Troping the City of Johannesburg in Portrait with Keys by Ivan Vladislavić
From early years, literary criticism and urban studies have perceived Johannesburg as a city escaping the strictures of literary and civil concepts, the paradigms of literary genre and of concept city. Unlike Cape Town, whose history spans centuries, and the chance for her shape and existence to consolidate and to have been “properly” re-told — by both inhabitants and visitors — appears to be more tangible, the City of Gold remains formless, evasive and still immersed in the process of discovering her narrative/narratives. The present article seeks to provide some insights into a recent postmodern, post-antiapartheid project of rendering the cityness of Johannesburg put forward in Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked, the first nonfiction work by South African iconoclastic novelist Ivan Vladislavić who, as I hope to show, has developed an accretive style for recounting in the brief, at times photographic at other times epiphanic “prose poems,” his encounters in and with the city of Johannesburg. The following looks at the diverse contexts of Vladislavić’s explorations in search of a method, which includes his earlier work, where he reflects on attempts to comprehend the city in the course of semiotic analysis reducing the urban to language, and the later where he cooperates with David Goldblatt on a multimedia representation of Johannesburg. Finally, the article gives examples of Vladislavić’s strategy whose objective is to un-lock the city rather than construct its legible image.