These four short stories set in South Africa focus on mildly unsuccessful people with modest ambitions who are continually thwarted either by chance or by their own inadequacies.
“Villa Toscana,” the opening story, introduces us to Les Budlender, a statistician collecting census data in Johannesburg. He becomes enamored with—perhaps even obsessed by—Iris du Plooy, a model, actress, and television announcer, so he keeps manufacturing excuses to return to her home for more data-gathering and (supposedly) more help in refining the questionnaire. While he tells himself he might be falling in love, it becomes clear to both Iris and the reader that he’s starting to creep her out. “Afritude Sauce” introduces us to Egan, a sanitary engineer—not a euphemism, for he actually designs sewage systems for housing projects. After he’s trotted out to one of these projects to see the problems and hear residents’ complaints, he ends up having dinner with a housing official and two members of the Residents’ Association. All of them are quite cozy except for Egan, who becomes more and more marginalized during the dinner conversation. In his room afterward he has an epiphany as an “intolerable pressure began to rise in him, as if every petty irritation he had endured in his life was repeating on him, trying to force its way to the surface.” This “pressure” of “petty irritation” pretty much sums up how Vladislavi?’s characters experience life, for they feel little fulfillment or gratification but rather vexation and annoyance—and occasionally, as in the final story, even attract violence, as a man putting up billboards for Crocodile Lodge is devoured in the darkness of a brutal attack.
Vladislavic’s plain and understated style gives force to the longing and frustrated desires of his characters.