Martinique Stillwell is the July winner of the Leopard’s Leap Booklover’s Reward competition on South Africa’s leading multicultural online journal, LitNet. She wins herself a case of Leopard’s Leap wine for her review of Ivan Vladislavic’s novel “Portrait with keys”
Ivan Vladislavic, one of South Africa’s most critically acclaimed writers, lives in Johannesburg within sight of the Marymount Nursing Home, and any reader with ties to eGoli will recognise instantly in this brilliant portrait of a city, and a man who lives in it, startlingly insightful truths about the place and ourselves. But even those of us who didn’t go to the Carlton Centre at the height of its glory, and who still remember “the car tyres squealing in delight” on the smooth concrete floors of its parking bays before they boarded it all up, will find meaning in Portrait with Keys.
Ivan writes about the way we live in South Africa now: in houses that glow green at night by the light of alarm keypads, with placards of private security companies pasted to our walls like talismen, our cars immobilised by Gorilla steering locks, and our manhole covers and postboxes plundered by scrap metal scavengers. But he doesn’t just describe privileged people habituated to living in fear; in a series of interconnected texts he reveals the lives that overlap ours and which we often fail to see: the car watchers, street vendors, beggars and impoverished trainee security guards without socks. He also covers the architecture and artists of Johannesburg and how they reflect the conflicting dynamics of our strange city.
This book is wonderful. The prose is perfect, and the texts funny, provocative and moving. I approached the end with a sense of impending loss. But Ivan has a solution for that: on page 205, under the heading “Itineraries”, he supplies a guide to alternative ways of reading the book by following the texts through different themes. This is one of a handful of books that will stay with me and if you haven’t done so already, I urge you to read it.
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