One of my favorite lines in 20th-century literature is the second sentence in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, in which one of the main characters, Santiago, looks out from a doorway and wonders, “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” The book, which takes place and explores life in Peru under the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría in the 1950s, examines where things went wrong in the country and region during that tumultuous period, while also looking to the past when things were different. It’s a book about people trying to hold onto or recapture some semblance of the place they once knew.
There are plenty of books in which authors look back at how things in their homeland used to be. Llosa pulled this off (and eventually won a Nobel Prize), W. G. Sebald did it masterfully (and criminally didn’t win a Nobel Prize), and today we have writers like Teju Cole revisiting Lagos in his fiction, Aleksandar Hemon going back to Bosnia in his novels and essays, and Gary Shteyngart incorporating his native land, Russia, into most of his stories. All of these places have known — and in many cases, still know — great strife, and exploring how characters deal with home countries in flux tends to make for great stories.
With The Restless Supermarket, South African author Ivan Vladislavić (who Cole has praised as “amazing”) adds another book to that list, giving us a post-apartheid Archie Bunker in Aubrey Tearle, who sees things changing and can’t really get on board with that. A retired proofreader, Aubrey is the type of curmudgeon whose exploits are more laughable than commendable. Despite his protagonist being a self-righteous, self-absorbed person who doesn’t welcome change, Vladislavić gives readers an opportunity to witness and try and understand that change, which took place in the days leading up to Nelson Mandela’s election.
Aubrey writes letters to editors, and his missions are quixotic, almost calling to mind Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces. You can tell he’s the type who doesn’t care what you have to say, and nothing will ever be good enough for him. But he’s self-aware, at one point telling us, “Such a high-minded gesture, made at my own expense, would be easy to ridicule.” The gesture comes in the form of a letter sent to a publishing house, a “well-known English one with branches, or perhaps I should say tentacles, all over the world.”
Aubrey is the type of character who thinks he’s doing everybody a favor; like Llosa’s Santiago with Peru, Aubrey thinks Johannesburg fucked up at some point — only he’s delusional enough to think he can in some way fix it. But the real favor is the way we watch as history passes him by, something Vladislavić does masterfully, with just enough restraint shown so we almost end up feeling sympathetic for his pathetic protagonist whose aversion to change makes him a relic that we can’t help but laugh at.