Book Review: The Distance by Ivan Vladislavić

The Distance by a wonderful South African novelist, Ivan Vladislavic is a magnificent and stunning literary achievement. This is a remarkable, thoughtful read and a real feast for all the bibliophiles. This book is both, global and local; universal and South African – Praetorian; ordinary and surreal; alien and familiar. The ‘distance’ in the book is both, metaphorical and real.

The Distance is a profoundly moving study in family relations during the political and social changes offering a very intimate insight into snippets of the South African society of the 1970s, as well as that of the present day. The story features the variety of themes including love, memory, loss, immigration, our own perception of who we are and its impact on how we perceive the world, race relations in the 1970s and a present-day South Africa and the limitation of language.

The story evolves around two narrators, voices – brothers, Joe and Branko Blahavić, originally from Pretoria who are of Croatian descent (like Vladislavic himself). In the book, they tell their childhood story, alternating between the two versions. We follow them as they grow up in the 1970s Pretoria and then their later adult selves. There is also a third silent protagonist, a famous boxer of that era, Muhammad Ali (also Cassius Clay).

Joe is revisiting his childhood scrapbooks in which he meticulously recorded the heights of Ali’s careers, mainly from the 1971 Fight of the Century between Ali and Joe Frazier until their rematch in 1975, as well as Ali’s conflict with the authorities and his flamboyant persona.

 Boxing or rather the theatrical aspect of that fight with Frazier and the invented persona of Ali constitutes a backdrop for the story of our narrators’ childhood portrayed in the context of a complex South African society. The Distance explores the dynamics between two brothers and their memories about their childhood, the idea of masculinity, power, and social changes in the apartheid South Africa as they grow up.
Joe and Branko are vastly different characters. Branko is an outgoing extrovert who always fits in while Joe is a quiet introvert, a misfit, an outsider who prefers reading books to spending time with people. There is clearly a distance between two of them when it comes to their personalities and how they perceive the world. That distance widens as they enter adulthood.

In The Distance there is an interesting usage of different streams of language, from the one used by sport commentators when talking about Ali or used in the newspaper to the use of many local words, including many Afrikaans terms creating the sense of familiarity of place and time and marking the events of significance in our narrators’ lives. This is also a book about limitations of words, and linguistic expressions when it comes to depicting the current events.

The ‘distance’ in the book carries a multitude of meanings: that of the language as mentioned above, that of often seen in the complex family relations; that of the persona of Muhammad Ali and his previous self, Cassius Clay and his relations to the surrounding world he lived in; that of Joe’s perception of the world and his attempt to find his own path; that of the immigrants (in this case of Croatian descent) living apart from the apartheid society in the 1970s South Africa.

The Distance is like a literary museum of individual childhood memories contrasted with the reality of living in a complex society.

This book has resonated with me deeply. You do not have to be a fan of boxing or have a huge understanding of South Africa to devour this book.

Ivan Vladislavic guides the reader throughout the process of reading The Distance, offering many detailed descriptions of unfamiliar aspects of the world he portrays. Ivan Vladislavic is unbelievably sensitive, thoughtful, ambitious and compelling writer and I will definitely add his other books to my never ending reading list.

Thank you Archipelago Books for this gifted copy of The Distance. It was a wonderful literary treat .

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