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Reviewed: The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic

The Restless SupermarketIvan Vladislavić is a towering presence of the South African literary landscape; his books are freighted with awards, including both the Alan Paton award for non-fiction and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. No other author assays Johannesburg with such quiet power, such lethal delicacy as Vladislavić.

In books such as The Exploded View and Portrait With Keys, he carefully lances the membrane of the city, coaxing out unforgettable characters and examining their milieus, the wealth, the squalor, the cockeyed architecture and miasma of the pulsing metropolis.

Of course, his work has now become wrapped in academia, critics and commentators parse his brilliant sentences, deconstruct his style, view his observations through the lens of sociology. It is a pity in a way, as too many regular readers imagine Vladislavić is too “hard”, too “difficult” to read. They don’t know what they’re missing, because what may have been forgotten in all the serious scrutiny is that he is very, very funny.

Thankfully, Random House has seen fit to republish The Restless Supermarket, the 2001 novel that won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and placed Vladislavić firmly on the map.

It is a joy to meet up with these characters again, to reconsider its setting through the telescope of 20 years on, to splutter with laughter at the biting wit: “The park in Beatrice Street had a bench; but then it also had a reniform paddling pool that attracted the wrong sort of toddler.”

The Restless Supermarket is set in Hillbrow in 1993. Times are changing in the country, mirrored in the changes to this seething clutter of buildings, changes that make Aubrey Tearle despair. Tearle is one of the great characters of South African literature: a retired proof reader of telephone directories, he is a buttoned-up prig and curmudgeon. He rails at the New South Africa slipping over the horizon, and believes that literal sloppiness reflects the general decline of standards.

Here he is on the old TV game show called Tellyfun Quiz: “Telly. The word turned my stomach. Loo, brolly, iffy, butty, bumpf. A degenerate vocabulary descended from the nursery. Words without spines, the flabby offspring of a population of milksops. ‘Telly’ was bad enough on its own, but squatting on ‘fun’ like a slug on a cowpat, it was repulsive.”

Every day Tearle makes his way to the Café Europa, crossword at the ready, splenetic Letters To The Editor ready to be posted, where he meets up with other odd characters.

There’s Myron the retired optometrist, the heartbreaking Mevrouw Bonsma who tinkles sadly on the piano and Merle, fellow polymath and possible love interest for Tearle, if he could only see it. And then there’s Wessels, whom Tearle privately calls “Empty”: “I had a startling impression of Wessels’ hair, sleekly crouched over his brutal thoughts like some marsh dweller on its eggs.” And Darlene, common and blowsy. Tearle can’t stand her: “She kept saying pri-horrity and cre-hative, negoti-hation and reconcile-hation.”

Vladislavić explores how this cast of characters negotiates the shifting sands of change in their world, with the narrative leading up to the closing-down party of the Café Europa.

The novel has been hailed as a classic novel of the South African transition. How I wish it were a Matric setwork , as it reveals more about us than many worthier works. It deserves to reach an entirely new generation.

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