During several decades the aesthetics of the novel was predicated upon a binary opposition between a rational external observer and the city posited as an object whose knowledge depended on its being reduced to "collections of discrete and detailed objects" Pike He gradually succumbs to the temptations of the city and becomes a dissolute wreck.
He finally returns to his village to die full of guilt and remorse. Dhlomo, as a Christian writer, chooses a paradoxical narrative mode which, while condemning the city as a place of perdition, provides a fairly accurate description of it. Dhlomo uses the city as a mere allegorical backdrop and overlooks the socio-historical causes which have shaped it.
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On ground level, the reader follows the inexorable decline of the hero while the narrative stance chosen by the omniscient narrator allows him to look down upon Robert Zulu so as to serve his readers with a moral lesson and a warning, just like a parson delivering a sermon: the last words of the novel are "God moves in mysterious ways" Dhlomo If at street level the city looks like a maze or a labyrinth, when seen from an elevated vantage point it looks like a map.
The former is associated with the immanence of chance encounters and fragmented experiences whereas the latter offers a more gratifying sense of power and understanding. The main protagonist, Xuma, who comes to the city to work as a miner, eventually manages to adapt to city life. He is the prototype of the Jim-comes-to-Joburg type: the country bumpkin who goes to the city to earn a living and after undergoing several ordeals finally gets wise to city ways. The vision fills him with astonishment and a sense of power: "[h]e gasped for below him lay the city And it was strange to see it like that, as though he were above it, bigger than it" Abrahams Whereas he had then felt submerged by the immensity of the town as he picked his way in a maze of streets, now, contemplating the city lying at his feet, he realizes that "it is so small.
Just like a big farm" Abrahams From his vantage point, the city looks less formidable, even comparable to a farm, which is the nearest analogue he can find to suggest how familiar the city has become to him. In the face of violence and atrocities, as Rosemary Jane Jolly contends, critical realism introduces a sense of closure which is "irredeemably specious and inadequate" Jolly The absurd, the grotesque and the tragic seemed to have taken sway of life in the townships, and this situation encouraged writers to transgress the conventions of realistic fiction.
Hence a growing tendency to resort to fantasy and magic realism. As Lakoff and Johnson point out "metaphors naturally come into being because they bring into relief something which narrowly corresponds to a collective experience" Lakoff and Johnson For instance, ghosts and spirits who come back to haunt the world of the living are recurrent tropes in black South African fiction simply because the world of black townships and locations is perceived as the underworld of the white world: while the former is cowed in darkness, the latter thrives in broad daylight. The former is thus a world of fugitive forms, shades, confusion, where one can easily lose oneself, a veritable underground labyrinth.
Can Themba, a short story writer and essayist, strikingly encapsulates this collective experience in a formula: "[i]t is a crepuscular shadow-life in which we wander as specters seeking meaning for ourselves" Themba 8. In the darkness behind her eyes which she kept tightly shut, Jane saw a flutter of tiny wings, she felt a lightness in her body, as exquisite as death, or flight. When she opened her eyes she found herself high above the city, away from Hillbrow. Dangor Welcome to our Hillbrow , which sustains the ironic and satirical thrust at the period which followed the end of apartheid.
In this novel the author uses a prosopopoeia to articulate the two narrative points of view within the story. It is a long monologue in which the narrator addresses a friend of his, Refentse, who had killed himself the year before.
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He recalls the circumstances which led to his fateful decision and imagines what might have happened had he remained alive. The diegetic space of the novel is thus caught in tension between reality and unreality, past and present, earth and heaven. The novel explores the gap created by this improbable dialogue in which the narrator speaks from below but also adopts the vantage point of Refentse and formulates what he might have said if he had been able to speak, looking down with an ironic and jaded glance at what was happening in Hillbrow under the new political dispensation: stories of betrayal, lies, racial discrimination against foreigners, superstition, the Aids pandemic.
This dual narrative configuration is correlated with a topographical representation of Hillbrow hinging around the two implicit figures of the labyrinth and the map as intimated by the title of the first chapter: "The Map". The labyrinth is used as a metonymy for the state of mental confusion which Refentse probably experienced when he first arrived in Johannesburg, picking his way in the maze of Hillbrow streets, whereas the map is the precise topological lay out of the district which he can now contemplate from his elevated position in Heaven.
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You cross Wolmarans and three rather obscure streets, Kapteijn, Ocherse and Pieterse, before you drive or walk past Esselen, Kotze and Pretoria streets. You will then cross Van der Merwe and Goldreich streets. Mpe 6. Heaven is the world of our continuing existence located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us. It is the archive that those we left behind keep visiting and revisiting; digging this out, suppressing or burying that. Continually reconfiguring the stories of our lives, as if they alone hold the real and true version Heaven can also be Hell depending on the nature of our continuing existence in the memories and consciousness of the living.
Mpe They are arranged in juxtaposed, fragmented and generally short sections, divided into two parts which provide a broad chronological framework.
Most of the sections are taken from already published cycles and are reset in a linear order. However, a non-linear way of reading the book is suggested by the list of thematic "itineraries" inserted at the end. One can read it as the narrator roams the streets of Johannesburg by following specific landmarks. The thematic unity of each original cycle is unlikely to be perceived by the reader of Portrait With Keys, but the frequent recurrences of similar themes, places and topics throughout the book intimate a network of invisible underground connections and operate as the lingering memory of the text.
The word "map" often crops up in the text: "[t]his map of the city of the dead Why not a map of the living? Why not a map showing every room, in every house, in every street of this bursting city, where a life began? From his office in the Carlton Center tower he could look down at the city:.
I could stand before the window and look down at the immensity of the city, assured that even a hawker of telephone dixies could occupy the centre of it all. It was in those reflective moments that my sense of the unnatural beauty of Johannesburg was born and that I resolved to seek my fortune in these streets. Vladislavic A vantage point which announces another as the narrator looks down from the air as he flics out of his country for Europe a few years later:.
The plane takes off: I am looking forward to seeing Joburg from the air. It is always surprising to discover how huge and scintillating the city is, that it is one place, beaded together with lights. As the aircraft lifts you out of it, above it, it becomes for a moment, comfortingly explicable But there is another, more intimate comfort in the vastness: it assures you that someone, inevitably is looking back.
In his gaze the city looks fragmented, mysterious and unstable, an anomalous place where people are obsessed with their security, carrying with them, like the narrator, heavy bunches of keys, hence the title of the book. The narrator has a keen eye for the ridiculous, the odd scene, object or character which allows him to cast the light of anomy on the city. Anomy should be understood as a source of creativity contesting norm and habits, defined by Gilles Deleuze as "creativity on the boundary" Sauvagnargues It is what he calls a rhizome that is a linear, shifty, decentred and heterogeneous mode of becoming; it is a geographical dispersion, a "nomadic" model with multiple connections Deleuze There first come the times of the original inhabitants of the land, the San, hunter-gatherers, followed by the gold-mining era:.
Commissioner Street, the backbone of Johannesburg, follows the old wagon track between two of the first mining camps Here and there chunks of tar have broken loose and rusted steel glimmers in the road bed. The tramlines, tarred over in the early sixties, coming back to the surface. We are like tramps, leaving secret signs for those who come after us" Vladislavic Johannesburg thus becomes the arena where the writer comes to grip with language in relation with the real; it is a baffling challenge whereby the writer feels he needs to seize language as it emerges, or as another South African novelist and poet, Antjie Krog, puts it: "to seize the surge of language by its soft, bare skull" Krog Or have I misunderstood?
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Is the problem that I live in a fiction that unravels even as I grasp it? Would that I ended here. But we arc stories within stories" Vladislavic Intact clean glossy condition pictorial covers with slight signs of handling. Intact spine. Image shown is actual book for sale.
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