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Flashback Hotel

by Kavish Chetty / 15.07.2010

Flashback Hotel is perfectly titled in many ways, not least because its stories are glimpses back into history; more particularly, 1989 and 1996 – the years from which the two short story compilations contained within were originally published. The subjects of these stories are odd and veering, but all threaded together by Vladislavic’s unmistakable writing style: his rare way with the pen, finding magic and meaning in the banal, or otherwise just shell-shocking with his wordplay and wit.

The first compilation, Missing Persons (1989), I find an uneven quilt of possibilities. Some stories, only six or seven pages in length, spark up and splutter out without me able to get much grip. They float by in surreal and disjointed paragraphs, personal and private. But at the centrepiece of the work, sitting neatly alongside impenetrable postmodern prose (pardon the alliteration), is “Journal of a Wall” and “The Box”. Here we see the earlier incarnation of the now distinctive Vladislavic style: murderously comical stories with crackpot characters. In the first of the two, a strange lonely narrator comes to form an emotional attachment with his neighbours’ wall, begins to love them through the oozing cement and red bricks as it slowly takes shape. In the second, a husband reaches into his television and yanks out the Prime Minister, all of six-inches as he was rendered on the TV news, and then keeps him like a pet in a cage. These marvellous conceits are the highlight of the work, and they lay next to far soberer entries that don’t hold much interest to me.

In the second compilation, Propaganda by Monuments (1996), we can see the same Vladislavic who wrote The Restless Supermarket (2003). Here his stories are longer, full of character and characters, full of absurd dialogue and exquisite language: like, “…breathing in the musty siftings of sleep lodged in the pores of the pillowship, while the dream grew accustomed to the half-light. Then, yawning and stretching and tossing off the blankets, I rose and led the dream, pale and shivering with fright, to the window, drew the curtains and, by the gentlest of pressures between the shoulder blades, with a great show of warmth and hospitality, pushed it out into broad daylight. Dreams are more easily domesticated than people think.” This line is taken from “Omniscope”, which chronicles an inventors’ creation of the titular peripheral. The narrator is filled with the kind of etymological obsessions that would later characterise Vladislavic’s fuller protagonist Aubrey Tearle in a later work.

But my favourite from the series must be “Autopsy”. This is Vladislavic at his best. A narrator, who is busy having lunch at the Potato Kitchen in Hillbrow spies Elvis Presley across the street from him. Here begins a comical odyssey in which he tracks the King (undertaking all sorts of mundane tasks, like eating a skewered sausage and buying pharmaceuticals) throughout the streets, fleshing out a detailed freeze-framed portrait of nineties’ Jo’burg geography. When Vladislavic gets it right, he’s full of insight and humour.

All the stories follow a general trend: despair and ennui mediated through comedy, verbal tricks and an architect’s attention to sentence-structure. Vladislavic, Croatian-born with his mellifluous surname (that ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’), is one of South Africa’s most exciting authors and this long-desired collection of his stories is the perfect preface to his style. Then, off you go to get The Restless Supermarket and Portrait with Keys.

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