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  • The Politics of Originality:Reading Ivan Vladislavić through J. M. Coetzee's Early Fiction
  • Ken Barris (bio)

[J. M. Coetzee is] a superb writer. It's impossible to write in South Africa without being influenced by him.

Ivan Vladislavić, Interview with Christopher Warnes

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

T. S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger"

Ivan Vladislavić was widely read as a magic realist in the wake of his first three book-length works, published between 1989 and 1996. He was welcomed as an innovative force, partly on the basis of this attribution and partly because his work clearly diverged from the platform of politically engaged realism that had been so influential during the antiapartheid struggle. I do not disagree with this understanding, although I suggest that his tendency then was more postmodern than magic realist, which few would dispute today. In the first section of this essay, I argue that Vladislavić's most impressive innovations are, firstly, his fusion of aesthetics and politics in a satire of commercialized language and of middleclass suburban culture, both of which he regards as complicit with epistemic apartheid. A second hallmark innovation is not [End Page 283] political disengagement so much as the nature of this engagement: Vladislavić displaces it from the allegorizing form typical of realist antiapartheid texts and into discourse, more particularly into the speech of his narrators and characters.

Despite Vladislavić's originality, commonalities between the early writing of J. M. Coetzee and his own are evident. These commonalities are sufficiently numerous and significant to justify their characterization as an intertextuality of technical means. In the second section of this essay, I therefore trace the influence of Coetzee within Vladislavić's writing, in particular analogous literary constructs that appear in both Coetzee's first novel, Dusklands (1974), and Vladislavić's The Restless Supermarket (2001), which appeared nearly thirty years later. While these commonalities do not suggest imitation or untransformed influence, it is clear that Vladislavić writes within a stream of literature partly introduced into South African writing by Coetzee. My argument does not, by implication, exclude the influences of other postmodern authors, to some of whom I refer below. My intention, nonetheless, is to trace in some detail the particular influence of Coetzee.

Two key elements recur in this intertextuality: a rejection of realist form in favor of postmodern experiment, and a rejection of direct political representation—that is, of any historical or documentary model of fiction (which is not to suggest an absence of political intent). The fact that Coetzee was widely criticized through the 1970s and 1980s for these qualities, while Vladislavić has been praised and hailed as an innovator on the same basis, requires explanation.

I conclude in the third section that this difference can be partially explained by a diminution in the demand for committed realism that accompanied the ending of apartheid. Further, a partial explanation lies in the gradual acceptance and ascendancy of poststructuralist literary theory. Finally, I suggest that Coetzee is an exceptional case in South African letters, and that his early work anticipated changes in cultural theory and in literary practice that only fully emerged into broad acceptance in this country approximately two decades later, and that are to some extent characteristic of the emergent postapartheid canon.


Ivan Vladislavić was often, albeit not exclusively, taken to be a magic realist in the wake of his first three extended works (two short story collections, namely Missing Persons [1989] and Propaganda by Monuments [1996], and a novella, The Folly [1993]). This perception is possibly misleading: the fantastical transformations that mark Vladislavić's early fiction depart from magic realist convention in key respects. The first is that supernatural devices drawn from indigenous world-views and traditional systems of belief are seldom entirely absent from magic realist fiction. Vladislavić's fantastical distortions of the mundane have, without exception, no supernatural provenance. Indeed, they are countermiraculous, offered as absurdist deviations from the mundane, and are unrelated to any form of mythic, precapitalist or pretechnological belief system. He tends more to absurdist fantasy rooted in the postmodern stream of Donald...


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