Ivan Vladislavic, portrait of the artist in boxer

Editor, teacher of creative writing, novelist, South African Ivan Vladislavic is a man of many talents. With ten titles to his credit, he is considered one of the most innovative authors of contemporary South African literature, Vladislavic has marked the South African literary imagination thanks to his original treatment of his subjects. Distance, his new novel, halfway between cultural anthropology, diary and reportage, is no exception to the rule.

« At the end of 1970, during the austral spring, I fell in love with Mohamed Ali. This love, this kind of intense and unconditional love that we call hero worship … “It is on this declaration of love for the legendary boxer by the adolescent protagonist called Joe that opens Distance, the new novel by South African Ivan Vladislavic which has just been published in French translation this fall.

Part of the action of this complex, expertly constructed story with both political and personal stakes takes place in the 1970s, somewhere in Pretoria. It is told alternately by Joe and his older brother Branko that we follow throughout their adolescence and part of their adult life, through family tragedies and socio-political changes that their country is experiencing with the end of the War. cold and the release of Mandela in 1990.

Institutional racism

As the novel opens, neither Joe nor his older brother Branko, the main protagonists of the story, are really aware of the terrible apartheid laws that govern their country. They are too young. As they are white, the institutionalized racism imposed by the current regime governing the lives of the black population does not really concern them. Arriving from Central Europe, their family had settled for two generations in South Africa, and somehow integrated into the dominant Afrikaaner society. However, Joe, of a sensitive and tender temperament, finds it difficult to adapt to the authoritarian and patriarchal culture which is transmitted to them from school. Under the mocking gaze of his big brother, the young boy flees the ambient authoritarianism by taking refuge in games, in the world of books and above all by collecting newspaper clippings which recount the sporting and political exploits of his hero Mohamed Ali.

Distance is a story of training under a totalitarian regime, with the flamboyant figure of Mohamed Ali as a reading grid. This black boxer, champion of all time, embodies the freedom and the possibility for the young hero to escape from the mental and spiritual prison that was apartheid.

It is also a largely autobiographical novel, as the author explained to RFI: “ This novel is largely inspired by my own experience and my own passions when I was a schoolboy. It turns out I had developed during my high school years a deep fascination for Mohamed Ali, both as a boxer and as a cultural figure. He was not only an athlete, but he was someone who, through sport had become a political figure, even a cultural agitator. It really appealed to a young boy like me who found himself in an obscurantist and conservative environment. Ali was also a very flamboyant and visible figure. »

Tireless surveyor

Born in Pretoria in 1957, Ivan Vladislavic is arguably one of the most important South African writers of his generation. Before publishing his own writings in the early 1990s, the man became known as an editorial advisor, first within the progressive literary review Staffrider who published black authors under apartheid, then with the Ravana Press publishing house. A freelance editor for thirty years, Vladislavic knows everyone who matters in the world of South African letters.

Himself, he is the author of ten books, including novels, short stories, poetic essays of exploration and rediscovery of Johannesburg where he has lived since the end of the 1970s. Tireless surveyor of its streets, his districts, his gardens, he paints in Keys to Johannesburg the portrait of the great South African metropolis in 138 entries as so many keys to unravel the secrets of his schizophrenic city and divided by races, classes and other humanly imaginable categorizations.

« One of the most imaginative minds in South African literature According to the now deceased South African novelist André Brink, Ivan Vladislavic has also renewed literary writing by collaborating on creative projects with practitioners of the visual arts, notably renowned photographer David Goldblatt. Double negative, the work born from this collaboration sheds light with originality and depth, with the photographer’s shots in support, the being and nothingness of a country in search of its soul.

Post-apartheid South Africa, its torments and changes are at the heart of Vladislavic’s books, as in The Restless Supermarket, a satirical novel, with a playful and untranslatable writing. The novel portrays the fortunes and misfortunes of a retired printer proofreader, who observes with fear the growing ignorance of the language, especially since the abolition of apartheid. Armed with his good practice manual, he goes down to a fast food restaurant to admonish his owner for having spelled ” hummus ”With two“ m ”.
It’s a real debacle! A debacle that the writer confides not to have seen coming, having grown up in a loving family, which protected it from external violence.

« Revisiting past experiences »

« I had a very happy childhood, Ivan Vladislavic remembers. But in South Africa, when you become an adult, you automatically realize the harsh reality around you. This moment of awareness coincided, for me, with my entry into university. Going to college gave me an acute, if not painful, awareness that this seemingly normal childhood that I had had actually rested on a system of injustice and abuse under which many had been denied. people of basic comforts and fundamental rights. Becoming an adult in South Africa is often associated with social and political awareness. The question which then arises is how to react to this injustice, what response to bring to it. As a writer, I had the privilege of revisiting these experiences to try to understand them within the framework of fiction. »

Revisiting the past is what Ivan Vladislavic does, without nostalgia but with art, in Distance, through the fights of Mohamed Ali which punctuated his youth, reviewed and reinterpreted by his protagonists. This gives a sumptuous book, all in narrative resonances, where the ” distance Proclaimed in the title of the novel is filled by the language bridge that the author has so skilfully been able to throw over the abyss that separates past from present, memory from experience and personnel from the public.

Distance, by Ivan Vladislavic. Roman translated from English by Georges Lory. Editions Zoé, 295 pages, 21 euros.