The Art of Failure: Memory and Apartheid

Jenn Mar

The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. By Ivan Vladislavic. London: Seagull Books, 2012. 121 pages. $25.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

When Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories was released last year, the incandescent and entrancingly strange “lost story” collection received little attention in the United States, even though Vladislavic is internationally recognized as one of South Africa’s most significant living writers. More bewilderingly, few reviewers ventured to explore the book’s political dimensions, despite the fact that Vladislavic, a second-generation white South African, has been writing about his country’s political transformation for the last twenty years. Reviewers tended to treat the author’s wild formal experiments on stylistic merits alone, overlooking how the crumbling structure of Vladislavic’s newest work might serve as a compelling examination of the state of South Africa today.

Vladislavic’s notoriously difficult works have attracted the interest of and incited arguments among scholars, who consider him a renegade for his rejection of the conventions of realist political novels and his championing of broken forms and peripheral observations. The Loss Library presents itself as an elegant riddle. Although the collection is highly enjoyable to read, one comes to suspect that the book’s shell premise of a lost story collection is not as straightforward as it claims, and that its study of loss reaches far beyond Vladislavic’s personal failures, and as far as South African history.

If we take Vladislavic at his word, The Loss Library is simply a chronicle of lost stories. Between 1989 and 2005, the author-narrator abandoned (so he claims) a number of stories that he “imagined but could not write, or started to write but could not finish” (1). The Loss Library memorializes these failed stories by building a collection out of the rubble of discarded story fragments, notes, and essays. The collection comprises eleven “case studies”; each section is studded with an italicized excerpt from an unfinished story, followed by an attempt to investigate, and possibly recover, the moods, ideas, research, and the author’s impressions of these lost works.

On the surface the case studies read like essays driven by an intoxicating lyric impulse. Never does the narrator reach his intended destination; he is perennially overtaken by stray memories and thoughts. In “The Last Walk,” the narrator sets out to explore the last days of Robert Walser, the Swiss writer who spent the last twenty years of his life in a mental institution, and who died on Christmas Day “after a solitary walk to settle his dinner” (7). This walk is described in Vladislavic’s characteristically rich prose: “The snow is not deep but the prints are distinct, slanted to one side, as if he turned his feet to brace himself as he descended the path, resisting gravity, feeling the world slipping away beneath his soles” (8). Although the narrator initially pores over the details of Walser’s death, his resolve to elucidate this enigmatic figure dissolves into wide-ranging distraction: hats, photography, genocide, Google.

Genocide is only one of the many horrors that Vladislavic explores in this collection; throughout he writes masterfully about troubling subjects without resorting to overdrawn emotions. His account of a hanging in a later passage is particularly graceful, if also eerie and charged: “His neck is too long: presumably the bones were dislocated by the hanging. If not for this brutally suggestive fact he would appear almost peaceful, like a business man who has nodded off on the evening tram with his head against the window” (10). While Vladislavic is unsentimental and ironic, his tone is balanced by the fantasy and whimsy that bloom from these pages: in one story, the columns of an open dictionary transform i  iinto a daydream about a menagerie of birds. In another, a mysterious drawing emerges on a desk because the universe is speaking to the narrator in a strange tongue. The Loss Library is written across genres and grounded not in plot but in the lyrical turns of a narrator steadily losing himself in the landscape of his imagination. The book is reminiscent of the work of W.G. Sebald and Andre Breton, in how its narrator muses on curious artifacts and history, and the text takes on the mood of a dreamer dreaming, or of one who has just escaped from a nightmare.

The Loss Library is eminently postmodern, featuring fragmentation, incongruity, incompleteness, collage. Some readers might find the collection haphazard, especially when the narrator repeatedly says so himself. But the uneven nature of the book is, like its author, dangerously tricky. It’s hard to believe that this accomplished postmodern writer would apologize for his work’s shortcomings without some hint of irony, some card or confetti blast waiting in his sleeve.

Beyond appearances, the book addresses the unsettled accounts of national traumas: the holocaust, South Africa’s apartheid, the destruction of the World Trade Center, the 1999 NATO rocket that killed sixty Albanian civilians, and the massacre of three hundred more by the Serbian militia. Too often such events are treated as aberrations of history; their memorials eventually become the stuff of museums, the stories of our Loss Library. But when traumas are so neatly contained, when suffering is comprehensive and chronologically organized, nations can be fooled into thinking they have settled accounts, when actually they’ve only distanced themselves from the horrors. In fixing the narratives of our historical traumas in museums, we obscure the extent to which the past continues to influence us.

The Loss Library challenges the merits of memory museums and seeks alternative forms of intervention. In “The Storage Club,” the narrator ruminates on artists such as Micha Ullman and Bruno Wank, who physically transform historic sites of violence into experiential sites where trauma may be witnessed and discussed, and perhaps reconciliation may occur. Micha Ullman responded to the Nazi book-burnings of 1933 by installing Bibliothek, a haunting fluorescent room built on the location where 20,000 books were sent to the flames. The room was built a level below ground so that spectators walking on the cobbled streets above could gaze past a frosted glass hatch that looked into the tomb-like installation. Essentially a room of empty shelves, the artwork memorializes “an obvious fact: there are no books” (102). Bruno Wank installed Arguments, a line of bronze-casted cobbles that taper along a historic alley in Munich. The artwork memorializes the path of dissenters who used the alley to avoid walking past, and saluting, a nearby Nazi altar. The narrator recounts that while visiting the installation, he felt “the weight of my own history as a white South African on my shoulders” (111). One experiences the piece not as a “viewer but a pedestrian” who has survived but still continues to be haunted by history: “As you pass down the alley, the bronze cobbles, buffed by thousands of footsteps like your own, exert a subtle force on your movement. You feel yourself tugged to one side, as if a ghost has taken your elbow and is steering you off course. Suddenly… whether you know it or not, [you are] remembering through the soles of your shoes” (111-12).

Like the work of Ullman and Wank, The Loss Library reconstructs lost stories and transforms them into a project of reconciliation that remembers, confronts, and rebuilds from loss. In her illuminating article, “Fictions of Rebuilding,” published two years before this collection, Shameem Black notes the importance of material reconstruction in Vladislavic’s works, which often feature South African architecture and urban infrastructure to mark the nation’s political changes. Black writes that Vladislavic’s works are influenced by not just the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for confession and memory, but other post-apartheid initiatives, particularly the African National Congress’s Reconstruction and Development Program, which seeks reconciliation through the language of “material culture.” Black speculates that Vladislavic uses this motif of reconstruction to explore how “remembering the past and rebuilding a future merge within the haunted foundations of the city” (12).

Vladislavic is famously apprehensive about overtly political writing, although, in an interview with Christopher Warnes, he admits that “writing politically, dealing with questions of politics and power, is almost inevitable in [South Africa].” The pressure on South African writers is insurmountable, he says, because “if you lose sight of apartheid, then people say you’ve forgotten about the past [but] if you go too deeply into apartheid, they say you’re holding onto the past, and it’s negative, you should be writing about the future.” Vladislavic has sidestepped this controversy with an experimental book whose reconstructed form and poetic evasions illuminate South Africa’s efforts to rebuild itself from an apartheid state into the Rainbow Nation. The Loss Library rescues the rubble of lost stories and rebuilds them with a new material, the experimental essay, and so constructs an elaborate metaphor about South Africa’s struggles to reconcile itself with its history. By mourning his lost stories while confronting and transforming their failures, Vladislavic is able to rewrite failure in a new narrative that performs a stunning feat of reconciliation.

Vladislavic compares the book’s structure to a leporello, then to stepping stones. But it’s far more illuminating to compare The Loss Library to an increasingly popular form of architecture that adapts and reuses historical buildings in an attempt to rescue them from demolition. Examples of such projects include the Tate Modern, converted from London’s landmark Bankside Power Station, and the MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, built from a vast complex of nineteenth-century factory buildings. Recently, too, there has been much excitement over the forthcoming addition to Manhattan’s High Line Park. The historic railway was so incompatible with the traffic of today’s New York City that it was threatened with demolition. But in 2011, when the railway was repurposed into a long ribbon of greenway, a fantasy of a park that rose high above the city, city-dwellers flocked to interact with what had almost been yet another lost story. The High Line daringly combined rusted tracks and wild perennials with ultramodern embellishments: sleek benches and a giant glass box overlooking the urban theater of 10th Avenue and 17th Street appear as a revelation of a wondrous future.

These architectural projects neither suppress the past, nor refuse the future. Vladislavic’s The Loss Library performs this feat in prose, in a form astonishingly well suited to represent South Africa’s complex relationship to history. The Loss Library proves that renewal and radical change are possible, even on the grounds of historic violence; as Vladislavic writes, “Any line, even this one, may be a place to begin” (114).

 

Works Cited

Black, Shameem.  “Fictions of Rebuilding: Reconstruction in Ivan Vladislavic’s South Africa.”

Scholarly Article.  ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 38.4 (2008): 5-30.  Web.  8 Aug 2013.  PDF file.

Rosenthal, Jane.  “Ivan in Bite-Size Complexity.”  Mail & Guardian.  Mail & Guardian Online, 18 November 2011.  Web.  8 Aug. 2013.

Warnes, Christopher.  “Interview with Ivan Vladislavic.”  Modern Fiction Studies.  Spring 2000: 273. ProQuest.  Web. 8 Aug. 2013.

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