‘The Whole Place is Science Fiction’

Review essay on Ivan Vladisavic’s Double Negative, Umuzi, 2010, and Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, Jacana, 2010.

In Ivan Vladislavic's novel, Double Negative,  Gerald Brookes, a British journalist accompanying photographer Saul Auerbach on a drive through Johannesburg, with university drop-out Neville Lister tagging along, says of Johannesburg: “[T]he whole place is science fiction.” Citing the Yeoville water tower as evidence for his claim – “like a tripod in The War of the Worlds, only the heat ray was missing” – Brookes adds: “That’s what people fail to understand about South Africa. It’s a time machine. It’s the past’s idea of the future.” (“Or vice-versa,” retorts Auerbach).

The HG Wells reference points not only to the visual appearance of Johannesburg under apartheid (which is when this incident is set), but also to the strange and violent history of the city. The key premise of Wells’s novel is the existence of an alien, space-faring race endowed with technological prowess beyond human ken, bent on eradicating humanity from the face of the earth, which it considers its own property by virtue of its own superiority, a cosmic combination of the notions of divine right, manifest destiny and will to power: the delirious rhetoric of empire-builder Cecil John Rhodes projected onto the stars.

The history of Johannesburg is unlike that of most cities. Most cities, even adventitious products of colonial ambitions such as Cape Town, have respectably organic origins: proximity to a river, an anchorage or a geographical formation that lends itself to defence, attracts settlement and the logic of the city unpacks itself. But the key premise of Johannesburg’s history, the brute fact of the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, introduced an aberrant and thoroughly inorganic logic. The sprawling artificial labyrinth so rapidly excavated from the dolomite acted like an enormous gravity well, drawing people from near and far to serve the tutelary deity of the city.

When the Empire went super-nova and the inflationary rhetoric collapsed back in on itself, there was still the gold to underpin the identity of the city.  Now that the gold is largely gone, the city is liberated of its history, ripe for reinvention.

But the burden of invention falls to the people of the city. Success or failure depends largely on one’s ability to generate a plausible fiction and live up to it.

This aspect of life in the rootless metropolis is explored in the final, third part of Double Negative, which is constructed around an encounter between Neville and Janie, a young woman who visits to interview him for her blog. A pure product of the digital era, she interrogates Neville with a view to assimilating his static imagery into the open-ended discourse of herself. In so doing, she calls the foundational assumptions of Neville’s mode of being into question - and accuses him of making things up to suit his own image of himself.

Neville's image has indeed undergone a fantastic transformation since the drive through Johannesburg with Auerbach and Brookes many years before. The apartheid-era encounter with Auerbach proved to be seminal, although not in the way Neville’s father, who arranged it, had planned, concerned about his son’s apparent aimlessness.

At that point, Neville was scraping a living together as an assistant to a man who painted lines in parking lots with stencils, working with a rudimentary semiotics as though immersed in one of Wittgenstein’s language games. The father hoped that Auerbach’s influence might spark something in the young man. The event operated on Neville, however, through the void it revealed.

In this first part of the novel, Brookes, the British journalist and outraged voice of the international community (at apartheid South Africa’s disregard for human rights), challenges acclaimed photographer Auerbach to a game, which Neville is encouraged to join. From the vantage point of Langerman Kop, they each pick a house at random with the intention of photographing its inhabitants.

The inhabitants of the first two properties become the subjects of classic Auerbach portraits: an impoverished mother of two surviving triplets and a bulky woman surrounded by curios and mementos, including a table made from the cracked window of a Hippo armoured vehicle (her son survived a landmine explosion on the border). Their descriptions are remarkably evocative of the 1980s work of David Goldblatt (unsurprisingly, given that Double Negative was first published in conjunction with Goldblatt's book TJ. (The relationship between the two works is discussed in Ralph Goodman’s review on SLiPnet.) When the time comes to visit the third house, Neville’s choice, the light is fading, the project is abandoned, and Neville is left wondering what might have been.

This sense of incompleteness informs the remainder of Neville’s memoir of early adulthood, as recounted in the first part of Double Negative.  Walter Benjamin’s (and Klee’s) Angel of History presides over this narrative. It is the story of a man constantly falling between the stools of his putative Western cultural identity and the facts of history unfolding in South Africa outside the windows of the university. This tension, the motive for his dropping out, accompanies him throughout his desultory wanderings, from South Africa to the United Kingdom, from one menial job to another. He drifts into commercial photography purely by accident.

So far, so banal: an ineffectual young man on the margins of the history of a country he scarcely dare call his own.

It is upon Neville’s return to Johannesburg that the fantastic spreads its wings. Part two of Double Negative deals with what happens when Neville visits the house he did not get to visit in the first part of the novel. It is an hallucinatory chronicle of a descent into the void, and it is the novel’s narrative centre of gravity.

The house in Bez Valley unvisited on the occasion of the Langermann Kop expedition proves to be inhabited by a housebound widow, Mrs Pinheiro. The decor is pure apartheid Gothic, Mrs Pinheiro's appearance no less so - for visual correlatives, refer to David Goldblatt's photos of Boksburg (currently out of print, although  a "working copy" - no cover, waterstains - is available for R1500 from Collector's Treasury in Johannesburg). Neville gains entry to the premises by means of a lie that he is researching the life of a fictional boxer, a composite of screen characters played by Kallie Knoetze. He is soon unmasked by Mrs Pinheiro, who nonetheless puts up with the outrageous pretence for the sake of having a visitor who takes an interest in her. Neville returns frequently and is made party to the story of Mr Pinheiro, a Portuguese-speaking doctor, his widow claims, who spent his days working at the post office, sorting dead letters, and whiled away his leisure time with the bizarre hobby of collecting letter-boxes.

Mr Pinheiro’s dead letters were letters of a special type: their writers, exiled by the Bantu education system to the margins of literacy, were unable to copy the addresses of their addressees correctly. His own grasp of English being shaky, Mr Pinheiro would fall behind in his sorting tasks and take home the backlog. The dead letters remained at the house in Bez Valley, forming a collection that fell to Mrs Pinheiro upon her husband's death.

This collection forms the basis of a conspiratorial relationship between Neville and Mrs Pinheiro. Then comes the day that they open the letters together. In a signature moment of Vladislavic narrative magic that defies description, the stories of the letter writers come into the light of day. They unfold from the letters into visual form, miniature beings. Their lost identities are redeemed and restored. Neville keeps the letters when Mrs Pinheiro dies. He goes on to develop a minor reputation as a photographer; his thing is photographing the exteriors of people's homes, and the high, boundary walls of Johannesburg specifically.

But Janie, the young woman interviewer in Part Three, accuses him of fabricating the legend of the dead letters – of forging them himself. Neville is challenged, irritated. He is intrigued but simultaneously appears to be uncomfortable with her flip confidence, her easy appropriation of every medium available to feed what he perceives as her self-serving narcissism – her quest to be "the best Janie she can be". She hasn't suffered enough, he tells his partner, Leora.

But there is something in the young woman's style, her brash, trendy confidence in the kaleidoscopic panopticon of the digital, her offhand rattling off of contemporary cultural references, that recalls the protagonist of another novel.

Unless you are fortunate enough to have been living on Mars, you will know that Zoo City was awarded this year's Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel (and best cover, by Joey Hi-Fi). A cursory inspection of the blurb reveals that it and Beukes both have been praised to the sky by luminaries that truly count, not the least of them cyberpunk godfather William Gibson. (See also Chantelle van Heerden’s review on SLiPnet.)

The key premise that drives Lauren Beukes' novel is not the existence of Johannesburg, as by 2010 this Leviathan is simply taken for granted, but an ontological shift that creates a new category of people. Aposymbiotes, also known as “zoos”, or “the animalled”, are people that for some reason (unspecified but furiously debated in the world of the novel from religious, scientific and magical perspectives) wake up one morning to find themselves possessed with an animal familiar, and a magical talent (shavi) to match. Snakes, butterflies, cobras, mongooses, bears - and for the protagonist of the novel, Zinzi, a sloth - accompany the “zoos” wherever they go. If one of these animals die, the death of its aposymbiote is certain, courtesy of the horrific phenomenon known as the Undertow.

An abstract taken from a psychology website (one of several fictional intertexts that break up  Zoo City's straightforward narrative thrust, like hip-hop samples) offers a clinical description of the Undertow as  "shadow-self absorption", a "trauma, most often experienced as an irrefutable and ever-increasing sense of oblivion" that burdens aposymbiots with an "intense burden of guilt".

The psychobabble downplays the existential horror of the phenomenon in the raw, as witnessed, for example, by Zinzi, watching from her neighbour's window in Zoo City as a fellow sufferer attempts to outrun the Undertow:

The air pressure dips, like before a storm. A keening sound wells up soft and low, as if it's always been there, just outside the range of human hearing. It swells to howling. And then the shadows start to drop from trees, like raindrops after a storm. The darkness pools and gathers and then seethes. The Japanese believe it's hungry ghosts. The Scientologists claim it's the physical manifestation of suppressive engrams. Some eyewitness reports describe teeth grinding and ripping in the shadows. Video recordings have shown only impenetrable darkness. I prefer to think of it as a black hole, cold and impersonal as space. Maybe we have become stars on the other side.

I turn away as it rushes down the road in the direction of the running man. Mr Khan covers his daughter’s eyes, even though it's her ears he should be protecting. The screaming lasts only a few awful seconds before it is abruptly cut off.  (208)

In Johannesburg, these outcasts gather in Hillbrow, aptly rechristened Zoo City, home of narrator Zinzi December. Circling back and forth between past and present, between FL (Former Life) as a hip, sassy, connected magazine journalist and a solitary existence with a sloth in a decrepit tenement near Ponte City leavened by occasional trysts with her Congolese lover Benoit and his mongoose, she tells the story of why she arrived there and why and how she leaves.

Reduce Zoo City to its narrative essentials and a fairly straightforward storyline emerges: a classic hero quest, in fact. Zinzi, with her shavi, is the functional equivalent of a shaman. She can find lost things, literally seeing lines of connection between them and their owners. This talent earns her her daily bread.

She tries to get by, avoiding trouble. But Fate  has bigger plans for Zinzi December. A routine job, finding a lost ring for a Killarney caricature of a Mrs Luditsky, gets complicated. The client dies a horrible, multiple-stab-wound death. Zinzi meets two sinister “zoos” at the scene of the crime, Marabou and Maltese. These two self-proclaimed procurement specialists make it known they're keen for Zinzi to take on some work outside her normal beat: finding people. If Zinzi had her own way, she'd send them on their way, but FL has left her with obligations: specifically, a large debt owed to some very nasty gangsters. She's been paying them off in instalments by writing and performing in a variety of 419 scam scripts; now, seeing a chance to wipe the slate at a stroke, she accompanies Marabou and Maltese to the decaying suburban lair of Odi Huron, legendary music producer and former clubland patron, who talks her into tracking down the missing (female) half of iJusi, a pair of sweet teen twin singing sensations and the latest addition to Huron's stable.

And so begins the quest of Zinzi December. Revisiting her old haunts in search of clues, she recovers fragments of FL on the way, circling back on the trauma that caused her to live in the shadow of the Undertow and forcing her to confront, yes, her Shadow. It's all very archetypal, very Jungian, down to the descent into the Underworld (a forced excursion through the storm drains beneath Johannesburg), and imbued with a sensibility still capable of trembling at the monsters in the illustrated books of African myths and legends that filled many childhood with enchantment and terror, back in the white suburban dreamtime of the 70s and early 80s.

Yet the tale of Zinzi explodes the classic frame, fashioning a legend of its own fit for the electric Leviathan Johannesburg circa 2010. “Zoos” start showing up dead in peculiar circumstances; the rumour circulates through Zoo City of a ghost with teeth, an invisible killer that perforates its victims with multiple stab wounds. Zinzi figures out that she's being set up but not why or by whom. A visit to a sangoma brings on a vision, and she realises that the cryptic ghost emails she's been receiving are literally messages from the dead.

When you eat you are eating things from planes.
The plastic forks, they leave a mark on you.
You said you would love me warts and all.

The knowledge that flows from this insight (puzzling out the riddles for yourself is among the headier pleasures of a book riddled with enigmas) arms Zinzi for a confrontation with the forces of evil at the residence of Odi Huron.

The story's ending, a tour de force of magic, ritual and innocent blood, in which the secret of Odi Huron's leaf-choked swimming pool is revealed, departs from the Jungian script in one respect only: instead of good triumphing over evil, evil is defeated by the hyper-evil. But Zinzi December lives to tell the tale and leave Johannesburg, seeking to atone for the harm she's done to her lover and his family.

What would the conversation have been like had Neville opened his gate on Zinzi instead of Janie? I like to imagine them comparing notes on the city of Johannesburg against the backdrop of their personal histories. To what extent did the death of Odi Huron resemble the killing of Brett Kebble? In both cases the responsible parties – procurers all – escaped scot free, leaving a Sphinx-like corpse.

The city writes its own mysteries.

Neville assuages his ontological horror, his permanent identity crisis, by representing the identities of the lost letter writers. Zinzi's redemption hinges on her decryption of the ghost emails. Once she has represented the homeless zoos, reconstituting their marginal identities at the moment of their dying, she is able to unravel the knots of her narrative situation.

On 28 July 2011, the Star newspaper reported the discovery of a cemetery in Crown Mines, about 4 km from the city centre. As many as 650 bodies were buried in neat rows in an area covered by a mine dump. Archeological evidence suggests that the cemetery was in use from the 1890s to the 1920s. The occupants have been profiled as workers aged between 18 and 25. The facial features and teeth of one skeleton suggest that the living man was Chinese. Others were buried in foetal position or with hands on chins, heads facing east or west. Yet although this necropolis may have been among Johannesburg's largest cemeteries at the time, no record of its existence survives.

Who will interpret these dead letters? Who will assuage these lost souls?

It's a case for Neville Lister and Zinzi December.


carla potgieter says:

“David Goldblatt’s photos of Boksburg (currently out of print, although a “working copy” – no cover, waterstains – is available for R1500 from Collector’s Treasury in Johannesburg).”

There is a full collection of most of David’s photographs in the Africana library.