The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavić
"During the apartheid era South African writers were focused to a large extent on politics and racism. Everything else was out-of-bounds. Today, and in particularly, over the past ten years we've seen a much broader array of writers emerge... People are more free to explore and it's a much richer reflection of our society."
Ivan Vladislavić gave that quote in an interview with Publishing Perspectives last year. The focus of South African literature on South African politics may help explain why Vladislavić, a South African of Croatian descent, is little known outside of his homeland, despite the fact that his novels and short stories have been widely acclaimed. Yet, even ten years ago, when Vladislavić was concerned with politics, his approach was nuanced and unique, offering a compelling voice deserving of an international audience.
The Restless Supermarket, originally published in 2001 and the winner of the 2002 Sunday Times Fiction Prize, is now being republished. The novel centers on a retired proofreader named Aubrey Tearle who narrates a story of linguistic puns, crossword puzzles, declining editorial standards, and seating arrangements with fellow patrons at the Café Europa, where Tearle spends his days. But the novel is also set in Johannesburg in 1993, and through the cracks of Tearle's narration, we can see the politics of apartheid's end shine through in Tearle's offhanded racism.
The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, Tearle gives an account of life at the Café Europa, tracing the relationships he developed with the other characters there. But Tearle is a character in the lineage of Beckett's Molloy, or perhaps a mix of the two narrators from Coetzee's Dusklands. Tearle has a rigorous code of conduct that he applies strictly to the world: "As for the crosses left off the t's," he says, "who do you suppose shall bear them?" Only his code lacks all sympathy and is detached from human connection.
Nowhere is that more clear than with Tearle's relationship with Merle, a woman who begins to frequent the café and joins Tearle's circle of friends. In an interview at The White Review, Vladislavić said that he conceived of The Restless Supermarket as a story about "a crotchety old man... and his dalliance with a woman given to malapropism. A love story." Merle is that woman, and Tearle's interactions with her, his inability to accept another into his life, shows how deeply his code is set.
It is through this history of the Café Europa that we see how little Tearle understands of his world. He recounts a letter to the editor he wrote (a hobby of his) in which he complained of a dearth of public trashcans -- despite knowing that they were removed because bombs had been hidden in them. His view of the Café Europa is one focused on ambiance and European sensibilities, so when it begins catering to a new clientele -- a clientele whose skin happens to be darker than his -- Tearle's complaints of "declining editorial standards" takes on a new meaning. "Changing with the times is not for us," he says. "Staying the same is our forte."
Through the second part of the novel, which encompasses "The Proofreader's Derby," a kind of editorial test-cum-novel that Tearle wrote and that he describes as his life's work, we are offered a further glimpse into Tearle's mind and his ideal future. It's meant to train the world around him to hone the keen insight he holds so dear, but it takes on a level of fantasy: it pictures a world in which deleting a person from the phone book deletes her from the globe.
Against that backdrop, the last part of the novel unfolds, recounting a party that marks the closing of the Café Europa and that devolves into an unexpected (for Tearle) and telling mayhem. It is by far the strongest section of the novel, and the one that provides The Restless Supermarket's merit by forcing Tearle's interpretation of the world into conflict with the reader's. It's the way those two elements fit together that makes this work interesting. In that sense, The Restless Supermarket is a novel entirely dependent upon Tearle's character: Vladislavić's task is to take a confusing, unlikeable character and get us to share a world with him, even as he denies others the chance.
However, Tearle's driving interests are esoteric and picayune. See, for instance, the epigraph for his "Proofreader's Derby": "The power of attaching an interest to the most trifling or painful pursuits is one of the greatest happinesses of our nature." Vladislavić asks the reader to agree by spending so much time recounting the lists, letters, and "lexical gymnastics" Tearle loves. In the White Review interview, Vladislavić notes that "the lists and deconstructive exercises in some of my stories may have become too much for sensitive readers." He says that he "do[es]n't think this technical awareness ever hindered my writing," but he's only partially correct: it's weighed too heavily here, detracting from the truly interesting element of the book, which is how that awareness fails Tearle.
Of course, these lists and letters are crucial to Tearle's character, and understanding the logic behind them is crucial to our identifying with him. So it's not that they do not accomplish that function, it's only that it seems they could have been productively pared down to focus not just on Tearle, but on Tearle's interaction with his society.
In other words, it is by placing South Africa's political troubles into the mind of a character like Tearle that Vladislavić has provided a novel, personal insight into a massive social change. It's the kind of work that speaks to far more than just Johannesburg or South Africa; it's a novel that holds interest for the international audience it is now being brought to. The Restless Supermarket is a fascinating novel, both because of and in spite of how caught up in language the book can become at times.
The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavić
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