Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked by Ivan Vladislavic

Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked BY Ivan Vladislavic. W.W. Norton & Co.. Paperback, 208 pages. $14.
The cover of Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked

Portrait with Keys is the first nonfiction work by South African novelist Ivan Vladislavic, whose relative obscurity in the United States can only be attributed to the fact that none of his five works of fiction have found a publisher here. His status as an unknown, however, is not likely to last; Portrait with Keys is a beautiful book, affecting and ingenious, opening new intellectual vistas onto art and architecture, poetry and urbanism.

In short narrative bursts, Vladislavic brings to life the social and physical complexion of Johannesburg past and present, as well as its place in South African history, with the intimacy of a native and the ardor of an immigrant. (He was born in Pretoria in 1957 and moved to Johannesburg in the ’70s.) An argument with his brother over billboards, a visit to an art gallery, and an encounter with an overturned motorcycle on a midnight street—all of which Vlasidivic recounts in disjointed prose poems—become brief epiphanies. These are stitched together into a series of walking tours, mapped one on top of the other, like a Baedeker’s guide to a city of the mind. The mind is Vladislavic’s, but so deftly interwoven are his personal memories and those of the city’s streets that both come to feel like the reader’s own.

That may be as close as any reader cares to get. Johannesburg, as it appears here, is unlovely, if not unloved, teeming with crime and rent by violence. The subject of the book is the disintegration of civil society: The security industry in postapartheid South Africa is the fastest-growing sector of the economy, and Vladislavic draws out the theme of security (and its corollary, insecurity), pointing to its comedic, tragic, and morally ambiguous nature. “Johannesburg is a frontier city,” he writes, “a place of contested boundaries. . . . Today the contest is fierce and so the defences multiply. Walls replace fences, high walls replace low ones, even the highest walls acquire electrified wires and spikes.” Vladislavic’s triumph is in finding an abundance of humanity amid the arms race and in lending the city itself the aspect of a living person.

His prose remains deliberately aloof even when he observes catastrophe. But slowly, subtle details and devices emerge: Passages describing the “Gorilla,” a popular automobile antitheft device, run together with an account of an actual gorilla, which becomes conflated in turn with the word gorilla as a racial epithet—an uncanny convergence rendered more effective for never being made explicit. Another episode ends with Vladislavic in a library after a street melee, during which his hands become soiled with the pulp of fruit crushed under the feet of rioters. This passage closes with the line “When I lick my finger to turn the page it tastes of orange juice.”

Vladislavic’s reserve is part of the point, as it foregrounds the city and makes way for his featured technical accomplishment: an index of itineraries, organized by subject, that allow the reader to actually take the tours described in the book. What Burroughs did in Naked Lunch—writing a book that could be read in any order—Vladislavic has done one better in Portrait with Keys: writing a city that can be walked in any direction.

A writer and critic in New York, Ian Volner is a regular contributor to Architectural Record.