Capturing poetic and profound moments

2011-09-07 00:00

NEVILLE Lister is an awkward man. A young, slightly gormless university dropout living in an undefined time during apartheid, his budding awareness of its wrongness puts him at odds with his community. His worried father arranges a meeting with an eminent photographer, Saul Auerbach, hoping the encounter will set him on a safer path.

Lister becomes a photographer, but never the accomplished social documenter that Auerbach is. Instead, he goes to the United Kingdom to avoid army service and becomes known for his ability to shoot “frozen” moments, a skill useful in commercial photography that will eventually be downgraded by Photoshop. When he returns, post-’94, older and wiser, again the outsider because of his years away, he achieves some recognition for a series of pictures he takes of people at their gates.

Written by Ivan Vladislavic, this novel was originally published as part of a collector’s edition with a book of photographs by David Goldblatt, called TJ /Double Negative . Lister’s awkwardness and lacklustre success as a photographer highlight the unique talent of Auerbach (i.e. Goldblatt). The fact that as a photographer Lister is unable to get closer to his subjects than the threshold of their homes, underlines the unique skills of lensmen who are able to enter the lives of people from backgrounds radically different to theirs, and capture something poetic and profound.

Moving deftly through three different periods in our country’s recent history — apartheid, exile and the present – Vladislavic’s writing will evoke bitter-sweet memories, and moments of amused recognition for older readers. His talent shines in describing small details — the way, for instance, that English-speaking South Africans overseas resort to words like dop, “producing the old slang like an expired passport” — or the private vanities and fears of ordinary people.

This is a story trying to say quite a few things, not all of them successfully. Some parts seem to wander from the main narrative, and their inclusion is slightly puzzling. Its strength is Neville. A self­-deprecating, acute observer who nevertheless seems to drift through his life feeling ill at ease, he is an Everyman of sorts, in a country where being uneasy is normal.

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