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“Capturing the riffs” of Johannesburg’s inner city: Harry Kalmer’s A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg launched at Love Books

Harry Kalmer

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg

Melville’s independent Love Books recently played host to numerous bibliophiles at the launch of the acclaimed playwright and author Harry Kalmer’s latest novel, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg. Leading the discussion on Kalmer’s novel – his first in English – was postmodern writer par excellence, Ivan Vladislavić.

Kalmer co-translated the novel, originally published as ‘n Duisend Stories oor Johannesburg, and quipped that he lost thousands of words due to omitting “ge” and “het”, which was met with genuine and appreciative laughter from the audience.

As Kalmer’s novel is an exploration of Johannesburg – its history, its people, its architecture – the conversation between these two literary luminaries touched upon the realities of contemporary Johannesburg.

From xenophobia, to violence (“there are so many incidents of violence in Jo’burg,” Kalmer mused), to the recent changing of street names. (When asked by Vladislavić whether it bothers him that street names are being changed, Kalmer responded in the negative, but did mention how amusing he found a typo of ‘Jan Smuts Avenue’ which read ‘Jan Smut Avenue’…)

As a self-proclaimed walker and “observant driver”, much of Kalmer’s novel was influenced by his own exploration of Johannesburg.

“I think what was important for me, as a writer, was to avoid, or side-step, the whole flâneur thing – is that how you pronounce it in English? -” he asked, turning to Vladislavić.

“It will do for me,” came the diplomatic response.

To not simply be a passive observer, but to capture the “riffs – like jazz riffs” of Johannesburg’s inner city life, plays an essential and authentic role in Kalmer’s narrative.

Architecture also plays a significant part in the novel, and – much to the audience’s delight – a subtle attack on brutalist architecture, (which Kalmer candidly told an audience member he was unable to define), was launched against Pretoria and its penchant for this less-than-aesthetically-pleasing architectural style.
a thousand tales (1)
When asked by Vladislavić whether he considers Johannesburg to be home, Kalmer, who was born in the Western Cape, grew up in Johannesburg and spent many years in Europe, responded – after a few moments of consideration – that yes, he calls Johannesburg home.

Kalmer’s riveting, rich, and credible account of the glorious, eclectic, gritty and hectic mengelmoes of the city of Johannesburg certainly attests to this statement.

Besides, upon asking a Capetonian who recently moved to Johannesburg where she’s from, his response simply was: “Jy gaan nooit weer terugtrek nie.”

There you have it.

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