In “Villa Toscana,” the first story in “The Exploded View,” a startling collection by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, a statistician named Budlender has helped redraft questionnaires for the South African national census of 1996. Apartheid was abolished in 1991; this is the first nonracial headcount in the country’s history. As Budlender, whom we understand to be white, drives to the homes of respondents to test this questionnaire, he interrogates the visual data of the road. It occurs to him that “people were always saying” that the city’s roads were filled with brand-new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Then again, he thinks, people were also always saying that “every second car in Joburg is falling apart.” So, he asks, “Were the roads full of new cars or old cars? There was a lesson in this, which only a statistician seemed capable of learning: as soon as you took into account what people were saying, you lost track of what was actually happening.”
Budlender’s “lesson” reminded me of questions I have asked my own South African relatives. My father left the country for Britain in 1973, after being advised that his anti-apartheid activism would see him “accidentally” killed. Since then, the country has gone through many convolutions, including the transformative Presidency of Nelson Mandela, and yet Budlender’s questions are the same ones that I have been asking my father—the same ones the country has been asking itself—with ebbing energy, for twenty years. Has crime declined? Yes and no. Has reconciliation succeeded? Depends on whom you ask. There remain counterfacts for every fact. This highly equivocal world challenges even a statistician; as Budlender himself concedes, “there were no reliable statistics.”
The novelist André Brink once called Vladislavic “one of the most imaginative minds at work in South African literature,” and the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has rhapsodized that his language is “as scintillating and fine-grained as a silver gelatin print.” Despite such endorsements, and despite winning a Windham-Campbell Prize for Literature in 2015, Vladislavic has not been widely read outside his country. Now, with the ascendancy of far-right regimes around the world, there is a new, anxious interest in South Africa’s political model—or, rather, in its cautionary exemplum. Optimism, never easy to measure, has surely faded since the hopeful upheaval of the nineties. President Jacob Zuma, who assumed office in 2009, has for months been facing calls to resign over what the normally neutral Nelson Mandela Foundation called “political meddling for private interests.” When living in a degraded political system, both monitoring and processing degeneration becomes hard. If the former is more the job of a statistician, the latter task might fall to the novelist.
When I met him a few months ago, in Johannesburg, Vladislavic, who is fifty-nine, commanding and soft-spoken, agreed that there might be some advantage to living where he does. “In a way, living here is a gift if you’re a thinking person, because you’re challenged constantly,” he said. “Even driving around in the leafy suburbs, you’re challenged to think about your own position.” Vladislavic had offered to take me for a drive in his Toyota Corolla (“the default setting of cars,” he called it) around the city, which is mostly flat and seems uncentered and inscrutable in the way of Los Angeles. He continued, “Our whole history has been about imposing order on things that cannot be controlled. Where people live, who they fall in love with, what they think.” His work, he suggested, could be understood, at least in part, as a reckoning with this way of understanding society—“between trying to control and letting things go, between order and chaos.” Part of the chaos is the lack of distinction between what can be measured and what cannot. “Villa Toscana” ends with Budlender in a kind of reverie among the perfume bottles at the home of one of his census respondents, around whom he has woven his own private fictions.
Vladislavic was born in central Pretoria, the son of a Croat motor mechanic and a housewife, into a predominantly Afrikaans environment. When he was nine or ten, his family moved out of the city and into the suburbs, where he first encountered the enmity between white Afrikaners and white English speakers. In 1978, he graduated from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (“Wits”) and has lived in Johannesburg ever since. His first novel, “The Folly,” an absurdist allegory, was published in 1993, two years after apartheid ended. In the book, an inhabitant of “the old South Africa” becomes engrossed by a new neighbor who, he notices, has begun to precisely demarcate with string the contours of a phantom building in the vacant plot beside his home. As the project billows to fantastical and unstable proportions, the novel’s social realism swells into magical realism. The house becomes a literal castle in the air—evidence that neither messy reality nor imagination can be accounted for by blueprints.