Retrospective collection of quirky, sometimes surreal, short stories

2010-07-28 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Flashback Hotel

Ivan Vladislavic

Umuzi

FLASHBACK Hotel consists of two previously published collections of short stories by award-winning South African writer, Ivan Vladislavic: Missing Persons (1990) and Propaganda by Monuments (1996). The stories are characterised by an original voice, a rare, sometimes ­bewildering imagination, a quirky sense of humour and a relentlessly sardonic tone.

Many of the stories in Missing ­Persons commence in real enough contexts but slip swiftly — and often elusively — into surrealism. Flashback Hotel (from which the present publication takes its title) develops in nightmarish incoherence and ­appears to be about loss of identity and/or direction. Other stories are more accessible, notably Journal of a Wall, which highlights human ­inquisitiveness in the narrator’s growing, and diarised, obsession with his neighbour’s building operations.

Propaganda by Monuments is the finer collection and the title story, set in 1992, addresses the issue of the function of statuary featuring the leaders of a given dispensation and the fate of such statuary following the fall of the said dispensation. In 1992 Muscovites were bent on ­dismantling the plethora of Leninite monuments in their city and the ­entrepreneurial Boniface Khumalo determines to secure a massive head of Lenin to adorn his projected V.I. Lenin Bar and Grill in Pretoria. The story highlights the fragility and ephemerality of the seemingly indestructible and has obvious allusions to South Africa itself.

Many of the stories are rooted in South African issues or colourfully evoke South African contexts. The amusing Autopsy is set in Hillbrow and concerns a headcase narrator who thinks he has spotted Elvis ­Presley (though it is 1992) and ­pursues him through miscellaneous streets and assorted shops. Similarly, The Book Lover affords Vladislavic the opportunity to describe various bookshop haunts in Johannesburg as the narrator obsesses over a ­woman whose name appears as the former owner of numerous second-hand books he ferrets out.

Refreshingly, Kidnapped is about the imaginative process itself, as the narrator contemplates entering a short-story competition being held to celebrate the centenary of the death of Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Those who have admired Vladislavic’s more recent publications, The Exploded View (2004) and P ortrait with Keys (2006) might well value this retrospective.

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