Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The FollyThe Folly by Ivan Vladislavić
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Practice makes perfect, and Malgas was something of a perfectionist. He practised seeing the new house until it came out of his ears. He popped open its rooms as if they were Chinese lanterns and stretched out entire wings like concertinas. He telescoped columns and slotted them into moist sockets on balconies. He unrolled floors and stacked up stairs. He rollercoastered reams of tiles over the rafters.
Then, in the wink of an eye, he did all of these things again in reverse.

I could consider Ivan Vladislavić's The Folly (1993) the second enigmatic book in a row that I have read this week, after Nicolas Freeling's This Is the Castle. Yet books can be considered enigmatic only if one looks for some meaning hidden under layers of prose, some messages that can be filtered out from the text. I believe that the prose in a book can stand on its own, without needing a crutch of some deeper truths to be gleaned from it. I think this is the case in Mr. Vladislavić's hilarious novel: it does not need interpretation and should be taken as is. The author seems to have had fun writing the book, and I certainly have had a fun time reading it.

Mr. Nieuwenhuizen (which, of course, means "new house", and which - for sake of brevity - I will abbreviate to N.) arrives to take possession of his property - an empty plot of land, overrun by weeds and covered with trash - and sets a camp there. When visited by Mr. Malgas, a curious neighbor (whose wife calls him Mr while he calls her Mrs), N. claims that he intends to build a house on the (p)lot. Mr - who runs a hardware store and is quite bored with his uneventful life with Mrs - is intrigued with his new neighbor's plan and tries to help him by procuring various potentially useful objects. Gradually, he seems to be gaining N.'s confidence and is allowed to help in the activities. When they finish clearing the lot, N. begins preparations to design a plan of the house. Pretty soon, while Mr gets more and more involved in the project, the reader begins to understand that N. does not have any intention to build anything. Still, the building plan is created, in the form of a tangle of strings held by huge nails hammered into the ground (N. sometimes resorts to using his forehead to accomplish the task). The crucial moment comes when Mr discovers an ability to visualize, at will, the building as if it were a real object. From there things go quickly to their logical conclusion.

Not only does the author seems to be having immense fun constructing the delightfully surreal plot but also he constantly plays with the language: in fact, I have had more fun with the quirky prose than with the bizarre plot. For instance, take the snippet "She switched off the set, belatedly, and the image died down into two coals under her eyelids. Remember, embers, mbrs, mrs, s." Wonderful! Take the lists of words that begin with a 'c'! Take N.'s peculiar way of moving around, reminiscent of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. Not to forget the overall hilarity of situations and dialogues between Mr and Mrs, who is more grounded in the so-called reality and less than impressed with the ongoing "construction activities".

There are a few items that probably go deeper than the pure surrealism and language play, but I am unable to quite grasp the author's intent (if indeed he had any). The most intriguing are the references to small-scale models of actual houses: the house-shaped mailbox as well as the models of houses, which N. conjures and juggles with like a magician. Is it a sort of literary mise en abyme? Also, the author - more than once - writes about how Mr's fingers either fit or don't fit into the ear of a mug. Curiouser and curiouser!

To sum up: while The Folly is a fascinating read that I have fully enjoyed, I still prefer books which - in addition to masterly form - resonate with me on deeper levels.

Three and a half stars.

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