BOOK REVIEW: Going the distance with Vladislavic
A beautiful evocation of a past that dances beneath the lights
Distance has given us spacetime, quantum fields and their spinoffs, such as the universe, the one we can see. In Ivan Vladislavic’s hands one might expect The Distance to show up as something much more mundane, like a courier company’s logo on a driver’s overalls.
In his latest novel, its primary association is with boxing, where the evocative phrase “going the distance” keeps to the spacetime continuum. Recently Floyd Mayweather was accused of dodging and running until the last two rounds, when he blasts away on attack to get the edge for a points victory. It’s like walking one’s way to victory.
One boxer who could talk the walk was Muhammad Ali, who practically becomes one of the characters in the novel when Joe, a writer much in the vein of Vladislavic, tries to go the distance with a collection of newspaper clippings on the great boxer which he had kept as a young boy in the 1970s.
This extended set-piece, allowing Joe/Vladlslavic to practise his trademark examinations of the archival, is given a spine of suspense by having Joe’s brother Marko, a filmmaker and editor, also try his hand at writing down the reminiscences Joe demands from him. The two alternating streams in the novel, of course, resonate with the sibling rivalry between the two.
The distance of time and geography has made Ali a figure of mystery all over again during Joe’s return to the clippings in more or less 2011-2016. Despite having become an icon, one of the most written about celebrities of the 20th century, what Joe discovers seems revelatory, for instance in his close reading of the boxing reports of the time, which exposes the patterns in the hacks’ initial insistence on referring to Ali as Cassius Clay.
Round for round we get immersed in the worlds of Ali, Joe and Marko, the latter turning out to be surprisingly competent at writing, gaining in confidence until in the end it might have allowed the reader to perhaps award him a points victory, bar the twist in the tail.
Recently Vladlsiavic said in an interview: “I think many people got interested in Ali who weren’t necessarily interested in boxing, or even sport. That moment feels like a template for a whole lot of things that have happened since, especially with the technology we have now. Now anyone can become a celebrity, anything can be staged for our entertainment. Ali was at the start of this shift.”
One can turn this quote on to Vladislavic’s fascinations as well. He is the one SA writer who can imbue anything, no matter how mundane, with a cosmic significance that is absorbingly entertaining — albeit for those with a certain intellectual stamina.
At the Stellenbosch Woordfees, Vladislavic said he was surprised when people asked him whether the scrapbooks really existed. It is an indication of the high regard he is held in that readers might think he is capable of fabricating a sequence of documents, which, as he explained, would require a lifetime of research. But it also suggests how strange-making the distance of time is with regard to a person or things we think we know all there is to know about.
As time passes, and distance increases, one realises assessing a past dominant figure on the basis of past archival technology, needs to take into the account the vantage point of the assessor in the present. But there can be no static point, spacetime entropy (another term for history?) has ensured that a new, much more complicated process is necessary as we try to look into a run-down legend on the curve towards the limit of obscurity.
In this way the novel becomes deeply political as it avoids the political because not enough can be culled from the scrapbooks. The story of Ali’s own activist awakening is told in bits and pieces, but Joe/Vladislavic holds off from drawing the inevitable parallels with SA, because, well, there are complications. Was Ali a hero of the SA revolution? It’s hard to tell, because his responses to invitations to visit the country were ambiguous. Reponses you would not find in any hagiography, perhaps only in a boy’s treasure chest. Or was he compromised by the distortions of the media of the time?
But knowing one’s vantage point is no small task, and in order to do so one has to venture into one’s own past, into which a similar set of problems are telescoped. Which causes technical issues for the writer. Stuck with a main character speaking in two voices, Vladislavic said in Stellenbosch he decided to invent a second, and it is Marko on whom Joe dumps the job of nostalgic reprise. Why him? For his punishment, Vladislavic said enigmatically. He has to go the distance with younger brother Joe.
It is at this point early on in the novel that I must admit my heart sank into my shoes. While Vladislavic does this reprisal of five years in Joe’s youth far better than most, in moments of humorously entertaining and sometimes beautiful wordcraft, one is left with the feeling: what, the seventies again? Can’t writers get away from them? It doesn’t help much that the decade fits in with the general premiss, the 1970s being the 1960s going the distance.
Bringing the white past into the present may be honest and courageous in a way, but it still leaves open a huge gap: what would other South Africans have made of Ali had they kept scrapbooks? Or did apartheid make this impossible and is it one of the takeaways from Vladislavic’s endeavour that other South Africans don’t have such extensive archives, or ones in another social technology?
In other works Vladislavic also belabours the archival, and he does it very well in these too, creating an archive that future intellects will find worthwhile to go the distance with, I am sure. But I also wonder whether this is why he is seen first and foremost as a writer of short stories, in which he is an incontrovertible master.
Having said that, in the end, after the twist that I won’t reveal, the novel feels like a novel again. It is worth one’s investment for many reasons, apart from the excellent writing; his critiques of the boxing journalism of the time, and of boxing itself, are stimulating, as are the small discoveries he makes about Ali’s life and legend. It remains by my bedside, for the time when I want to browse through it again.