Ivan VladislavicSouth AfricaWriting1997


In my time at Civitella Ranieri I worked on a novel set in my adopted city. The extract is from Part I, The Cafe Europa. The narrator is looking back in his pedantic way to the early days of his retirement in the mid-1980s.


From: The Discovery

The public spaces in my neighbourhood were uninviting. The parks provided no seating arrangements. Where once there had been benches for whites only, now there were no benches at all - to discourage loitering. The loiterers were quite happy to lie on the grass, but needless to say I was not. The park in Beatrice Street had a bench; but then it also had a reniform paddling pool that attracted the wrong sort of toddler. The public library was a morgue for dead romance. To brighten the place up, and also to show that the library had the needs of the entire community at heart, the walls were covered with children’s drawings, hideous without exception; but as they had none of the books I was interested in, I was not taken in by the ruse. There were no pavement cafes, a la francaise. The weather was suited (air pollution aside), but not the social climate: the city fathers quite rightly did not want people baring their fangs in broad daylight, cluttering the thoroughfares, giving the have-nots mistaken ideas about wealth and leisure. After a week of fruitless wandering around the streets of Hillbrow, the happy day arrived when an escalator carried me up into the Cafe Europa, on the first floor of Meissner’s Building in Pretoria Street.

The European ambience appealed at once. There was a hush in the din of traffic, a lull in the beat of the sunlight, with a piano tinkling through it like an icy brook. The grand piano stood in the corner opposite. The player was an immensely tall woman in a red gown - she was tall even sitting down - with a swirl of hair like some complicated confection on an enamelled skewer. She was playing ‘I Love Paris’, which suited the establishment, if not the city and the season, down to a semiquaver. Suitably French doors gave on to a balcony, a sort of elevated pavement cafe, with wrought-iron tables and chairs of bottle-green, shaded by striped umbrellas in the Cinzano livery, delicious monsters and rubberplants in pots. It was tempting to sit out of doors. On the other hand it was so cool and quiet inside, with comfortable armchairs and sconces for reading by. At half a dozen tables men of my generation, more or less, if not quite my standing, were playing backgammon or chess on inlaid boards, or reading newspapers with their folds pinched in wooden binders. Good idea: gave the news a bit of backbone. Another clutch of papers hung from the hooks on a pillar, chafing their wings in the moted air.

I crossed the carpet, an autumnal layer as soft and yielding underfoot as pine-needles, past a glass counter where dainties were displayed in rows, like miniatures of the pianist’s hairdo, and chose a little square table against the wall... The doors were set into a wall of plate-glass, segmented by heavy brocade curtains drawn into Corinthian columns, and providing a panoramic view of the buildings opposite. Between two of them, against a postcard of bright blue sky, the top of the Hillbrow Tower stuck up like an attachment for a vacuum cleaner. I had never been particularly fond of it. But then I had never seen it from this perspective - gazing skywards is next to impossible with my bad neck - and I thought it made a touching contrast with the elegant cast-iron Tours d'Eiffel in the balcony railing.

I sat down and opened my paper.