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Great boxing matches are ‘allegories authored in blood’, wrote Budd Schulberg. It’s quoted late on in Ivan Vladislavíc’s sixth novel, which, among other things, explores the allegorical function of sport and what people say and write about sport. Focusing on the ancient discipline of boxing, it also teases out parallels between the craft of writing and the art of fighting. As for blood, well there is the spilled kind and the sort that binds families and in the author’s native South Africa, these often overlap. Schulberg’s pithy metaphor, like so much in this book, ripples with meanings and possibilities.
This is a story told by two brothers, Joe and Branko, who are looking back on their childhood in Pretoria during the Seventies. It is Joe, an author, who initiates the process, spurred on when he opens up three scrapbooks of newspaper clippings from the period. The simple yet arresting opening words of the novel, ‘In the spring of 1970, I fell in love with Mohammed Ali, tell us who the hero, or icon, of the story will be. But Joe, who was twelve at the time, is only telling us the easily saleable part of the story. A bookish boy, he was not especially interested in boxing. It is Ali who he adores, and later it is the great boxing writers that keep his passion aflame.
He tells us that over a period of forty years, he has picked up the scrapbooks and riffled through the pages, wondering whether to write a book about them. But the projected memoir eluded him. ‘Why? I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I didn’t know what questions to ask of these yellowed pages.’
Branko, self-defined as ‘the sportsman in the family’, first presents himself to us in his teenage voice. Like their dad, when it comes to the so-called Fight of the Century in March 1971, he ‘naturally’ supports the white, Christian boxer Joe Frazier over Ali; Dad goes further, refusing to accept that Cassius Clay (who inherited that name from a plantation owner) is now called Mohammed Ali. He calls black people ‘monkeys’. He doesn’t like women or blacks who give backchat; Ali’s ‘mouthing off’ riles him. When we cut to Branko in 2011, he is being asked by Joe to help him look at the scrapbooks. It’s the year Frazier died. Ali is in a wheelchair, a ‘doddery puppet’ due to Parkinson’s. His decline spurs Joe to get on with the difficult book.
Thus the story proceeds, flitting between past and present, slowly giving up information about family life during the apartheid era (the postcolonial bubble of whites – forged from scraps of British pop culture and television, increasingly painted in the red, white and blue of the USA), Joe’s abiding fascination with Ali, how he was bullied at school, and how Frazier’s victory over Ali marked a symbolic turning point – the fall of an idol, or at least his return to the realm of ordinary human beings. Nonetheless, Joe stayed faithful to Ali through his comeback years and almost to The Thriller in Manila, though by then, more pressing matters are unfolding at home. The Soweto Uprising in 1976 is widely regarded as a critical moment in the rise of the ANC and the emergence of an international anti-apartheid movement.
Joe’s sections quote liberally from sportswriters and newspapers of the time, and from Ali’s boasts and rhyming doggerel, the citations printed in a pale font to remind the reader how journalese and boxing clichés provided the young boy with a linguistic universe outside school playground banter and parental exhortations. In a country where language is profoundly, and knottily, connected to race and power, it is also a bulwark, and an escape. It is in his wonderings about accent and language that the author in Joe is nurtured.
Branko, wondering why Joe has asked him to write his own thoughts down, asks himself if a story can ‘ever belong equally to two people’. It’s a simple, profound question for all South Africans. Then again, a white South African writer’s novel about an obsession with the world’s most famous black boxer during the apartheid years has arguably far more than two voices to consider and contend with.
At the end of this story, there is a twist, a shock. You almost expect it at the end of such a well-crafted novel – Vladislavíc has the light touch of a prose master – but there is no more closure than there is at the end of a bout. Full of grace and tenderness, The Distance is a searing tale of loss and learning as well as a beautiful evocation of brotherhood during a time of discord.
Chris Moss is a travel writer.