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REVIEW: 101 Detectives

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correct 101 detectives101 Detectives

Ivan Vladislavić

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ken Barris

I expected excellent writing from Ivan Vladislavić when I began reading this collection of short stories, and found it in abundance. However, I did not expect the hilarity I encountered in some of the tales. Not that Vladislavić is humourless by any means, but I seldom have the pleasure of laughing out loud when I read his work.

The title piece exemplifies this humour. A detective suffering an anxiety disorder travels to the 101 Detectives: Sub-Saharan Africa conference. He sees the name “Joseph Blumenfeld” in red letters on a white background. His reaction seems inspired by the low comedy of Inspector Clouseau: “For a moment he froze and a tight fist of fear clenched in his gut. That name rang a bell. And then he remembered that he was undercover. I am Joseph Blumenfeld, he thought.” Not atypically for Vladislavić, however, his satire of the genre begins to unravel at the edges, allowing glimpses into a fluid play of meanings and sounds that bubbles inside or under narrative, as in “He dug this snub-nosed lingo slubbing out of his pug-ugly mug.”

It is difficult in this limited space to do justice to the versatility of the collection. “The Fugu Eaters” is a detached, ironic description of two security policeman waiting in a hotel room for a subject under surveillance to arrive. Their humanity is suspect not only because of what they think and say, but also because of the surveillance to which they are subjected by the writing, which holds them under a cold, detached light. “Hair Shirt” and “Lullaby” are conventionally structured short stories about moving human situations, though both are subtly observed; in the latter story, the narrator’s detachment is unable to contain the sadness of the climax, allowing emotion to emerge freely.

“Exit Strategy” is the tale of a corporate storyteller who must operate in a world of corporate jargon and management speak, echoing Vladislavić’s enduring satiric reiteration of commercialised language, as if to reproduce its banality. The storyteller experiences a crisis on discovering that there is also a corporate poet. As a result of her consequent dip in performance, she is obliged to undergo sessions in a “recitation pod,” a claustrophobic device that envelopes her head. According to the manual, it “gives your words weight and returns them to you, ‘delivers’ is the technical term, in an apparently tangible form.” The pod is also a literary device, however. It points to the muteness and entrapment of a creative mind that can only think and imagine in the grotesque terms imposed by her hackneyed, flattening linguistic environment.

Similar themes emerge in “The Reading,” though with much greater emotional resonance. Maryam Akello is a refugee who has written about her traumatic experience of abduction and captivity. She does a reading in Germany in her native language Acholi, before an audience in which only one person understands her. The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the story, in that it dips into the point of view of various audience members, so building up an account of a listening as much as of a reading. It is only after she has completed her reading that a translation follows. The spotlight then falls on her translator, Hans Günther Basch, who reads his German translation, and subsequently on how he is affected by its content, and how that in turn affects the listeners. In this way writing, reading and listening are again made to cycle around each other, exposing more slippage and eccentricity than even human clockwork should have to endure.

Despite my admiration, I felt at times that Vladislavić’ speaks too much to himself, like Akello reading in a tongue that is opaque to her audience. “Dead Letters,” for example, makes partial sense if you have read his novel Double Negative. There we encounter a Mrs Pinhiero, who possesses a set of dead letters (i.e. letters that were never delivered and have fallen out of the system). The fiction in 101 Detectives presents a selection of these dead letters, without context or coherence. Framed as baldly as this, it makes too little sense. I had similar reservations about “The Trunks – a Complete History,” in which the writer-narrator struggles to represent the life of a long-dead stranger by combing through the objects, books and pictures he has left behind. The distance is too great to be overcome, however, the objects are insufficiently interesting – particularly because the life behind them has to be inferred, which is a dry business – and so I found this story tedious.

In balance, these flaws are a side-effect of Vladislavić’s considerable structural and thematic range. He is always willing to go out on a limb, an appetite for risk that has delivered some of the finest prose written in this country today.

  • Barris is a writer and researcher, and works at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Retold stories escape usual malady

rag and bone man

rags & bonesRags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales

Edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

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REVIEW: Ruth Browne

Short story collections are largely hit-and-miss. This collection, with its emphasis on the retelling of “classic fairytales and twisted tales”, has an especially long way to fall in this regard. In recent years, publishers (not to mention directors) have bought into this genre of recycling wholesale, and readers consume it just as eagerly. However dark and macabre, familiar stories based on tropes of nostalgia both confirm a collective identity and soothe like a childhood lullaby. But there are only so many times a story can be reworked before it becomes tiresome and tawdry, displaying not the heights of imagination but its pronounced absence.

Rags & Bones escapes some of the worst of this malady by having authors choose stories that “moved them, influenced them, and fascinated them”, making room for sincere and passionate retellings. That’s how Neil Gaiman gets away with yet another “Sleeping Beauty”: gruesomely inverted fairytales are a specialty of his, and The Sleeper and the Spindle continues the trend. The hero who rescues the princess turns out to be Snow White, a woman who knows her way round a sleeping spell, and things within the thorn-bound castle are not what they seem. Gaiman’s first imagining of Snow White was as an undead fiend with a necrophiliac paramour in Snow, Glass, Apples (1994), so his place in this collection is guaranteed.

Interspersed with black and white illustrations by Charles Vess, the stories tend toward the contemporary or the futuristic. Carrie Ryan’s Kafkaesque rendition of E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” follows a surface-dweller into the forbidden underground, where squat hairless humans sit in their cells sharing esoteric knowledge and having all their needs seen to by the Machine. Saladin Ahmed’s story, inspired by Sir Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, also flips the given perspective. He takes the part of the maligned and nameless Saracens forced to fight and die in service of an allegory, shedding light on the uglier aspects of this early epic fantasy.

Rick Yancey’s When First We Were Gods is a probing inversion of sci-fi narratives of immortality. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark”, it proposes a society in which the gap between rich and poor also means the difference between eternal life and inescapable death. At its heart, it is about the ephemeral nature of beauty and the excesses of human power and desire. There is also Kelley Armstrong’s clever retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw”, playing with the three-wishes setup in a world overrun by yet another variant on the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps the best story is Tim Pratt’s The Cold Corner, sourced from Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner”, a particularly well-told story of a man who returns to his home-town in North Carolina only to find that dozens of versions of himself still live there – other Terrys whose lives have taken different paths.The other stories, even the “inimitable” Garth Nix’s (gangrenous with comma splices), are at best unlikely to give offence. As usual for such collections, there’s a fair amount of dross concealing a little gold.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in February 2014