With a tender wit, Vladislavić cuts through the ordinary, the profound, and the truly perplexing to reveal absurdities and truisms alike. From a man who forms a strong emotional attachment to his neighbor's wall to the etymology-obsessed inventor of the Omniscope, Vladislavic's characters are as well-constructed as his sentences and as playful as his prose. Flashback Hotel collects two volumes of short stories by one of contemporary South Africa's most acclaimed novelists.
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The Prime Minister is Dead
The Day They Killed the Prime Minister
They killed the Prime Minister during the winter.
I was ten years old. That year my parents and I moved to a house in a new suburb. Granny moved with us. Grandfather said he was too old to move, so he stayed behind in the old house. He gave us a post box and two plastic numbers for the gate, and wished us everything of the best in our new home.
It was an ordinary place. Three bedrooms, a lounge, a diningroom. No gnomes. No crazy paving. A reasonable path of solid cement from the front gate to the verandah steps. Laying the path was the first major task my father and I undertook.
When we moved in, the house still smelt of raw wood, fresh paint, putty. There was much to be done: the floors would have to be sealed, the fingerprints cleaned off the windowpanes, splatters of paint scraped off the tiles in the bathroom and the kitchen.
The garden was veld. The builders had simply fenced off a rectangle and cleared a patch big enough to put the house down on. The way to get the grass out is to attack the roots. You can't skoffel with a spade – it grows back. You have to work a fork in around each tuft, loosen the earth, stick a hose-pipe in among the roots, turn it on full-blast, blow the soil away. Then you pull on the grass until it comes out, roots and all, like a plug. Knock out the remaining soil against the ground, pile all the grass in the wheelbarrow, push it around to the compost heap at the back.
That's what my father and I were doing on the day they killed the Prime Minister. I was loosening the soil and my father was pulling the grass out. He was wearing his old army uniform, as he always did when we waged war against the garden. Granny was in her rocker on the front verandah, crocheting one of an endless pile of woollen squares which would eventually be herded together into a lopsided blanket. She was listening to the radio, silently, through a small earphone.
I was pushing a wheelbarrow full of grass around to the back. As I passed Granny, the rocker lost momentum, stopped. A brightly coloured square dropped to the floor. She hefted her large body out of the chair and stood swaying solemnly, still joined to the radio by the coil of flex. Then she bellowed: "The Prime Minister is dead! Some madman chopped him up with a panga!"
I carried that thought with me, like a peach pip in my cheek, as I pushed the wheelbarrow round to the back and tipped the grass into the hole my father and I had dug the weekend before.
I see now that the death of a Prime Minister has many consequences.
When my grandfather died he left us a suitcase. There was something in it for each of us. My father got a suit that was too big for him, and a pair of pruning-shears. My mother got some newspaper clippings and some photographs, old and cracked like leather. I got a pair of lucky nail-clippers given to my grandfather by an Italian prisoner of war.
When the Prime Minister died he left us a compost heap, on which practically anything would grow. Mealies grew there once, all by themselves. Granny speculated that Lazarus, who sometimes worked in the garden, must have thrown away the sweet-corn that she'd given him for lunch.
Once the Prime Minister was dead they started renaming streets after him, and stations, and schools, even pleasure resorts. Then they renamed our suburb after him. They wanted us to live in a monument. It was a new suburb, and no one minded.
When I came back around to the front with the empty wheelbarrow my father was standing to attention and my mother was holding a glass of sugar water to Granny's lips. She had unplugged Granny from the radio and turned it up so that we could all hear.
Granny finished a blanket that evening, during the seven o'clock news.
The Day We Buried the Prime Minister
We buried the Prime Minister in the spring.
My father and I were planting the orchard on that day. There were thirty trees in all. Three rows, ten trees in each. A platoon of trees, my father called them. The holes we dug were deep and perfectly round. We marked them out with a compass made of two nails joined by a piece of sisal string eighteen inches long.
My father loosened the earth with a pick and I shovelled it out of the hole. The ground was very hard and we had to soak it with water from the hose-pipe. Soon my hands and feet were covered with mud. As the hole got deeper the colour of the earth would change.
My father said he had desert sand in the turn-ups of his khaki pants, left over from the war. "Come," he would say to me, "hold your dixie here." Then I would cup my hands next to his hairy calves, and he'd peel back the turn-ups so that a trickle of sand flowed into my hands. "Dyed with the blood of patriots," he said, if the sand was red, and "Bleached white as bone by the desert sun," if it was white.
Granny was sitting in her rocker, under a beach umbrella, with the radio on her knees. At three o'clock they were going to cross live to the funeral. We would have a running commentary of the whole procession from the church, through the streets of the city, to Heroes' Acre at the cemetery.
"Numero Uno!" Granny shouted. "Rotting in the soil. A piece of meat. Shame. He leaves a wife and six children."
"He leaves more than that," my father said. And then to me: "Get in the hole, Private."
The holes for the fruit trees had to be four feet deep. I was the measuring-stick: when I stood in the hole the ground had to be level with the top of my head. We put rocks in the bottom of the hole for drainage, then compost, then a layer of sand sieved through an old mesh gate. Then smaller stones. More compost and more sand. Each layer of sand had to be thoroughly watered. When the hole was almost full we chose one of the saplings that stood ready in the shade next to the house. We left the name tag on each tree so that we would know which was which until it bore fruit.
All the trees grew except for the fig-tree, third from the right, in the back row. It didn't die either. It just stayed exactly the way it was when we put it into the ground.
My grandfather came once a year after that to prune the trees. Each time he would stop before the stunted fig-tree and shake his head. But he said that it was good that one tree failed: the earth should never be too kind. It spoiled people.
After he died we let the trees grow wild. We were sick of peaches and plums, and chutney, and jam. We let the weight of the fruit snap the branches and we let the fallen fruit rot into the ground.
"I'm pleased the old man isn't here to see this," my mother would say.
At a quarter to three my mother brought out tea and a plate of biscuits.
"You know," she said when we were drinking the tea, 'this funeral is a big occasion. We're not likely to see another like it in our lifetimes."
"Unless they kill the new Prime Minister," my father replied.
"Don't speak like that in front of the child," Granny said sternly.
"It won't harm him if it's true," my father said. "They're pulling out all the stops on this funeral. Massed bands, tanks, a fly-past of jets. Every citizen issued with a flag, every building draped in crêpe. A twenty-one-gun salute. Now if they kill the new Prime Minister, and I think this is not unlikely, they'll have to do the same, won't they? It wouldn't do if they gave the next Prime Minister a half-hearted send-off."
"That may well be so," my mother said, "but the point is that we shouldn't think that way. You can't go through life taking the great events of history for granted. When one comes along you've got to grab it with both hands."
My father put down his teacup, took the beret out of his epaulette and shuffled it back onto his head, catching up the hair that spilled forward over his forehead. "What are you getting at?"
"I think it's our duty to let the boy be part of today's ceremony. Look." She took a page of the newspaper from her apron pocket and spread it out on the ground. There was a map with a dotted path running through it, and she traced this route with her finger. "The procession's passing by just here in about thirty minutes. It's a short walk away. Why don't the two of you clean yourselves up and then you take the boy down to have a look."
Just then Granny let out a terrifying scream.
My father stood. "All right men," he said to me, "you've got thirty seconds to wash your hands and feet. Then I want you formed up and ready to move out."
"You should wash up decently and put on some proper clothes," my mother protested.
"Nonsense," my father said. "In times of war we dispense with formalities. We'll go as we are, stained with combat and proud of it.'
I washed my hands and feet under the tap, then fell in. My father inspected me briefly. Then he ordered me to climb into the wheelbarrow, passed me the newspaper, took up position between the handles, and we set out. Just before we disappeared around the side of the house I looked back. My mother was packing the teacups onto the tray. Granny waved.
The metal wheel of the wheelbarrow clattered on the tar. The sound seemed very loud, because the streets were so quiet and empty. Sometimes as we passed a house I could hear the muted voice of a radio. But there was none of the usual Saturday bustle. No children playing, no one washing a car or working in the garden.
We did not speak for several blocks. When we came to Theo's cafe, the limit of my world, my father stopped. He took the map from me and studied it. Then he asked me to hold one corner and with his stubby fingers, the nails still caked with mud, he showed me the way. "We have to go south now for three blocks. Then we have to turn west for another four, and we're there." We went on.
Now there were fewer houses, more shops and office blocks. The streets began to fill with people, all walking in the same direction we were. They were dressed in suits and church dresses, and they walked along in silence. Some of the men wore black armbands. As we approached the older part of the city the buildings became greyer, gloomier. Here huge columns supported stone pediments. Old statues, the flesh blistered and corroded, stared down at us.
When the tar gave way to cobbles the clanking of the wheel grew even louder and now several people stopped to stare at us. I leaned back in the wheelbarrow so that I could look up at my father. His jaw was as set and craggy as a statue's. His eyes looked stonily ahead. The hair that curved back from under the beret could have been cast in bronze. Then I too looked ahead and tried to mould his hard expression to my face.
We stopped soon at a kiosk where we each received a little flag. Then we rattled on, and at the end of the block I could see a jostling wall of black cloth, splashed with colour – the colours of the flag – and many pale profiles all facing to one side. Some of these faces looked back, annoyed, as we approached. We parked behind the wall of people and my father hoisted me onto his shoulders. Then he climbed carefully onto the barrow.
"We're right on time," he said.
The wall had absorbed all colour and sound, but now that we rose above it we could see the bright, gleaming procession, hardly a block away, and hear the music.
The procession drew slowly closer. In front was a phalanx of traffic officers, the sun flashing from the windshields of their motorcycles and their black leather boots and gloves. Then came the drum major, shrouded in leopard skin, and the band, all its pipes and tappets bristling. Behind that another machine, a company of soldiers, slow-marching. And then came a truck towing the Prime Minister, in a box covered with a ceremonial flag, on top of a gun carriage, as if he was a secret weapon captured from the enemy. Behind him another squad of soldiers, and behind them tanks, and behind them more soldiers as far as the eye could see.
This solemn movement, this stirring music, hemmed in on either side by the frozen waves of mourners.
When the first company of soldiers had almost passed us, my father raised his arm in a rigid salute. I waved my flag. The men around us swallowed and stared ahead. Some of the women dabbed at their eyes with the little flags. A child started crying.
Then, as the gun carriage drew level with us, the truck suddenly coughed, jerked, and came to a halt. A cloud of black smoke poured from the exhaust pipe. The soldiers behind faltered. The front ranks began to mark time. Those behind marched slowly and solemnly into those in front. A few of the men dived for cover under the gun carriage.
The band and the first soldiers marched on. Between them and the stalled truck a fascinating gap began to open.
The driver of the truck climbed hurriedly down and opened the bonnet, tinkered with the engine. Behind, the soldiers stumbled and coughed in the smoke. The gun carriage was now completely obscured.
My father snapped out of his salute, jumped down from the wheelbarrow and squatted so that I could climb from his shoulders.
"Private, we must do what must be done."
He took up the wheelbarrow and, as if they understood our mission, the people parted to let us through.
The box was heavy. The soldiers were already half a block ahead of us. We set off in pursuit, my father pushing the wheelbarrow while I held the box steady. The crowd waved us on. Once the flag got caught under the wheel, and the box was almost jerked from the barrow. My father was breathing heavily by the time we caught up with the soldiers, and adjusted our pace to the slow rhythm of the music.
I looked back and saw that the crowds that had lined the streets had surged together behind us and were following. On the dark surface of that wave the flotsam of the flags and their faces bobbed.
Outside the cemetery a man in white gloves waved the band and the soldiers off to one side into a parking-lot. He directed us straight ahead, through the wrought-iron gates, along the stone walkway that led to the grave. On either side the stone faces of the men in the history books looked down from their columns, unblinking, unmoved.
The grave. The black figures clustered together, the man with the book clutched under his arm, the brass railings. They stood as people do on the edge of a cliff.
My father's stride lengthened. I had to run to keep up with him. The box bucked violently. My father began to run. I stopped, panting, and stared after him. He ran towards the hole. The mouths of the people at the graveside opened. The man with the book held out his pale palm like a traffic officer.
My father ran on. At the last moment, on the very lip of the grave, he dug the metal prow of the barrow into the earth and heaved.CHAPTER 2
Flashback Hotel *TYYY
Fetched my mail. The man behind the counter was my father. He didn't recognize me. There was a letter I had addressed to myself several years before. My handwriting was young. I slit it open. Inside were a SASE and a note on pale-blue paper with doggies in the corners.
RE: MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE
The note described me: height, weight, colour of hair, colour of eyes, scars, moles.
It listed aliases.
It described what I was wearing when I disappeared.
It requested information about my present whereabouts.
It offered a reward for information leading to my arrest.
The dining-room walls were mirrored. Fat people were fattening themselves at little tables whose legs curved under the weight of plates and paunches. Waiters dressed in rags and clotted furs distributed roughage. Their wounds were bound with dishcloths. There were fatty spots on the bandages where the pus had seeped.
Embroidery of Johnnie Walker, Sealy Posturepedic, Toyota Corolla, Eno, Southern Suns.
I ran through the dining-room (I had to go badly) but kept banging into mirrors.
My nose began to bleed and one of the waiters (Nedbank) offered me an ice bucket.
I went to the Stadium. I was alone on the bus. In the Stadium I was a crowd of one. I climbed up to the highest tier and found myself a seat. A spotlight like a snooker cue slid down from the darkness above me. It rested on the centre spot. In the light was my father dressed in a white suit.
There had been
BOMB BLAST IN THE CITY HOTEL
There was a crater in the foyer filled up with water from burst pipes and with pieces of piano. Some dead waiters had been piled in the hole like stepping-stones so that guests could cross over safely.
I went into the Ladies Bar. The television set was repeating itself: action replays of the explosion with subtitles in many languages.
The Manager was laid out on a bed of ice on the counter. The edges of his suit were frosted.
The Assistant Manager was consulting with the Chief of Police at a table in a corner. They were sipping Blanc de Noir and staring into one another's eyes across a candle flame.
The sound of ice splintering. The Manager raised his head and, without opening his eyes, told me to leave.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Flashback Hotel"
Copyright © 2010 Ivan Vladislavic.
Excerpted by permission of archipelago books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Prime Minister is Dead, 15,
Flashback Hotel *TYYY, 27,
Journal of a Wall, 43,
The Box, 75,
We Came to the Monument, 107,
A Science of Fragments, 125,
Tsafendas's Diary, 137,
When My Hands Burst into Flames, 149,
The Terminal Bar, 157,
Propaganda by Monuments,
The Tuba, 181,
Propaganda by Monuments, 199,
The whites only Bench, 257,
The Omniscope (Pat. Pending), 279,
The Book Lover, 297,
Alphabets for Surplus People, 335,
Isle of Capri, 383,
The Firedogs, 437,