A couple of years ago I read and reviewed Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative. It’s his fourth novel but the first to be published in the UK. The Folly is his debut and entirely different from Double Negative. According to the book’s blurb, when it was published in Vladislavić’s native South Africa back in 1993 it was considered to be an allegory of apartheid but without that prior knowledge I’m not entirely sure I would have come to that conclusion.
It opens with Nieuwenhuizen surveying the desolate plot he’s inherited having arrived by taxi with nothing but an ‘imitation-leather portmanteau’. Next door, the quarrelsome Mr and Mrs Malgas gaze out of the window mystified as to what he’s up to. She’s deeply suspicious, urging her husband to find out what’s going on after Nieuwenhuizen pitches camp. Obediently he wanders over and introduces himself with an offer of help, brushed aside by Nieuwenhuizen who says he’ll call Malgas when he’s ready. So begins an odd relationship in which Nieuwenhuizen cajoles, beguiles, ridicules and exploits Malgas, drawing him into his illusion of a grand house replete with rumpus room and bomb shelter until Malgas sees it with his own eyes, eagerly joining Nieuwenhuizen every evening to gauge the progress of this grandiose edifice. All this is watched by the ever-sceptical Mrs Malgas who diverts her attention from her increasing anger by inventorying her seemingly endless collection of knick-knacks.
Vladislavić’s writing is often very striking – ‘The radio hinted and tipped’ neatly conveys the rather didactic nature of Mrs Malgas’ listening; the ever more baroque descriptions of Nieuwenhuizen’s Plan are vivid – but its allegorical references are somewhat opaque, at least to a present day British reader, although some of its allusions and symbolism are clear. Nieuwenhuizen seduces Malgas using a combination of arrogance and false chuminess, musing that Malgas ‘seems eager to serve. But he’s full of questions, and hard to convince’. He urges Malgas to call him ‘Father’ and at one point in a fit of panic Malgas calls out ‘daddy, daddy’. Towards the end Nieuwenhuizen is striding around in a bandolier and hunter’s hat much to Malgas’ chagrin, eventually turning on his hapless neighbour with ‘This is my house… … My namesake. You’re just a visitor… not even that, some sort of janitor – a junior one, with no qualifications and precious little experience, and damned lucky to have a broom cupboard all to your self’ before proclaiming ‘What’s in a house? There’s plenty where this one came from’ like a true imperialist laying claim to the world. It’s all beautifully expressed, and astonishingly ambitious for a debut. When I reviewed Double Negative I mentioned Teju Cole’s illuminating introduction. Another for The Folly would have been very welcome.
I wasn’t the only one scratching my head about South African allegories. Just before I started writing this review I read Claire’s of Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk which sounds intriguing but I don’t think I’ll be reading it just yet.