Portrait With Keys

The City Of Johannesburg Unlocked

Ivan Vladislavic

Published: 9 August 2007
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 208 pages
ISBN: 9781846270604


In the wake of apartheid, the flotsam of the divided past flows over Johannesburg and settles, once the tides recede, around Ivan Vladislavic, who, patrolling his patch, surveys the changed cityscape and tries to convey for us the nature and significance of those changes. He roams over grassy mine-dumps, sifting memories, picking up the odd glittering item here and there, before everything of value gets razed or locked away behind one or other of the city's fortifications. For this is now a city of alarms, locks and security guards, a frontier place whose boundaries are perpetually contested, whose inhabitants are 'a tribe of turnkeys'. Vladislavic, this clerk of mementoes, stands still, watches and writes - and his astonishing city comes within our reach. This is for readers who want to put their faith in a writer who knows - and loves - his city from the inside out, bearing comparison with Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul and Joseph Brodsky's Watermark.

About the author

Image of Ivan Vladislavic

Born in Pretoria in 1957, Ivan Vladislavic has lived in Johannesburg since 1977. He is the author of five works of fiction and has been awarded the Olive Schreiner Prize and the South African Sunday Times fiction prize. More about the author


‘A few days before I left Europe I had a copy of Ivan Vladislavic's book on Johannesburg. As it happens I was on my way to South Africa and I read it in Jo'burg. It is without doubt one of the finest things ever to be written about a great city. Jo'burg alarms and amazes. Guns, gold and sheer bloody glitz. For those, and you can count me in, who think it the greatest African city south of Cairo, Vladislavic has done us proud. He has celebrated the city in sharp and lovely images. Portrait with Keys is one of the best things ever written about a great, if schizophrenic, city, and an utterly true picture of the new South Africa.’ Christopher Hope



‘A kind of Cubist account of Johannesburg.,’ Mariella Frostrup

‘A very funny book, it doesn't evade the fact that Joburg is a dangerous place to live...’ Gillian Slovo

‘A wonderful book about Johannesburg...what Vladislavic's book has done is to touch minutely, sensuously, poetically, ironically and exactly on this strange, utilitarian town...this is a truly marvellous piece of work.’ Justin Cartwright

‘An intriguing account of loss and adaptation, of the small ways you notice the neighbourhood is going downhill, suddenly knocked into focus by the absurd interaction with a burglar in your front garden...Vladislavic's acute intelligence and unfussy style make this quite a find.’

‘Ivan Vladislavic writes of Johannesburg as a "frontier city, a place of contested boundaries" where territory "must be secured and defended or it will be lost". But this isn't just a piece about alarmed houses and razor wire-topped fences. There's wildlife, together with violent poachers; and scenic waterways and lakes, only occasionally despoiled by bodies. It's a passionate account by a man who loves his city, shocking because it so embraces the things most people try to avoid thinking about. This collection has the crackle of authenticity about it.’

‘One of the most imaginative minds at work in South African literature today.’ André Brink

‘Our very own obsessive chronicler of the city, Ivan Vladislavic, whose PORTRAIT WITH KEYS...is among the best South African literature in years...There is a novelty to his very minting of language into image that matches the perpetual, compulsive "start-from-scratch" ethos of Jo'burg that makes his book an instant, must-read classic.’ Mark Gevisser

‘PORTRAIT WITH KEYS is a beautiful book, affecting and ingenious, opening new intellectual vistas onto art and architecture, poetry and urbanism...What Burroughs did in NAKED LUNCH - writing a book that could be read in any order - Vladislavic has done one better in PORTRAIT FOR KEYS: writing a city that can be walked in any direction.’

‘Surely one of the most ingenious love letters - full of violence, fear, humour and cunning - ever addressed to a city. If Italo Calvino had grown up in Jo'burg and experienced both apartheid and its aftermath this is the kind of book he would have been proud to have written.’ Geoff Dyer

‘This fascinating work of art lovingly evokes a city of decidedly unloving reputation...PORTRAIT WITH KEYS reminds me sometimes of Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, sometimes of Joyce's Dublin, and occasionally, believe it or not, of JG Link's VENICE FOR PLEASURE: but it is really altogether one of a kind...Always at the heart...is the figure of the author himself. He is an indefatigable Everyman, kindly and wisely meandering through Johannesburg's perilous wilderness...and he leaves his readers, if they are anything like me, consoled by the feeling that art and goodness alike can be impervious to squalor.’ Jan Morris

‘Vladislavic is a writer whose work has to be read...There isn't an interview big enough to contain it...Not only is Vladislavic what one reviewer called "a linguistic acrobat" and another "etymologically dazzling", he's a true lover of words and a highly esteemed editor...If I could, I would bring as many readers as I could to Ivan Vladislavic's texts. In his own work and by using his skills as an editor he has made an enormous contribution to SA literature.’ Pamela Jooste

‘Vladislavic seeks the poetry of the city he has known and loved for 30 years, still "a frontier city, a place of contested boundaries". In 138 vignettes, he finds the human behind Johannesburg's sorry reputation...Violence is a consistent theme in the murder capital of the world. At his best, Vladislavic transcends that for moments of mysticism...a finely elegiac tone.’ Ross Leckie

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