I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of And Other Stories until a copy of Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative dropped through my letterbox. They’re a not-for-profit organisation who publish books funded by subscriptions from the likes of you and me, readers keen to support new writing and happy to pay an annual subscription for two, four or six of their books – publisher crowd sourcing, if you will. If Double Negative is anything to go by the standard of writing is well worth the subscription.
Narrated by Neville Lister, the book is structured in three parts each set in a different period forming a triptych of South African apartheid. It opens in the early 1980s with Nev, freshly dropped out of university, becoming embroiled in a minor brawl with his racist new neighbours. His father arranges for him to spend a day with Saul Auerbach, a much-lauded documentary photographer. Nev finds himself playing third wheel to Auerbach and Gerald Brookes a British journalist who sets Auerbach a challenge: they will each choose a house and Auerbach must take a portrait of the occupant. The first two become celebrated emblems of apartheid but time is too short for Nev’s choice. The middle section sees Nev returning from a decade spent in London. He’s now a photographer but not in the Auerbach mould. His are the photos in catalogues, magazines, advertisements. Drawn back to the third house, he listens to the elderly householder’s stories and examines a stash of dead letters sent by poor black workers that never reached their families. The third section is set in 2009. Now married, Nev’s photographs of walls and their faded vestiges of apartheid are about to be shown in an exhibition. He’s being interviewed by an eager young blogger, keen to document his work.
Vladislavić’s writing is beautiful, almost painterly in its subtlety. Metaphors and similes abound, devices often overused by clunky writers but here they work: ‘I don’t care for the excess of paving like pressed grey linen, it’s too proper I think, a city square in a business suit. But on that day it had loosened its buttons’ is the perfect description for the jubilation outside South Africa House on the day of the 1994 South African elections which brought Nelson Mandela to power. Nev’s day with Janie, the blogger, nicely echoes his own with Auerbach contrasting her manic digicam tour of a black village with Auerbach’s patient wait for light and the subject’s story to emerge for his portraits. The book is a treat from start to finish, illuminated by Teju Cole’s fine introduction. If you’re interested in subscribing to And Other Stories or would like to see what else they publish you can visit their website here.
Reading Double Negative reminded me of the Hugh Masekela concert H and I went to in Bristol a few weeks back. We couldn’t believe our luck at getting the tickets. He was playing with Larry Willis, the pianist he had met 50 years ago when the two were students in New York. There was a wonderful rapport between them and a tremendous wave of affection from those of us who remembered Masekela’s Free Nelson Mandela days. We had hoped for an evening of excellent music, which we got, but neither of us had expected Masekela to be so funny, or to be such a vivid raconteur of his New York jazz days. He also spoke touchingly of his ex-wife the late Miriam Makeba with whom, it seemed to me, he was still in a little love. A great and memorable evening.
This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a few days, written before the sad but not unexpected news of Nelson Mandela’s death. As Aung San Suu Kyi said ‘he made us understand that we can change the world’. And she should know.