Ivan Vladislavić lives in Johannesburg. After reading David Bello’s Is that a Fish in your Ear, which digs deep into the knots of what translation is and is not, I am now warier than ever of re-interpreting and expanding the term ‘translation’ too much. Stretching its skin a bit further every time you apply it to something may lead to it becoming watered out, even irrelevant.
Double Negative is not a translation, yet we decided to include it in a blog which first and foremost deals with books in translation. There are a few reasons. It portrays multilingualism – both in terms of the cultural landscape of Apartheid Johannesburg, where every conversation in public involves a choice of language, affiliation and identity – and multilingualism in art: a kaleidoscope of forms of expression. Vladislavić also writes from a region of contemporary English speaking literature which is granted less space on prize shortlists and in reviews than others. The novel’s protagonist, photographer Neville Lister, is not involved in translation; he does, however, explore how stories may be transported between artistic mediums, and told in a multitude of tongues.
This could easily have become a fairly traditional coming-of-age novel. A young person, dropped out of university and lost in a typical delta of possible life choices, is inspired by someone older – the photographer Saul Auerbach in this case – who is able to express themselves beautifully, and whose work people seem to admire. In such a story, the young person would of course struggle to surpass the achievements of his role model, inevitably becoming even more successful, however that may be measured. Neville is a much more complex character. In a plait of organically self-contained chapters, the narrative follows him all the way into middle age and a good measure of success, yet there is never a point where he looks back on his life saying ‘see, how much it all made sense!’ for the benefit of the reader. Rather, the novel reflects on little goals, often achieved later than desired, and on how very little of what we end up doing is premeditated.
Vladislavic takes time and space to play with the politics of watching, and of being watched, so inherent in photography of any kind. The works of the two photographers – Saul Auerbach’s ‘accidental portraits’, as well as Neville’s later pictures of people around his home town, standing in front of walls and closed front doors – become engaged in a dialogue with the all-encompassing imprisonment of Apartheid society, both visible and psychological. While in exile in England, Neville follows the reports on the first election after Apartheid and images of South Africa opening its doors to the world, making one painful decision after another regarding how much to take in, and what to simply shut out. It is a careful dialogue, which you are discretely invited to investigate. Because of the way Neville’s story repeatedly refers back to the artefact of the photographs, it also highlights how easy it is to fictionalize your own life. How part of growing up, or making any kind of art, means to risk becoming a victim of yourself as a manufactured character, whether it be on social media, or when writing a memoir. “As I get older,” Neville says. “I’m discovering how hard it is not to start playing yourself.”
As a photographer Neville is referred to as ‘the frozen moment guy’. This is also what it feels like to inhabit Vladislavić’s writing. Much like when flicking through a photo album, the text offers individual instances of life, without necessarily providing much explanation of what came before or after. What happens between Neville coming back to South Africa after ten years’ exile in London, and him being interviewed by a blogger, in the home he shares with a wife whose entrance on the scene happens somewhere off camera? Photographs are silent but essential fragments: the results of time passing, the choices made and the people gone.
In this respect Double Negative as a novel refutes what both Neville and Auerbach keep saying about themselves whenever they are asked about their work: that they are not artists. One simply takes pictures; the other is just a magazine photographer. The novel itself, on the other hand, is much more of an album t
han news reportage. Vladislavić’s prose is delicately crafted; the metaphors sifted through a singular person’s outlook on the world. You won’t find many platitudes in here. Sometimes you will understand and connect to the images in it, other times not. As with all true interpretation, they are deeply anchored in the beholder. For anyone who spends time thinking about what happens when you call something art, it is a book worth reading.
Image credits: ‘Camera expo’, auggie tolosa by Common Creative License
‘Apartheid’, Alan Thompson by Creative Common License