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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Distance

Ivan Vladislavić

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To purchase The Distance

Title: The Distance
Author: Ivan Vladislavić
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019
Length: 290 pages
Availability: The Distance - US
The Distance - UK
The Distance - Canada
Distance - France
Schlagabtausch - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

A- : very well done; thoroughly engaging

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Mail & Guardian . 15/3/2019 Shaun De Waal
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 12/6/2020 Angela Schader
Süddeutsche Zeitung A 30/5/2020 Hubert Winkels

  From the Reviews:
  • "The story of the global pop culture figure of Ali, boxing and performing his way across the world, is contrasted with the textures and feelings of childhood, making an intriguing and moving narrative that encapsulates that era, and brings it to a close in present-day South Africa. Vladislavic has a wonderful sense of language, or languages -- for many tongues speak in The Distance." - Shaun De Waal, Mail & Guardian

  • "Jetzt bitte dabeibleiben, stark bleiben wie nach einem Uppercut in der ersten Runde. Denn tatsächlich haben wir es mit einem extrem ausgefeilten Textgewebe zu tun, in dem Spannung und echtes Mitgefühl mit seinen beiden Helden und Erzählern entsteht. Mit einer Romanerzählung, die vollständig aus ihren medialen Rahmenbedingungen heraus entwickelt wird. Ein kleines Wunder." - Hubert Winkels, Süddeutsche Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Distance has writer Joe Blahavić -- a clear stand-in for the author -- look back on his youth in Pretoria in the 1970s, inspired by three scrapbooks he put together at the time dedicated to his obsession with Muhammad Ali:

In time, I moved out of my parents' house and went to university, and I left the box behind in a cupboard. But the past is not so easily disposed of. I wanted to be a writer and the box came to seem like a key to my past. It was a journal written in code, the most complete record of my teenage life to which I had access, despite the fact that I was not mentioned in it once.
       He enlists his older brother, Branko, in the project, and the novel consists of alternating sections in each chapter -- reminiscences as well as present-day accounts of their work together -- by the two brothers, with Joe's sections written in the past tense and Branko's, which follow the progress of the project more closely, in the present. The collaboration is a "hare-brained scheme", Branko thinks -- though as a freelance film editor (though admittedly not very bookish) he's reasonably well-suited to the task -- but he goes along with it. And, if broadly autobiographical, The Distance does, well into the story, take a very abrupt turn -- a dazing punch readers don't see coming -- that clearly distinguishes author Vladislavić from his alter ego Joe.
       Branko was more the average teen, fitting in and understanding the school-world, while Joe was always a bit of a misfit, his head constantly buried in books. When Joe showed an interest in Ali it annoyed Branko -- "Sport is my thing and I wish he'd leave it alone" -- but as a teen he's also a mindful and protective older brother, to the extent that he frequently snoops around in Joe's things, or observes him from a distance; Joe, meanwhile, tends largely to the oblivious. While critical of (or baffled by) Joe's unworldliness and many of the decisions he makes, and how soft he is, Branko is supportive of his brother; typical of his attitude is an observation such as:
     In his last years at high school Joe falls in with a character called Mikey van der Plank, a cocky little bugger I don't like much, but at least he's a bad influence on my brother.
       Branko is a bit baffled by Joe's proposed project, and especially the focus on Ali: "What's the point ? There are hundreds of books about Ali", he reminds Joe -- but Joe has something else in mind:
     No, no, he says, exasperated. It's not about him, it's about us. Our lives together.
       But, as Branko points out when Joe shows him some of what he's done, Ali does seem to dominate it: "It's just bits and pieces of your scrapbooks -- sorry, your archive -- it's a cut-and-paste job".
       Joe's part of the account is, indeed, Ali focused. It is based on the scraps he collected, in three numbered albums and then a loose collection of the rest, most without any sort of attribution. Joe was obsessed with Ali at a time when South Africa was still without television -- amazing as it can seem, television broadcasting only commenced in 1976 in South Africa -- and so he never saw any of the fights at the time (though as Branko notes, they're all available on YouTube now), or any other Ali-footage, the act outside the ring which was such a big part of his very public persona. As Joe notes:
Everything I knew about him came down the wire; it was all at second hand, on the page.
       What captivated Joe, what got and kept him hooked, was the descriptions, the way Ali was captured and presented on the page; in a sense, Joe's fascination was entirely literary. So also in chronicling Ali's career and his following of it, Joe relies on the cut-outs, quoting from the texts and descriptions (effectively presented in novel set in gray, differentiating it from the narrative text), to give some sense of what gripped him. And even in adulthood, he admits:
     Whenever I page through the Ali scrapbooks, in search of a book that always eludes me, I remember reading these reports for the first time and the thrill comes back to me.
       Branko also notes just how influenced Joe was by his reading in his youth in general, adapting his own language to whatever currently struck him, from a Huck Finn-phase to Philip Marlowe: "It's not the first time Joe has found a language between the covers of a book and it won't be the last".
       The larger-than-life Ali and his ups and downs of course easily make for a fascinating backdrop, but even as he figures prominently in the account, Joe was correct in telling his brother that the planned book wasn't about him but rather about Joe and Branko and their family. If sister Sylvie, daddy's darling who: "always gets her way", mostly fades from the account and the mother also isn't a prominent figure, The Distance is still very much about family -- specifically the two brothers, but also in the extended sense, with, for example, Branko's wife and child becoming a more significant part of Branko's half as the story proceeds.
       The scrapbook-patchwork foundations of the novel extend also to the epigraphs at the head of each chapter, ranging from the entirely local bits of news to the global-political, grounding it even more in those specific times, the early 1970s.
       The Blahavić family live in the white bubble of apartheid South Africa, and there's little direct experience of the racial issues, but the underlying tension creeps into even some of the oblivious teenage lives. Still, it's only in looking back that Branko realizes, for example, that Ali led him to question some of the basic concepts inculcated into him:
Foreman looked black to me, I remember, he looked like an African. But Ali looked like something else. Maybe it was the first time I ever had second thoughts about these categories.
       The racial question also arises with the question of whether or not Ali will come visit apartheid South Africa, Joe unequivocally noting: "South Africa was not like any other place in the world". Meanwhile, in the present-day -- and much of the novel is set in the present day -- much has changed, and Joe and then Branko struggle, seemingly almost endlessly, in making any headway with the project; no small part of both their interest in working through the past and their difficulty in doing that, given the changed world around them, is that they have not adapted particularly well to the present-day, with Joe keeping his house in a dangerous neighborhood and Branko faced with a son who is somewhat rebellious and sees the world differently. As Branko notes at one point, way down the line:
     I'm starting to worry about Joe's book. He should have finished it himself, long ago, when white people were still interesting.
       With Joe so clearly resembling the author, and Branko's contributions, particularly at first, so very focused on his brother, the expectation is that The Distance will be dominated by Joe and his Ali-obsession, but in fact it is Branko who increasingly comes to the fore, and what had clearly been Joe's book actually becomes Branko's.
       Late on, Branko even acknowledges Joe's method, even as he has always applied it to a different medium:
     One of the first things you learn as an editor is to order the material before you start working on it. Laying down timelines and logging shots is a bind, but without it you can't find your way.
       The carefully chronologically ordered Ali-material that Joe handles so conscientiously makes for a strong foundation -- amusingly enough, as Vladislavić pretends the brothers struggle creating a novel out of it, when in fact it's coming together before the reader's very eyes.
       The material, even as it seems to be about Ali, as well as its language, in fact support an entirely different story, one both local -- about growing up in South Africa at the time -- and universal, about trying to find one's way, with, for example, Joe trying out different personas, much as Ali had. It is Branko who ultimately proves more successful on this journey of discovery and self-discovery, including in one example, nicely presented step by step, as Branko considers the collection of Leslie Charteris' The Saint books he gets from Joe, from the observation that: "When Joe bought these books, they already looked out of style" to the final realization:
     What did I miss ? The obvious. It wasn't Templar my brother wanted to be. It was Charteris.
       The Distance is a beautifully, thoughtfully crafted novel -- like a well-edited film -- without any of that showing. It's built up, to some extent, on documentary material -- those newspaper clippings from that time -- but Vladislavić weaves it in in such a way that it doesn't make the whole thing feel forced or artificial -- with, again, Branko's presence and contribution, the vital and necessary counterpart to Joe's; the part that really makes the novel.
       This story of two brothers is very much about its times (the early 1970s and then the near-present) and place, and about the larger-than-life figure of Ali and his odd, amazing life-path, but the historical material and references -- which continue to 2016 and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Ali, and the 2016 American presidential election -- are only supporting material to what is ultimately a very personal story.
       The Distance unfolds very well, making for surprisingly gripping reading; it also seeks to engage the reader -- subtly, but in astonishingly many different ways, on questions about everything from race to how one can present narratives, from capturing a boxing match to attempts at autobiography to the films Branko's son is experimenting with. Vladislavić again shows himself to be an exceptional writer -- and this, as perhaps his most readily accessible work (though in fact it is many layers deep), is a good introduction to his work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 September 2020

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The Distance: Reviews: Ivan Vladislavić: Other books by Ivan Vladislavić under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       South African author Ivan Vladislavić was born in 1957.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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