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Portrait with Keys – Joburg and what-what by Ivan Vladislavic PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 22 October 2007 18:00

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.It goes without saying that any book that wins the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award is well-written. In fact, the criteria set for the work are not only great writing, but the illumination of truth, “especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”, compassion, and intellectual and moral integrity. (Click here for more on the award.)

But this year’s winner goes beyond that, even. Portrait with Keys – Joburg and what-what (Umuzi Books) is one of the most beautifully written South African books I’ve read. In fact, it’s one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, full stop. Ivan Vladislavic’s use of language is inventive and unexpected, forcing the reader to stop and reread certain sentences just because they are so well crafted – both in meaning and in form. Not so much an autobiography as a portrait of the city through one man’s eyes, the book is broken up into 138 small chapters, each complete on its own, but more resonant as a whole. They fit together like instruments in an orchestra, and the result is, quite simply, stunning. This is writing at its very best, used to evoke place and people and smell and the slow passing of time so that the reader is right there, shadowing Vladislavic as he strolls around the city, taking notes in his notebook, empathizing with everyone he passes.

It is difficult to describe Portrait with Keys mainly because there is very little to compare it to. “Neither a novel in any conventional sense nor a collection of short stories, this chain of lyrical texts brings together memoir, history, snapshots, observations and asides on the arts,” reads the dust jacket, and even that is not enough.

Suffice to say, this is an important book for every South African to read. It’s one of those books that will be added to literary lists worldwide. One of those books that professors will devote whole classes to. And yet, somehow, it is also a pleasure to read – the highest accolade of all.

What did you think of this book? Have you say at our blog.