it as a thinly veiled allegory of the writer’s contradictory role: by necessity self-effacing, in order to slip into the voice of his characters, yet deeply embedded in a publishing industry that demands the writer himself become a niche product, a standard in the campaign of identity politics. It is this conflicting demand which the collection as a whole roguishly subverts.
This preoccupation with the role of the artist extends into equally inventive, complex stories, such as “Exit Strategy” and “Industrial Theatre,” in which the work of art is depicted as a tool for corporate ends. Where “Exit Strategy” follows the bureaucratic concerns of an unnamed “corporate storyteller” (perhaps significantly not capitalized) as she navigates an elaborately-imagined, futuristic world of nondescript offices tucked into hierarchical arrangements across multiple floors of a bleak, urban skyscraper, “Industrial Theatre” juxtaposes mundane descriptions of audience members arriving for an exclusive theater performance with a wry, stage-notes-style account of the performance itself, a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis reinvented as a product launch for the new Ford Kafka. The artist of “Exit Strategy,” the corporate storyteller, sells her stories as a service to company morale, struggling to create from within the confines of the skyscraper. Meanwhile, a world rife with inspiration exists just outside, as she presses her fingers longingly to the glass. And, in “Industrial Theatre,” the spectator-narrator holds himself at a distance, unable to suspend disbelief as he watches an actress dressed as Kafka take a joyride in the new car. Yet the narrator ultimately becomes the star of his own play-within-the-story, when, in a scene resembling a car commercial, he imagines himself cruising down the highway in a Ford Kafka.
By far the most postmodern piece in the collection, “Dead Letters” takes the self-reflexive theme of art’s role in a globalizing world to new heights, braiding together multiple layers of artistic invention in a vibrantly polyphonic chorus of voices. The story purports to review a fictional photography exhibition, in which commercial photographer Neville Lister presents a collection of undeliverable letters, acquired from a former mail-room clerk, side-by-side with photos of the globe-crossing journeys he took to attempt tracking down the original recipients. Further knotting the intricately woven narrative strands are the stories told within the letters themselves, such as Letter 3’s account of a roll of exposed film found in the freezer of lodgings recently occupied by the letter-writer’s friend, which the friend then considers developing, thereby paralleling Neville Lister’s quest to “expose” the stories of these far-flung epistolarians and bringing the text back to photography. The book’s appendix includes photos from the exhibition, which a brief Internet search suggests did actually take place but required the participants, writers paired with visual artists, to create Pessoan heteronyms, in this case Neville Lister, and conceal their own real identities. Thus the collection’s subterranean current of the artist’s ambivalent identity, which has its source in “101 Detectives,” bursts to the fore in “Dead Letters.”
But one should not conclude that such technical dexterity leaves the collection devoid of emotional resonance. Not only does Vladislavić’s narrative ventriloquism achieve an assured intimacy with his characters, even as they themselves aimlessly explore their own place within a culturally complex world. The collection also intersperses these intricate conceits with brief yet affecting scenes of individual interactions and tender relationships, thereby bringing intimacy to the universal.
The collection’s most poignant and reverberant story, “The Reading,” also employs the theme of art, here as a strand which simultaneously threads together multiple consciousnesses and creates a distance between creator and audience. This distance is, as will be revealed in the story’s slow unfolding, a gulf of experience. The simple premise is the public reading given by Acholi-speaking writer Maryam Akello and her translator Hans Günther Basch, of her poignant account of a harrowing childhood experience in her native country. Flitting in and out of various points of view, from Akello’s, to Basch’s, the event’s organizers’ and certain audience members’ (many rather hyperbolically depicted, though humorously so, underlining the charge that few attendees, even the most earnest, pay attention to readings), the narrative unsettles by pointedly sidelining the voice of the author herself. The criticism is clear: art, despite its best intentions, risks commodifying pain and suffering.
Yet it is the reaction of Hans Günther Basch, the man who, as translator, shoulders the burden of conveying that experience, carrying it across cultures and consciousnesses the way Maryam Akello was forced to carry her oppressors’ supplies, which gives “The Reading” its emotional heft. Basch’s unexplained tearful breakdown serves as a glimmering light for the collection as a whole, suggesting that art and its creator, though uncertain voices amid the vast noise of globalization, still have the power to cross boundaries and bring individuals together. Indeed, Vladislavić, with this ambitious and shape-shifting collection, juggles a multiplicity of voices – finding the universal in the particular and the particular in the universal – and in so doing, proves himself a distinctive voice in contemporary fiction.
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Amanda Sarasien is a writer and literary translator whose stories and translations have appeared in The MacGuffin, MAYDAY Magazine and FLAPPERHOUSE, among other publications. She also reviews at the sites Reading in Translation and The Mookse and the Gripes.