While it may not feature so prominently as to become a character in its own right (like James Joyce’s Dublin or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Petrograd), Johannesburg is still has an important part to play in these five novels of our choice.
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Occasion for Loving (1963) by the Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer is a story about pre-1994 South Africa with its repressive apartheid policy. The novel focuses on the lives of two liberal white couples who live in Johannesburg and what happens when one of the wives starts a love affair with a black artist.
A Dry White Season (1978) by André Brink is also in the dark times of apartheid. Ben Du Toit is a white schoolteacher who believes that the government is essentially fair – until a school janitor is arrested and commits “suicide” in prison. In 1989 a film based on the book was released. Marlon Brando was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance as Ian McKenzie, a human rights attorney; he received the Best Actor Award at the Tokyo Film Festival for the same role.
Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) by Phaswane Mpe was short-listed for the 2002 Sunday Times Fiction Prize, for a good reason. The novel follows a man who leaves his village in the Northern Province to build a better life in the big city. He ends up in Hillbrow, the district that epitomises crime and violence that plague the modern-day Johannesburg. The author takes a ruthless look at the life of the urban poor in new South Africa. Dark as this investigation is, the novel is also a story of love, survival and hope.
Portrait with Keys (2006) by Ivan Vladislavić is a collection of 138 numbered short texts about life in Johannesburg over three decades, from the late 1970s to 2006. “This fascinating work of art lovingly evokes a city of decidedly unlovely reputation”, said one reviewer; another claimed: “This dazzling portrait of Johannesburg is one of the most haunting, poetic pieces of reportage about a metropolis”; and the third one saw in it “One of the most ingenious love letters – full of violence, fear, humour, and cunning – ever addressed to a city”.
Black Diamond (2009) by Zakes Mda moves between Soweto and Roodepoort, two geographically so close, yet culturally so far apart suburbs of Johannesburg. The novel satirically decomposes the South African stereotype of black diamond, the raising South African black middle class, and has been attacked by some in South Africa for painting the black elite as “corrupt sell-outs”, instead of singing praises about what has been accomplished in the post-apartheid years.