‘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

‘A Labour of Moles’ by Ivan Vladislavić

A business of ferrets, a skulk of foxes, a drudgery of lexicographers: everybody loves an evocative collective noun. It was for this most chirpheaded of reasons that I clocked this slim, red-spined Sylph Edition in a secondhand bookshop. Vladislavić was not a name I recognized and it was purely because of the pamphlet’s pleasing title, the fact its pages had a beautiful weight to them and the wonderful illustrations — watercolour splashes across technical illustrations from the Duden Bildwörterbuch‘ pictorial dictionary, printed on tracing paper — that my idle curiosity became a more committed browsing. By the end of the first paragraph, my jaw was on the floor.

A strange narrator explores the strange limits of a strange new world: indexed language itself. This short story has all the charge of a murder mystery, the playful wince and winch of Carrollian rabbitholes and the whirl of a prose-poem. ‘A Labour of Moles’ changed my relationship to the alphabet.

Cahier Series #17, published by University of Chicago Press through Sylph Editions with the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris in 2012