After reading Double Negative recently by Ivan Vladislavic, I was very eager to read the re-launch of an older novel, The Restless Supermarket. Once again Vladislavic writes about Jo'burg and the many changes it has undergone in recent times. Reading it left me with no doubts about Vladislavic' skills as a writer. What that man can do with the English language leaves me breathless at times; I am either stunned into pure awe or laughing so hard (inside) that I can't breathe! This book is a definite treasury for proofreaders, or anyone interested in/involved with the publishing industry, as well as logophiles in general. For me, having done proofreading at Uni and being in possession of that healthy dose of anal retentiveness required for proofreading, I really had a fun time reading it. For people who can't stand being corrected, perhaps this isn't the book for you.
Retired proofreader Aubrey Tearle finds his world turned upside down when his daily haunt, the Cafe Europe in Hillbrow, announces that it is shutting down. Tearle is a lonely nit picker, and it seems that his only social contacts are other guests at the Cafe Europa. Little by little he tells us how he became part of a group of people frequenting the place. However, we get a strong impression that Tearle's strong opinions created a gap between his acquaintances and himself that he failed to see until it was too late.
Tearle is busy with his life's work, the Proofreader's Derby. Throughout his career, Tearle collected examples of written errors and typos. They now make up the Proofreader's Derby, a competition Tearle is determined to show his "friends" on the farewell bash that marks the end of the Cafe Europa. But will he finish it on time? And do any of his "friends" have the skills needed to correct it?
The Cafe Europa stands as a sort of symbol of apartheid in the novel. The name itself should be an indication. Hillbrow used to be one of the most trendy "white" suburbs of Jo'burg, but towards the end of apartheid an increasing number of black people moved in, and the whites basically ran away. Tearle mentions how the Cafe came under "new management", which echoes how South Africa itself came under "new management" in 1994. Tearle doesn't seem to be very happy about how the world as he knows it is changing. He sees the increasing number of errors in the newspapers as a sign that society as a whole is deteriorating.
Tearle sees himself as a kind of savior. Towards the end of the novel, we get to read his Proofreader's Derby, which is a kind of story or fairytale about an imaginary place where everything suddenly falls apart. The proofreaders are the ones supposed to hold it all together, and Tearle's alter ego is their leader. Boundaries are literally moved and erased, literary as well as geographical. There is a lot we can read into this as a comment on the novel as a whole. The South African geography is literally changing, but the language is also changing. And when you look around Jo'burg today, streets, hospitals, airports and universities have changed names, and there has been a geographical move of people and places in a much larger sense.
As the reader, I didn't much like Tearle, and to be honest, I don't think I'm supposed to. I sympathize with him, however, and I can kind of understand where he's coming from. Tearle estranges people, insults his "friends" without realizing it, and is completely oblivious to anyone else's needs. I often laugh at him (and a few times with him). Towards the end of the novel Tearle kind of gets a chance to redeem himself, however.
The Restless Supermarket is a comment on the changing South Africa, the changing political climate, and the many prejudices that are bound to stick around. It is both funny and thought-provoking, intelligent and sad. Tearle's fear of being erased by the changing landscape is understandable, as the world as he knows it is disappearing in front of his eyes.
A quality read, I hope countless logophile geeks take the time to read, and reflect on Vladislavic' book. It is important. And in today's political climate, where freedom of expression and artistic freedom is under attack by the current ANC government, it becomes even more important.