The Folly by Ivan Vladislavic (And Other Stories – November 2015)
Mr and Malgas are living a comfortable middle-class existence, in the western surburbs of Johannesburg, when their routine is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger who sets up camp in the vacant plot next to their house. At first they fear he might be a squatter:
‘Will he put up a shack and bring hundreds of his cronies to do the same? “Extended families.” What do you think? Will they hammer together tomato boxes and rubbish bags, bits of supermarket trollies and motor cars, noticeboards and yield signs, gunny sacks and jungle gyms, plastic, paper, polystyrene . . . ’
To assuage his wife’s fears Mr Malgas visits his new neighbour, Nieuwenhuizen, and learns that he is intending to build a house on the land. He does not appear to have many possessions, tools or materials with which to build, but what he does have is a visionary imagination:
An ornate citadel, in which were many golden chambers, with corridors and staircases of copper and brass, and silver and lead, and bronze and pewter and aluminium foil, and other metals too numerous to mention, took shape in the heart of the fire, endured and crumbled away.
Mr Malgas is a practical man and works in a hardware shop so he helpfully pitches in even though he hasn’t quite grasped Nieuwenhuizen’s vision for the new house. The building project makes slow progress but Malgas devotes himself to the practicalities of clearing the land and marking out dimensions. Nieuwenhuizen oversees the project, avoids getting his own hands dirty and taunts his pragmatic neighbour about his lack of insight until, eventually, Malgas begins to perceive what Nieuwenhuizen has in mind.
The Folly was first published in South Africa in 1993, post Nelson Mandela’s release from prison but prior to the first democratic elections in 1994, but it is impossible to place this book in a particular period—there is a lot of ‘unrest’ but nothing specific enough to tie the book’s timeline to. It is a difficult book to classify but it could be described as magical realism with a sharp, satirical edge.
The Folly was originally interpreted by readers as an allegory about the rise and fall of apartheid and there is a strong argument to be made that Nieuwenhuizen (meaning ‘new houses’) represents Hendrik Verwoerd: he asks Malgas to call him ‘father’, Verwoerd was known as the ‘architect of apartheid’ and famously described apartheid as a ‘policy of good neighbourliness’. But this book could also be read as a general meditation on the power of persuasion or, more specifically, on the way that ordinary people allow atrocities to take place, either through apathy or by being swept away by the rhetoric of charismatic leaders.
Mr Malgas is so desperate for Nieuwenhuizen’s approval that he jumps through hoops to prove worthy of the privilege of working alongside him, even to the extent of debasing himself like Job:
Mr took off his clothes. He rubbed sand and ash all over his skin and scraped if off with sticks and stones. He put on his clothes again and went and stood next to Nieuwenhuizen, staring out. They walked together, arm in arm, and stopped, walked apart and waved to each other, lay down on the ground like a pair of brackets, and went to sleep.
Malgas dreamt that he and Nieuwenhuizen were flying at a great height (side by side).
In contrast, Mrs Malgas is passive, “…despite her better intentions, found that she could do nothing but observe.” She abdicates responsibility even though she can see the negative consequences of Nieuwenhiuzen’s influence on her husband. But in these responses, both Mr and Mrs Malgas are equally culpable.
The Folly is also overrun with lists of objects: collections of discarded items lying around Nieuwenhuizen’s plot that he scavenges and repurposes, inventories of ornaments and treasures - lists Mrs Malgas recites like a mantra to protect herself from the threat of Nieuwenhuizen’s dangerous ideas:
She went to her prize knick-knack cabinet and surveyed the exhibits. Budgie. Paper nautilus. Plastic troll. Worry-beads. Dinner-bell.
In the endless catalogue of things it becomes difficult to distinguish between precious possessions and rubbish—individual objects lose their significance in the same way that individual people seem to lose their value when categorised into race groups, viewed as immigration quotas or as refugee statistics. So perhaps this story has just as much relevance in contemporary Britain as it did in apartheid South Africa.
Though The Folly warns us of the danger of words, it is also a celebration of language. Vladislavic’s irrepressible passion for prose finds an outlet in effervescent descriptions and witty wordplay. He is as much the literary conjurer as Nieuwenhuizen as he engineers something enigmatic and magical out of the unlikely foundation of a neighbour’s DIY project.