The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavić

03/04/14, The Independent

Apartheid has just ended and in Johannesburg, retired proofreader Aubrey Tearle, who has spent his entire life proofreading telephone directories, finds that his world is disintegrating: ‘silently, as we slept, the tide was darkening’, he euphemises, as even his refuge, Café Europa, a whites-only haunt, begins to allow entry to black people. Five years ago, things seemed somewhat tolerable, when the café had first set up, and Tearle had found friendship, of sorts, with a man called Spilkin, Mevrouw Bonsma, the café pianist, and Mevrou’s friend, Merle Graaff. But that golden age passed; we will find out why later.

Tearle believes in upholding certain standards and they ‘plumbed new depths (long since superseded) on the day Nelson “The Madiba” Mandela was released from prison’. The decline in standards in spelling and proofreading is only synecdochic. He goes armed with his seventh edition of the Concise OED to berate a kebab-shop owner for misspelling ‘hummus’ as ‘humus’; what a debacle (or ‘débâcle’, of course).

But Café Europa is shutting down and Tearle’s friend, Wessels (Tearle refers to him as ‘Empty Wessels’ behind his back), suggests a ‘goodbye bash’. All the old friends are invited and Tearle even manages to finish his magnum opus, ‘The Proofreader’s Derby’, a substantial piece of text strewn with corrigenda, to be administered as a test or competition to aspiring young proofreaders as part of the goodbye bash. But he has no idea what lies in store for him at this last hurrah for Café Europa.

Narrated in the first person by Tearle, Ivan Vladislavič’s award-winning 2001 novel, The Restless Supermarket, out in its first UK edition, has as its theme that one constant in the flux of the human condition: change. Vladislavič invests the subject with profound depth and inventiveness by focusing on a character who is resistant to history and is already petrifying in the tumultuous tides of his times.

The novel is also a masterpiece of voice, one that fits Tearle with miraculous perfection: pedantic; uptight; sneeringly undemocratic; periphrastic, sometimes; punning; sustainedly, outrageously witty. It is the wit of the cryptic crossword; of a wizard of words whose only deity is the OED. You will feel giddy reading this riot of a book, until you fall into the grip of sadness and pity at the end for, while elevating the effect of bathos to high art, Vladislavič has also deftly woven in pathos. Tearle has more than a touch of Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote; indeed, as a study of delusion, and especially in the contents and positioning of ‘The Proofreader’s Derby’, this novel is Vladislavič’s Pale Fire. A work of such immense imaginativeness, of such extraordinarily serious playfulness, comes along very rarely. Let us celebrate it.