IVAN Vladislavic’s new collection of short stories, 101 Detectives, is, once again, testimony to his extraordinary perception, originality and wit.
While Vladislavic’s prose is pared and accessible, the stories, often characterised by vulnerability and menace, are discomforting, and the elliptical nature of the telling, coupled with open-endedness, sometimes renders them enigmatic, even elusive. In short, Vladislavic both engages and challenges his readers.
The collection consists of 11 stories of varying lengths. A number of them, including the title story, 101 Detectives, satirises the contemporary contagion for conferences, conventions, marketing ploys and corporate existence, which, through collective herding and gung-ho-ism, erode individuality and have a dehumanising effect.
The neurotic detective in 101 Detectives, attending a gathering dubbed “101 Detectives: Sub-Saharan Africa”, reflects on previous such gatherings in sundry locations throughout the world; muses on his mediocrity in a profession some consider to be all “cocktails and cadavers”; and convinces himself that he is in a trap.
In Industrial Theatre, the narrator attends the launch of a new car, the Ford Kafka, which involves a spectacular theatrical presentation, a sumptuous meal and the ubiquitous “goodie-bags”, filled with unneeded and unwanted trivia.
The protagonist in Exit Strategy is a woman employed as a corporate storyteller, whose brief is to write material that promotes corporate vision. She works in an impersonal office in the middle of a tall building that houses a host of robotic employees. The experience of witnessing a stuntman attempting to scale the workplace building provides the catalyst in her thinking.
Mountain Landscape is composed as a brief letter in defence of hanging a Pierneef mountainscape in the boardroom of a particular company, in lieu of a photograph of Tokyo Sexwale posing with triumphant soccer players. The argument in favour of the artwork is that it has the “capacity to refresh the senses and spirit”.
The two stories Lullaby and Hair Shirt, are particularly powerful in presenting situations of loss and alienation, respectively.
However, perhaps the most cleverly conceived and effective are those stories that focus on the business of words: the therapy of writing for those who have experienced trauma (The Reading); and the inspiration — and sense of burden — which may result from encounters with other people’s correspondence, books and papers (Dead Letters and The Trunks — A Complete History).
The stories in this collection certainly showcase the idiosyncratic talent that makes Vladislavic a significant contemporary South African writer
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