Double Negative, by Ivan Vladislavić. Published 2013 by And Other Stories Press. Literary Fiction.
A while back the publisher of And Other Stories Press came to visit the bookstore where I work, to tell us about his company and the kinds of books they publish. And Other Stories is a small press based in London which specializes in translations and literary fiction- in other words, just the kinds of things I read. Double Negative is a recent novel by South African writer IvanVladislavić, about a photographer dealing with post-Apartheid South Africa through the lens of his camera, and that other another and more famous photographer whom our protagonist, Neville Lister, met when he was young.
Neville didn't just meet the famous photographer, one Saul Auerbach. He went out on a shoot with Auerbach and watched as Auerbach photographed ordinary people in their homes, in a particular poor area of Johannesburg. Auerbach asks Neville to choose three houses to visit and they visit two of them. The stories the residents tell are beyond sad. The photos become famous, and Neville becomes a professional photographer although a commercial one and not an artistic one (or so he claims). Years pass. Neville moves away from South Africa to avoid military service and returns when Apartheid has been overturned. He has the opportunity to meet Auerbach again, at an exhibit of Auerbach's work. And he has become an unofficial archivist in his own right, holding a collection of dead letters. But over the years he's remained curious about the people they visited that day, and the one house they never did.
Author and photographer Teju Cole wrote a great introduction to this book where he talks about how Vladislavić uses metaphor to underscore the themes of memory, loss, growing up and coming to terms. The plot in this book is very thin; it feels like a memoir, like someone just telling you what happened, without adornment. The structure of the book and the use of metaphorical language throughout undercuts this plainness though. The book is a very carefully crafted meditation on truth and identity, but couched in a way that allows the reader to relax.
I enjoyed reading Double Negative a lot and I want to read more of Vladislavić's books and more of And Other Stories' books too. It didn't have the big emotional impact on me that books set in South Africa tend to- it lacks melodrama and harshness that one can find- but it was well worth reading and I look forward to more from Vladislavić and his publisher.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.