Portrait With Keys, by Ivan Vladislavic

Fear lurks around every corner on the mean streets of Jo'burg
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The Independent Culture

It is hard to capture the unintegrated experience of life in the modern city, but writers keep trying. This book, Portrait with Keys: the City of Johannesburg Unlocked, is a compilation of the South African author Ivan Vladislavic's thoughts, observations, anecdotes and memories concerning that city. In homage to his subject, there is no obvious structure, but themes forge connections.

One such theme is artists and their works, as he explores the ways in which the city's detritus becomes art. Most obviously, artists take what others regard as rubbish and create works from it. Vladislavic describes Sue Williamson's Memories of District Six (a racially mixed area of Cape Town bulldozed by the apartheid authorities): a cabin built from clear resin blocks, containing items from the ruins - a doll's shoe, a hairclip, and other emotionally charged remnants.

Vladislavic ponders the work of other writers on the city, from Elias Canetti to Charles Dickens. He finds disturbing differences between Dickens' picaresque encounters in night-time London and the void of modern Jo'burg after dark, with its empty streets and blazing security lights. He ruminates on mass flight from the inner city, and what is left behind: rows of forgotten books in junk shops and white vagrants wandering the parks.

He is a latter-day flâneur, but he does not process street life into art to differentiate himself from his bourgeois peers. Vladislavic has no illusions about his membership of a group under siege, because the book's dominant theme is fear of urban crime in South Africa. He remains in the city centre, refusing to decamp to gated and guarded suburbs, and pays a price of constant insecurity. A foreign visitor asks to see his key ring. He has 17 keys on it - normal for Jo'burg, but extraordinary from a European perspective.

While the affluent go to ground, the poor struggle to survive. Vladislavic discovers that street people store their possessions under manhole covers, in a subterranean parallel to the cupboards in the homes above. Then the covers start to disappear, plundered for scrap.

The book illustrates how liberal art is challenged by illiberal reality. Vladislavic presents a rich personal reconstruction of Jo'burg, based on diverse perceptions of his home city. The subtext of these ostensibly random perceptions is dread of genuine anarchy, of an extreme inequality ruthlessly putting an end to all cultural life in South Africa.