Reviewed by Karen Langley
We all know the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, a tale that shows not only just how gullible we human beings are, but also the power of words and the ability for self-deception. Although it’s an old story, we still constantly delude ourselves today, and that’s the concept behind Ivan Vladislavic’s thought-provoking novel The Folly.
Vladislavic was born in Pretoria and now lives in Johannesburg; known also as a short story writer, this was his first novel, originally published in 1993 and now being brought out by And Other Stories.
The Folly is set in South Africa, and introduces us to the suburban and contented couple Mr and Mrs Malgas. Quietly living in their little house with sunny images on the wall, their peaceful existence is disrupted by the arrival of one Nieuwenhuizen (whose name apparently means ‘new house’ in Afrikaans….). The latter moves onto the vacant plot next to the Malgas residence and proceeds to make a home of sorts there. He pitches a tent, fashions utensils out of scrap and starts to clear areas of the plot.
Mr Malgas, who is ‘in’ hardware, is fascinated by the new neighbour and somehow attracted to him; Mrs. Malgas, obsessed with knick-knacks, neatness and the television, is appalled and repelled. Mr (as he’s referred to throughout the book) makes tentative attempts at contact, and is soon drawn into Nieuwenhuizen’s way of life, spending evenings sitting by the camp fire, eating strange stew, whilst Mrs watches in horror from behind her net curtains.
The sun was rising as usual behind the hedge when Malgas tramped across the devastated plot. Grass and weeds mown down, fractured stems and lacerated leaves, flayed boles and bulbs, dismembered trunks and dislocated roots told a moving tale of cruelty and kindness in the name of progress. The carpet underfoot was steeped in dew and its own spilt fluids, and it offered up a savoury aroma as he passed over. The sun brushed the back of his neck with tepid fingers and made him shiver with anticipation. His eyes in turn caressed the bruised skin of the horizon, and then snagged on the protruding tip of his own roof-tip. It was stained, he noticed, with the blood of the dawn.
Soon Mr Malgas is heavily involved in Nieuwenhuizen’s plan for a house – for indeed Nieuwenhuizen claims he intends to build something palatial here; the two men clear the plot (with Mr doing the heaviest of the work) and Nieuwenhuizen starts to ponder the design. However, strangely enough, despite the fixing of many nails in the ground and attaching of string, Malgas finds it impossible to see the mansion that Nieuwenhuizen claims is springing up around them… And while all this is going on, Mrs hides inside watching increasingly violent happenings on her TV.
The Folly is a fascinating piece of fiction, and one that’s quite unsettling. None of the characters are quite what they seem – Nieuwenhuizen himself is a nebulous, often slippery individual and it’s hard to work out if he really thinks he’s constructing a mansion or whether there is something more subtle going on under the surface. Mr Malgas is a very recognisable type: a little under the thumb, a little uncomfortable with domesticity, eager to slip away from the ties of the home and ‘go out to play’ with a friend, yet out of his depth; and Mrs, with her ornaments, her nerves and her uncertainty, struggles to cope with her husband’s new craze.
The title, of course, could refer to two aspects of the book; there is the folly of Malgas in believing that Nieuwenhuizen has the wherewithal to build the house and that it will actually take place; then there is the other meaning of folly, which an online site defines as “a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose, especially a tower or mock-Gothic ruin built in a large garden or park”. Really, the book takes in both kinds of folly and blends them brilliantly.
One of the intriguing elements of the book is how Nieuwenhuizen actually has to do very little to draw Malgas into his world and convince him that a house will be built. Malgas himself is the one who makes the approaches, who does much of the talking, who draws out of Nieuwenhuizen the plan, and who involves himself of the building of the apparent mansion – and who seems to be searching for some kind of castle in the air. It takes little effort on the part of the enigmatic Nieuwenhuizen to entrap Malgas and simply by being distant and enigmatic, he’s able to make Malgas want to convince himself that the house exists.
I’ve seen this book described as an allegory of the rise and fall of apartheid, though I don’t know enough about the subject to say whether it is or not. What it does have, though, is the most wonderful use of language; the metaphors are unexpected and brilliant, and Vladislavic conjures up the Malgases, Nieuwenhuizen and their world vividly. The descriptions of the mansion take you right into the world of Nieuwenhuizen and Mr as they sit in their chairs in the rumpus room, or stroll down a long gleaming gallery to the house’s bar in a way that is totally convincing.
Much like the Emperor’s New Clothes, The Folly is very much about our need to believe and what happens when that belief is lost. We’re susceptible beings, able to be persuaded about many things when we should be more sceptical. The Folly is a wonderful piece of fiction that explores these concepts and sets you looking at the world around you with very different eyes…
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and likes to build castles in the air.
Ivan Vladislavic, The Folly (And Other Stories, 2015). 978-1908276704, 169pp, paperback.