The unutterable hubris of the copycat

imitation

ARGENTINE WRITER JORGE Luis Borges (1899-1986) did it. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco (1932-2016) did it. And now, there’s South African philosopher Leonhard Praeg with his debut novel weaving together a tale of self-reflection and intrigue; philosophy, politics and coincidence, to say nothing of love and tragedy in a way that will grab you by the mind and spirit and not let go, even after you’ve finished reading it. Imitation is an extremely lucid narrative which doffs a hat to Czech writer Milan Kundera (b. 1929) as it plays intelligently and curiously with all the possibilities of what storytelling can be.

Granted, it doesn’t have the gravitas of Eco’s Name of the Rose, which engages the meaning of laughter in the world through a medieval cipher, but it sits comfortably on the same shelf. Cast between a farm in the Karoo, an apartment in Paris and a building site on the Ivory Coast, among other places; it’s contemporary and sexy without being overworked or irrelevant and once you start reading it, you will not be able to remove yourself from its confines until the very last page.

The novel weaves together first person narrative with the back story of fictional characters developed through the pen of Kundera and truths that play with the notion of hubris in our world. What Praeg is doing here is penetrating deeply into Kundera’s 1990 novel Immortality, and exploring the what ifs of that tale. In doing so, he finds other characters of his own, including a young man who is safe in the confines of his own silence and has survived 17 suicide attempts. And while each of the book’s seven parts seems self-standing, they’re tacked together with delicate yet robust threads that jolt you in the solar plexus when you see them.

In the 1980s, a basilica called Our Lady of Peace was controversially commissioned and built in Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital of Côte d’Ivoire. Controversial because it was paid for by the country’s then dictator, one Félix Houphouët-Boigny, from his private monies. Controversial because it was extremely costly and the community, extremely poor. And controversial because it challenged the architectural integrity of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Praeg’s character is insinuated into this heady tale of imitation and hubris as the project’s publicity guy.

And no, it’s less of a tale about the architecture and more of one about the underpinning thinking that enabled it to happen, and to exist in the world. Imitation, they say, is the most earnest kind of admiration. And from this premise a yarn of such noble and internal proportions evolves that you’re left sleepless. How does Buffon’s needle which posits an 18th century theory of coincidence relate to psychiatric patients on the steps of a mental institution in Switzerland? How does a friendly gesture by an elderly swimming student to her gym instructor erupt into a narrative of engagement, which crosses lines of gender habits? This very finely constructed novel makes you sit up and focus as the most extraordinary associations are brought to bear and contextualised with wit and wisdom.

Marred ever so slightly by a couple of subbing oversights and a little too much moralising when it comes to the taxonomy of ruling structures, the work is a very powerful read which is elegantly structured and beautifully told. It’s a feather in the cap of Praeg as a fictional debut, but also one in that of the University of Pretoria, where Praeg heads up the philosophy department.

  • Imitation by Leonhard Praeg is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg (2018).
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The stuff of nightmares

shirinneshat

SILENT reach: a still from Shirin Neshat’s Roja. Photograph courtesy Goodman Gallery.

AS YOU WALK into the gallery space, an aura of stunned silence enfolds you. There’s a single silver gelatin print by Shirin Neshat from her film Roja hanging on the wall before you: A young woman in black stands in front of a huge, vaguely mushroom-shaped building. And it is mesmerising. And terrifying, in a way you can’t quite put your finger on … but try as you will to pull your attention from it, you will fail.

It is the magnetism of these quiet yet deeply threatening works that force you to remember the title of the exhibition, and indeed, as you watch each of the two films on show in the gallery – Roja and Sarah – you feel yourself twisting and turning in your own metaphorical bedclothes as you struggle to make sense of a dream context that is impossibly frightening while it borders on the intangible and obscure.

There’s a passage in Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which a woman finds herself alone on an island inhabited by children.  It’s an immensely disturbing passage, blending a sense of sexual violation with an understanding of disorientation, but it is written with such a delicate yet acerbic pen that it is unforgettable and leaks into your subconscious. Similarly with Neshat’s work.

Entwining tones of light and the power of water to render images ghoul-like in their intensity and obscurity, this veteran Iranian-born, nomadic artist, whose work premiers in South Africa with this exhibition, knits together an understanding of fear in a world fraught with the threat of conflict. And yet, in its obscurity, it holds to the notion of dream.

But this is not comforting. Similar to Esther, Queen of the Swamp, a chilling video installation by Israel-based artist Miri Nishri – exhibited in Johannesburg in 2013 –Neshat’s film Sarah trammels through a sparsely treed forest, but it embraces a such a potent sense of dramatic expectation that you feel your heart beating rapidly in anticipation as you sit in the darkened space and drink up the sheer texture and focus of the material.

It is, however, the film Roja that might throw you emotionally. Conjoining so tight a focus with so broad a reach, the work engages with what could be the weight of guilt which a parent imposes upon an adult child. Or with the looming presence of politics. Rich with recrimination, accusation and theatricality, the work is bold, breathtakingly beautiful and in many ways almost sterile in its sense of silence. But you will take it away with you, when you leave the gallery. And when you try to sleep at night.

Elegantly hung, this exhibition, which focuses more on the nebulous stuff of dreams than on the politically articulate gestures involving text on the body for which Neshat is better known, comprises 10 works – including the two video installations – and each of the photographs is not only printed to a large format, but it is so big from a visual and an iconic angle that it stops you dead in your tracks.

  • Dreamers by Shirin Neshat is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until September 14. 011 788 1113.