The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić: An apartheid allegory

Cover imageA 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.

8 thoughts on “The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić: An apartheid allegory”

  1. I’ve read one of Vladislavić’s books – The Restless Supermarket – which I enjoyed, and certainly plan to read more. It is always difficult reading out of national context – and also when they are not published in the order the author wrote them!

    1. I like the sound of The Restless Supermarket. I suspect I’ll read more from Vladislavić and may start with that.

  2. I have not seen the And Other Stories edition of this book but the Archipelago site (the publisher in North America) does have links to a variety of reviews. I think if you had encountered this book in South Africa in 1993, one year before the first free elections, the parallels with apartheid might have been more evident. I read it as a much more timeless parable about the fear of and attraction to the “other”. There are no specific racial allusions here but that makes it even more relevant. I visited South Africa this year and the racial and intra-racial tensions are still very evident. And when you are in the cities the massive spike topped walls that people tend to live behind are clear signs of the bunker mentality and fear of one’s neighbour that persists(and possibly for good reason). In light of all that, The Folly is even more powerful. But most importantly, it could apply to any place where people live together!

    My favourite aspect of this book is the way Vladislavić manages to spin an invisible house so vividly that you can almost see it. I agree, it stands as an incredible debut!

    1. I’m sure you’re right about the time and place of reading The Folly, and as you suggest some of its resonances are loud and clear whatever the fraught combination of people living together. Sadly, it seems that things have not improved for the vast majority of South Africa’s black population.

      Vladislavić’s writing is extraordinarily vivid – those descriptions of the grandiose mansion were a triumph.

  3. Thanks for linking to my review Susan, the allegory is an interesting topic and one wonders if it is intended or not, when we read the opinion of the author, I guess we can make of it what we will. I thought Agaat, was much more than an allegory for apartheid and I wasn’t convinced that it was referencing apartheid spcifically.

    The Folly sounds interesting, although I’m a little guarded about re-entering into the imagination of this part of the world, I’m more embedded currently in an earlier view of parts of Africa, before the European, I think that era has as much if not more to teach us.

    Interesting that comment by Rough Ghosts about spike topped walls, I recall something similar being installed in a lovely but mixed neighbourhood of London, where our apartments had no walls, no gates, no problems, until the new owner of a large house installed these agressive “keep out” measures and provoked a very outspoken response from the rest of the neighbours. The new owner was South African and clearly judged the area as something other than it was, due to the mixed nature of its residents – a dangerous and provocative move that instils hatred and quite possibly provokes retaliation very quickly.

    1. You’re welcome, Claire, and I will get around to reading Agaat but not yet! Your London experience is very illuminating. Installing that kind of defence is both provocative and insulting but very revealing, too.

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