‘Propaganda by Monuments’ by Ivan Vladislavic

In ‘Propaganda by Monuments’, Vladislavic bring into focus a similar dilemma, but in the context of apartheid. Told from two points of view, the story contemplates the fate of discarded statues: what would happen if they were exported to another country, and how it would affect the identity of the sender and recipient. In contrast to the parochial setting of the other stories, Vladislavic’s is an international drama between South Africa and Russia. In Pretoria, one of the protagonists, Khumalo, has a brainwave when he reads a newspaper advertisement: Moscow City Council is giving away ‘surplus’ statues of Lenin. Khumalo reflects that apartheid has ended and his café now needs “a change of clothes”. He writes to Moscow asking if he could be gifted, or purchase, a “spare statue” for his renamed “V.I. Lenin Bar and Grill”. In Moscow, Grekov, a bored translator in the Administration of Everyday Services, receives the letter and sets out looking for the unwanted statues, in the “scrap heap… of history”. He tries but fails to imagine what will take the place of Lenin’s statues in the squares, and reflects “how soon people become bored with the making and unmaking of history”. This casual observation made flippantly by Grekov is in fact a profound realisation: the reader recognises that ordinary citizens are disinterested in history because it makes them feel nervous, insecure and irrelevant. When Khumalo receives Grekov’s response, he drives through a white neighbourhood, and stops to examine the monument of J.G. Strijdom, an Afrikaaner, and proponent of apartheid. Khumalo sees the sun shining through the statue’s “finely veined bronze ears”, and understands “how, but not necessarily why, the impossible came to pass”. Khumalo has comprehended less than he realises, and a broader and deeper understanding of historical consequences is the reader’s alone. 

Published in Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories, David Phillip, 1996

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