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Book review: Double Negative, By Ivan Vladislavić

An incandescent South African novel that travels from apartheid to democracy

The publication of Double Negative, the South African writer Ivan Vladislavić's fourth novel (but the first to be launched in the UK), should be cause for celebration. In many ways, it is a pendant volume to his compellingly original book on Johannesburg, Portrait With Keys, a psychogeographical guided tour of the city like no other; Johannesburg is the fulcrum around which both works turn.

The South African photographer David Goldblatt stands, as a kind of photographic negative, behind the figure of Saul Auerbach, a photographer already touched by greatness, in the novel. (Indeed, Double Negative was first published as an accompaniment to a volume of Goldblatt's pictures of Johannesburg.) Auerbach and the book's first-person narrator, Neville Lister, will replicate, in more intricate ways, a photograph's negative-positive polarities.

The book unfolds in three sections, each of equal length. The first, set in apartheid Johannesburg in the early 1980s, follows college dropout Neville tagging along, somewhat reluctantly, with Auerbach and a braying English hack (a queasily comic gem, this), on a day of watching the master at work. They pick three houses from the top of a hill in the valley below; two are visited and Auerbach takes a photograph in each of those houses; the third, Neville's choice, remains unvisited. The second section, set in the mid-1990s, finds Lister in post-apartheid Johannesburg, settled into his profession of a "strictly commercial" photographer.

Lister was away in London for a decade and crucially missed the momentous transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy. Curiosity guides him to the house which they had missed out all those years ago. What he discovers there is quietly startling and is the novel's analogous offering to what Barthes identified in a great photograph as punctum, the detail that leaps out and wounds or pierces the viewer.

The final section, set in 2009, centres on Lister being interviewed by a hipster blogger for her website. We realise that he has begun to make a name, in his fifties, as a serious photographer, following perhaps in the footsteps of Auerbach, although Lister himself strenuously and self-effacingly denies any comparison of the great with the small.

The moorings of Double Negative lie not in Forsterian plot but in its subtle internal dynamics: think of the structural design of themes, motifs and phrases in music, instead of cumbersome load-bearing structures such as plot and character. This book coheres resplendently by its metaphorical underpinnings, by something rare in the world of contemporary fiction: meaning. It asks big questions: what, and how, do we remember? What traces does history leave behind, not only in human memory, individual and collective, but also on the texture of things, on the skin of a city, on the physical site of something vanished? How is the lost salvaged – by vision, by painstaking excavation, or by recording absences?

The book is both the repository of these questions and a kind of sidelong answer to them. Double Negative listens carefully to the sound of the ebb and flow of history and transcribes it in lucid, rigorous prose; Vladislavić is no minor congener of Sebald. The shadow of a nation's evil times falls on both writers' works but Vladislavić's engagement with it is slyer, more aslant, full of calculated misdirection, although brimful of Sebaldian melancholy.

A substantial pleasure of the book is the way Vladislavić has made non-fiction in its many forms – critical theory, the essay, (the illusion of) memoir – rub against the domain of storytelling, resulting in an incandescently intelligent and profound work. It is also a masterclass in making one art form – photography – speak within and through the containing vessel of another, the novel, and creating contrapuntal music out of it.

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