A TANTALISING invitation plopped into my e-mail inbox this week which, sadly, I’ve had to turn down. It was for a signing in Johannesburg by author Ivan Vladislavic who would, said the e-mail, be reading from his latest book, A Labour of Moles.
Vladislavic, one of my all-time favourite authors, is a former old-school newspaper sub-editor – a nit-picking word nerd like me, who just happens to have an enormous writing talent, too (those skills don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand), so it’s hardly surprising his award-winning first novel, The Restless Supermarket, leapt straight into my soul and stayed there.
Set in 1993 Johannesburg, its main character is bad-tempered, retired telephone directory proof-reader Aubrey Tearle, who’s having a tough time with what he’s convinced are declining standards in transition-phase South Africa.
The Restless Supermarket of the title is a 24-hour takeaway café, the name of which infuriates the old proof-reader, who frequently berates the Greek owner about it (at least, I seem to remember he’s Greek, although he could be Portuguese – it’s been a decade since I read the book).
The supermarket cannot possibly be restless, Aubrey insists. It’s the wrong use of the word.
The owner won’t budge. After all, his business runs right round the clock. He and his staff never rest, and nor does the supermarket. They are all, therefore, without rest. Restless, in fact.
That’s far from the whole story, though, if you’re thinking of reading the book – and I do wish you would. It’s just one of the many aggravations perfectionist Aubrey constantly battles on his uphill struggle towards tolerance.
Not too surprisingly, Vladislavic’s latest novel –I can hardly wait to get my hands on it – is also about words, or, at least, the alphabet, the building-blocks of their creation. It’s all wrapped up in what sounds like a strange literary fantasy. The title – “a labour” is the collective term for moles, by the way – is as intriguing as the content’s sure to be. A collective conundrum, I’ll be bound, and yet another reason for me to want to read the book, being a bit of a collector of collective nouns myself.
Talking of which, according to the Oxford Dictionaries’ blog, many of these oft-amusing collective nouns belong to 15th-century lists of “proper terms”, the first of which – The Book of St Albans – was published in 1486 and was subsequently reprinted over and over until well into the 16th century.
Within its three-volume covers were such delights as a blush of boys, a hastiness of cooks, a stalk of foresters, an observance of hermits, a faith of merchants, a superfluity of nuns, a malapertness (impertinence) of pedlars, and a pity of prisoners.
If you’re anything like me, you perhaps have favourites of your own. Of the dozens I’ve gathered over the years, I’m particularly fond of an argument of architects, a charm of hummingbirds, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a fluther of jellyfish, and a knot of reporters (my most recent discovery).
I’m also, as someone unknown to me once said, forever disappointed that a group of squid isn’t called a squad. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)