A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, a city like no other

The spell-binding new novel by South African playwright and author Harry Kalmer, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, describes Africa’s greatest city as a living, breathing character. Spanning a century, the book covers the best and worst moments in Joburg’s lifetime.

Harry Kalmer’s new novel leaves you asking who gets to shape a citys identity. (Image: Author and playwright Harry Kalmer remains inspred by the city of Johannesburg. (Image: © Joanne Olivier)

“The one thing about Joburg is how interconnected everyone is,” Harry Kalmer says. Sitting in a Bryanston coffee shop, surrounded by the well-retired and sound-tracked by the clink of coffee cups and cutlery, the author and playwright explains his reasons for writing A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, a new novel about his hometown.

“We’re losing a bit of it now because the city is growing very fast, but it’s always had this sense of dorpiness,” Kalmer continues. “Bryanston is a dorpie (a small town). “Linden and Greenside. These little nodes of habitation, but you don’t see these cities meet. For the book I had to create a hotel, to give them an excuse to meet.”

Author and playwright Harry Kalmer remains inspired by the city of Johannesburg. (Image: © Joanne Olivier)

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg is a book about the people who go and come. It tells the stories of poor Afrikaners drawn by the gold reefs, the unseen Indian and Chinese families who shaped the city, and the modern African immigrants who are remaking it.

Kalmer’s novel spans a century, from the early days of Johannesburg to 2008. Important writers – Mark Twain, Olive Schreiner, Charles van Onselen – have written great factual biographies of Joburg. These have done the city justice but, for Kalmer, fiction gives the chance to tell a more vibrant story. “Fiction interrogates things in a way that documentaries can’t. It tells truths that non-fiction can’t necessarily depict.”

An exile’s view of home

In the book, expat architect Zweig van Niekerk, long resident in London, is invited back to Joburg by a group of architects who have rediscovered his work. Zweig’s self-imposed exile was a result of his love and marriage to Serenita, a woman of colour. He returns to the city of his birth – and begins to see it with new eyes.

Kalmer’s Johannesburg exists in one sense: it is based on actual geography, on actual spaces. The madrassah and the mosque can be found. So can the Chinese old age home and the girls’ school. “The hotel doesn’t exist, but it could have.”

The architect returns in 2008, as foreigners from elsewhere in Africa are attacked and flee the townships for the safety of the city. It’s at the imagined hotel in Belgravia that the son of an Afrikaner, a Chinese photographer, Czech immigrant and Marceline, a Congolese refugee, meet and remake the city in their own image.

“The fact of the matter is, the Joburg I depict exists only on paper. It is based in history and connected. But it is a personal interpretation of an experience or a representation of the city. Like all fictional cities – like Calvino’s Imaginary Cities – it only exists on paper.”

 ‘Places change, time moves on’

Kalmer writes like he stirs his coffee. Deliberately. Thoroughly. And with a flourish, as he lifts the spoon out of the cup. Talking through the inspiration for the book he references great South African writers: Herman Charles Bosman, Nadine Gordimer.

He moves on to Fordsburg-based artist Carl Becker, who created work on the Randlords and their contemporaries, from Gandhi to Abe Bailey and Cecil John Rhodes. “Becker said what he liked about Johannesburg was that you look up, you lift your eyes, and you see the most extraordinary Victorian and Edwardian architecture. When you lower your eyes you’re in Africa. For me that was the trigger for the book. To address that reality, that ‘alongsidedness’ of the city. That the city can live in so many ways.

“There is a great line I remember by this Zulu guy who moved to Joburg from rural KwaZulu-Natal. He said in Johannesburg you have to look for the beauty. I think that is what a lot of people do. And I think that is the problem: people who write about Joburg tend to romanticise it.”

Denizens experience their city in specific, personal ways. A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg is about how his characters find the city and their connections to it. “It’s very much a theme in the book. It is people who try to come to terms with the city. Be it through impressions or be it through structure or be it through street life. To show there are so many realities living side by side in Joburg.”

A cowboy town

Johannesburg should never have been. Built in empty veld by the chance discovery of gold, it is a city born only from the desire to make fortunes. It is a place whose residents, in the words of author Clive Chipkin, are not, “here for the benefit of our health”. Kalmer’s Joburg is that city, reinvented and rediscovered through new eyes.

Like Italian author Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities, Kalmer’s book is a curious mix of history and lore-shaped memory. It maps the city beyond geography, a cartographer’s dream of half-remembered sights and sounds. It celebrates the way the city is constantly reinvented by people from elsewhere, drawn by its promise.

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg is a city dreamed up by artists, writers, hustlers and architects. It is a city that welcomes rich and poor.

“Joburg can be a bit of a cowboy town. Poverty has always been an intrinsic part of this place, despite the towers of Sandton. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because it’s a place where you can survive. Think back on the book, people like the Van Niekerks thrived in protected employment. It’s always looked after poor people.”

What inspires Kalmer is the city, his body of work, is the city where everyone is from somewhere else. It is a space where no-one ever feels really comfortable, and this gives the city its distinct personality.

The Joey Hi-Fi-designed cover of Harry Kalmer’s A 1000 Tales of Johannesburg. (Image: Penguin Random House)

Rooted – but restless

Kalmer has tried to leave Johannesburg. “I came back. I don’t know why. It’s always been people and my stuff that’s brought me back. There aren’t any other cities that appeal to me. Things that I’ve loved and made my living from – theatre, music, advertising – are here. I’m connected here.”

For the characters in A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg the same holds true. They are rooted in Joburg, but Johannesburg makes them restless. “Nobody is from here but they’ve been here for years. If you go back to the Muslim family, you go back to the Hindu family, you go back to the Chinese family. They all have roots going back to the late 19th century, but they all have this thing that this is not quite their place. It’s a very funny thing about Joburg. Nobody is from here but they have this perverse citizen’s pride about eGoli.”

It is a city of open and cool people, Kalmer ends. A city where people want to know your story. And Kalmer’s book captures these stories, creating a living, breathing, inspiring world, like the city itself.

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