Do double negatives cancel each other out in life as do the ironic positions people adopt? The title references both this possibility and the world of photography, with a nod to the literal meaning of the word, ‘negative’. Much of Ivan Vladislavic’s writing is preoccupied with living spaces whether these are suburbs, houses, housing estates or the construction of these things. Borders in the built environment represent social and political borders. Land and housing and how we separate ourselves from each other are fraught issues in South Africa and the writer is very sensitive to this.
The protagonist, Neville, is disenchanted with life at the age of about twenty. This is apartheid South Africa where if you were not at university, you would be sent to the army. He dabbles in politics but is too nervous to do anything too radical and then drops out of Wits. His father arranges for him to spend a day with the renowned photographer, Saul Auerbach, in the hope that Nev could learn from him. He thinks Saul is “a man with strong convictions, but he’s learned to direct them.”
This fascinating day takes up just under half the novel. Saul picks up another companion for the day, a Brit journalist, Gerald Brookes. Vladislavic’s descriptions of people are wonderful; brief yet vivid. He describes Gerry as a “red stump of a man with a bald head curiously creased in the middle like an apricot. The lenses of his black-rimmed glasses were as thick as metaphors.” As they drove around Johannesburg, from the Hillbrow Tower to Yeoville to Kensington, the discussion moves from the pros and cons of the cultural boycott, to the artistic process and the artistic point of view with respect to photography. As an experiment, Gerry suggests they each pick a house from the top of the hill where they were eating lunch. He believes Saul can make a story out of anything. This exercise brings them close to the contradictory realities of apartheid South Africa and Neville find himself defending the indefensible. He appreciates the day more in hindsight than he did at the time and it is to have a profound effect on him.
Later, in London, when Neville stumbles into a job taking photos of properties for advertising, he is resistant because it reminded him of this day and it made him feel like a “well-behaved child”, programmed by his father. He had left to avoid conscription but ten years later, apartheid ends and he goes home. He drives around the city, re-exploring all the changes, the familiar now rendered unfamiliar though still recognisable. He is drawn to the houses the three had visited all those years ago. His encounters with people and the spaces they inhabit as well as his reflections on the changes are described in succinct, incisive language which nevertheless reveals the underlying emotions.
The wheel comes full circle when, years later, Neville has achieved some fame with his photographs of walls, and is interviewed by a blogger, Janie. This section is very amusing as Neville observes himself in relation to this new type of media being. Spanning three very different decades through the lens of photography and the perspective of a self-evaluating protagonist with a cynical eye, this book is a literary delight. I savoured every mouthful.
Double Negative was first published as a fictional companion to David Goldblatt’s book of Johannesburg photographs, called TJ. Now that I have read the book, I am longing to see the photographs. I wonder how the text is laid out in relation to the photographs. I also wonder if the photographs influenced or inspired the text. Nevertheless, despite my curiosity being piqued by this knowledge of the photographs, the novel stands alone, a work of art in its own right.