A Faceless Compass

Johannesburg’s haunted streets

Ivan Vladislavić
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

Like dogs we circle back to old territory. On the first Sunday after the lockdown has been shifted to Level 2, we drive across Johannesburg to walk on Van Buuren Road. When Minky and I lived in Troyeville we walked this route regularly, but we haven’t been here for the better part of a decade. The last six months under lockdown have stretched the distance between our new neighborhood and the old. Everything looks emptier, bleaker, more faded in the wan sunlight. It’s the end of winter and the place is as brittle as an old print under a film of dust.

We park as usual (if one can claim familiarity after so long an absence) in the retail strip off Nicol and then walk east on Van Buuren.

No one would call this scenic—it’s not the Sea Point Promenade—but it has its virtues, and Joburg walkers count those where they can. There are broad paths in fairly good shape set well back from the road, few cross streets to break your stride, just enough passing traffic to feel safe. There is shade in the summer too, although the oaks and planes are bare now. The paths were swept not long ago, and leaves are piled haystack-high against garden walls or stuffed into garbage bags, squashed together under the trees like enor­mous black berries.

The plots here are large, and some of the houses are grand, but many of them are neglected. The Penny Farthing Guesthouse still promises “Try Us—You’ll Come Back Again!!!” but there is only one car in the drive and the bicycle mural is flaking. The traffic on Van Buuren has got busier over the years, and the road is now lined with more cluster developments and businesses than freestanding houses. The bigger, flashier homes, the nouveau-riche palaces that define this suburb, are to the south, down side streets that have been closed off by booms or palisades.

Dave sent me a photograph. It showed a flock of sheep in the driveway of my old house, gazing sheepishly through the mesh.

It feels good to stretch our legs, so after a kilometer or so, we follow the curve into Harper Road past the Health Club. Although the restrictions were eased a week ago, the gates of the Club are still chained and a Covid-19 notice is wired to the bars. The foot­ball field used by the Sunday league is empty. At the end of Harper, where it bumps into the R24, we go right. Since we were last here, more houses have been turned into businesses or demolished to make way for small office buildings. We laugh about the Longevity Lounge, a skin-rejuvenation salon, and we laugh even more about the Happily Ever Laughter restaurant. On the Corobrik apron out­side the New Delhi Indian Restaurant two glossy starlings hop and glitter, while a blacksmith plover stilts around, pecking at the joints between paving stones, keeping an eye on us. The last plover we came across was standing on a rock in the water beside a low-level bridge across the Olifants River, where he belonged. What’s this one doing here in the suburbs? We wait for him to call, but he’s tight-beaked and wary, and only when we walk on does he send three quick anvil-clinks after us.

Construction is going on against the odds. The Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist NGO that does charity work and disaster relief around the world, is putting up a hall on the site of its old, more modest headquarters. Only half built, the Jing Si Hall already looks uncannily like the artist’s impression on an immense billboard. Perhaps the builders consult the picture from time to time, like jigsaw-puzzlers consulting the lid of the box. The stocky pillars and front-porch eaves (Dr. Google informs me later) are shaped like the Chinese character for “human.”

We turn back into Van Buuren and enter a stretch of old-school Tuscany. Twin goddesses in togas, gossamer rendered lightly in chocolate-brown concrete, hold cornucopias on either side of a motorized gate. The slots tell me they are letter boxes. The wall of the La Provence estate has alcoves for other ancient gods. What is this style? Provençal Greco-Roman, loosely interpreted.

A bit further on we come to the boulders. This outcrop of brown rock, which the path has to swerve around, always caught my eye, because it’s the natural world muscling back into view, the hard body of the landscape that has been tarred, paved, and planted over. Today there’s a new reason to stare: perched on a street-facing boulder, the better to importune the passing trade, is a naked woman, or rather the statue of one, hair falling over one shoulder, legs demurely tucked. She has the body of a starlet, as they used to be called, Jane Fonda before the aerobics videos. Her cement skin is painted a vivid blue in high-gloss enamel. She might be advertising the Fat Mermaid, the day spa and party venue down Jasmine Road, although she looks pretty trim and has no tail. Or she might be working for Bodyologie, which has a sign near­by—“The Science Behind Beautiful Bodies.” We walk on past the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, but curiosity gets the better of us, and we cross the road and circle back for another view of the blue lady. Now we decide that she’s a naiad. She has a water jug under her right arm, pouring out dry Highveld air, and a concrete basin stands ready to catch the excessive absence of water.

a friend of ours who moved from Kensington to Norwood couldn’t get used to the new neighborhood. She kept driving back to her old haunts. Homing. We’d bump into her in the Darras Centre, drinking coffee at the Belem, or going up Queen Street with a basket over her arm. It seemed ridiculous. So when we moved from Troyeville to Riviera, we resolved not to keep drifting back like sightseers to the old quarter.

But whenever I visited Dave in Norfolk Street, or passed through on my way out to see family in Springs, I couldn’t resist swinging past the old house. Just checking.

The new owners tidied the place up. They rooted out the plum­bago, which had burst like a spring tide over the Argyle Road wall, trimmed back the trees and shrubs poking through the palisades on the Blenheim side, and made the corner look cleaner and more exposed.

As it happened, the new people didn’t last. They weren’t cut out for life on the frontier. Soon they put the house back on the market and sold it to some people from the countryside.

These new owners tidied the place up more energetically. They clearly knew the difference between a wall and a stop-nonsense. They squared off the perimeter walls, replaced the impractical wooden street door with a metal one and the dodgy swing gates in the drive with a motorized expanded-mesh slab. The trees at the side of the house were chopped down to make parking space for another car.

A few months later, Dave texted me: Have you seen what’s hap­pened to your house?

I took a drive past there and saw that the wall was higher. The last flourishes of greenery on the perimeter had been lopped and the roof painted black. The pagoda tree in the backyard was still there. Perhaps it was too much trouble to fell? Despite my irri­tation, I felt some relief that I was no longer responsible for the maintenance. Everyone knows that it never ends with old proper­ties: no sooner have you got one side in shape than the other needs attention. I remembered the weekends spent clambering around on the roof decanting a rancid stew of leaves, blossoms, and brown water from the gutters. I’d been tempted to chop the bloody tree down myself. A wooden letter box? What a stupid idea. How many times had I scraped, puttied, and painted the rotting, leaky thing, thinking to myself: Why don’t you just replace it with a durable plastic job from Builders Warehouse?

I texted back: It’s been uglified. It’s not my house.

Some time later, Dave sent me a photograph. It showed a flock of sheep in the driveway of my old house, gazing sheepishly through the mesh.

I composed and deleted several texts. It’s not my house, I kept thinking.

I didn’t go that way for a year or two, even when I was in the area. Then one day, when the lockdown had been lifted and Minky and I had taken a walk in Bedfordview, we made a detour up Roberts Avenue and down Blenheim. No. 38 looked different. The whole place had been painted green, a sour, fermented green that made the boundary wall look like it was made of that crunchy stuff florists put in the bottoms of vases.

They must like it, I decided. It’s not my house. And, for the first time, I believed it.

the opening chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s memoir Istanbul is called “Another Orhan.” When he was very young, Pamuk writes, he was sure he had a double somewhere in the city, another boy very much like him, almost a twin, who lived in a house that resembled his own. This ghostly boy haunted his childhood. He sometimes met him in nightmares. In the restless wake of these encounters, he clung more tightly to his pillow, his home, his neighborhood.

Horrifying as the thought of him could be, his double was also consoling and bound Pamuk to the place of his birth. The imagi­nary life of this “someone else” sealed his own fate.

as a small boy, the Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov dreamt of becoming a writer, and this precocious ambition landed him in hot water. When a famous children’s poet came from Sofia to visit his school, he was among the budding poets selected by the teacher to read a poem for the occasion. He chose to read one he had written about “the passing of time, old age, and death.”

The great poet was furious. How could a child write about such depressing matters? “A child should write about the sun, about playfulness, about the Mother Party and the Dove of Peace.”

To save the day, the teacher had Georgi read another poem of his about “sunset over the city.” It only made things worse. Sunset! A poet should write about the sunrise.

The audacity that propelled a nine-year-old schoolboy into an imagined future will not serve the mature writer as he tries to find his way back to the remembered past. He is always digging and sifting, as Gospodinov writes in his memoir The Story Smuggler, but the “golden grain of childhood” eludes him.

Many people are drawn back to the places where they lived as a child, as if the fragrance of those times can still be breathed with the air. He cannot recapture his childhood in this way, Gospodinov says; his old homes have been drained of memories. However, when he finds himself in a foreign city, some smell or taste often brings the past rushing back in all its fullness.

“Why is it that places thousands of miles from my childhood village home send me back, opening the sluice-gates of the past? Well, we are all emigrants from the homeland of our childhoods. It may be, then, that the natural place to meet ourselves as children is ‘abroad,’ and that includes the foreign country of our growing up and ageing. So it is that the personal, physical feeling of departure from the time of childhood may merge in a special symbiosis with geographical departure, biography, and geography resonating now on a single wavelength.”

Gospodinov’s memoir, as its title promises, is full of smugglers. His classmates had private “lexicons” in which they kept notes and pictures they dared not put in their schoolbooks. These note­books, secretly shared with one another, were a sort of unofficial grapevine where illicit questions could be asked: In which country would you like to live? Do you listen to rock music? Some of them smuggled erotica into their lexicons: the sex scenes from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, for instance, carefully cut from the paperback with a razor blade.

In those years, long-distance lorry drivers carried forbidden goods, like denim jeans and books, from other European countries into Bulgaria. They smuggled things out too, notably children’s “belly-buttons,” the scab left when the umbilical cord has shrivelled up. Some Bulgarians believe that a child’s future lies where the cord is “cast,” and everyone then wanted to be “abroad.”

in my last years in Troyeville, I stopped going to the old city center and Hillbrow. I grew used to driving north to Killarney, Rosebank, Norwood, and beyond in search of coffee, conversation, and books, and forty minutes in the car, taking traffic into account, became the standard allowance for any trip. My crosstown move to Riviera caused the distances between familiar points to collapse. Now most of the places I needed to go were fifteen or twenty minutes away rather than thirty or forty. In my first year in the north, I always arrived at my destination a quarter of an hour early. I had to learn a new sense of distance and proximity.

I expected to find other senses disordered, and they were. For thirty-five years, I had lived and worked mainly in the eastern suburbs of Joburg and never lived north of Louis Botha Avenue. Among the dozen places I’ve called home, Riviera is the northern­most. For a long time after I came here, I had the sense that the city was behind me rather than in front, and often it still feels this way.

The bodily sense of where you stand in relation to a place is deeply ingrained and mysterious.

Despite the fact that I long ago stopped going “downtown” regu­larly, I still take my bearings from the inner city and Hillbrow; they still lie at the heart of my proprioceptive city.

Bringing the map and the territory together must register in the body like a sense of direction or balance. Typographers and printers use “registration marks” on plates and transparencies, so that they “register,” or align properly, during printing, and walk­ers seem to rely on the sensory or psychic equivalents to locate themselves in the world. As a visitor in a foreign city, I have felt utterly bewildered when the direction of a journey through the streets does not match the orientation of the map or my intuited sense of where the city should lie in relation to my starting point. Must I turn around with the map in my hand, facing away from my intended destination, and imagine the route at my back? Or turn the map around in my hands, so that it matches the territory, and read the street names upside down?

The bodily sense of where you stand in relation to a place is deeply ingrained and mysterious. How does this sense develop? My childhood homes in Pretoria were mainly on the southern edges of the city: when we went to “town,” we went north. This chance alignment of my place in the real world and the northerly orientation of the city map may have ingrained a habit of mind and body that I cannot easily change. My internal compass nee­dle points north. I prefer to face north when I’m at my desk or on my balcony. From the vantage point of home, I like to have the city “in front” of me, like text on a page or film on a screen. If I look south from the kitchen window of my flat, I see the top of the Hillbrow Tower, haloed in cool fluorescents as garish as an old-fashioned jukebox, sticking up above the yellow-brick hulk of Great Martinhall Manor. Familiar as it is, it pains me to look back on it. I wish to see it on the northern horizon from my lounge win­dow on the opposite side of the flat.

What’s amusing about my disorientation is that many people now think of the old central business district as part of the south and have no desire to go there. The heart of Joburg has drifted north in the last fifty years, floating on slow economic currents or driven headlong on a torrent of political change and anxiety, and many, perhaps even most, Joburgers now think of Sandton (home of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the most expensive square mile of real estate, the tallest hotel) as the city center. Clive Chipkin’s designation of Sandton as CBD-2—he leaves the honor of CBD-1 where it belongs—is well known. Fact is, I can see the lights of the new office towers in Rosebank, which might lay claim to being CBD-3, from my writing desk. By some accounts, here in Riviera I might actually be in the middle of Joburg. Of course, everyone believes that their chosen location is “central” and there­fore convenient.

My move north revealed another surprising orientation. In Troyeville my house faced north, but venturing out mainly took me west or east: westward into the city and beyond, to Brixton or Mayfair, and eastward, down the length of Kensington, and out to the East Rand. My habitual walks ran along Roberts Avenue to the Darras Centre and back home on Kitchener; or along Commissioner into the city and back on Market; or up and down the avenues of Bez Valley. Wherever I lived in Joburg, I fell into walking this way: west on Kotze and east on Pretoria in Hillbrow; west on Collins and east on Caroline in Brixton; or west on Webb and east on Saunders in Yeoville.

It’s no great mystery. The deep currents of the city run east and west. The long, broken ridges that are the visible signs of the gold-bearing reef on which the city was founded made for roads as inev­itable as rivers. Main Reef Road is our Danube. It’s the lie of the land, the flow to go with. One-way streets channel the traffic this way too, and driving might have shaped my walking habits.

Here in Riviera, I have had to reset this compass. Now my habitual walks run north and south, following the layout of the long streets in Houghton. The topography frustrates my efforts to walk on the east-west axis. The blocks in Killarney are too short, and those in Saxonwold are irregular. When a suburb was laid out in the Sachsenwald, the planners were guided by forest tracks and natural features, and so the streets, unusually for this city, are not on a regular grid.

If I’m driving, more often than not I follow the old beaten paths.

In the mornings, when I drive to my office at Wits University, I head westwards, around the Zoo to Jan Smuts Avenue, and then along Westcliff Drive to Parktown. Using the M1 would cut the distance in half, but rush-hour traffic doubles the travel time, so I prefer the long way round.

Some of these ghosts are impostors, mere emanations of the living, to whom they are still attached. Others are true spirits.

Eastwards, I go down Riviera Road and over the M1 and then on through Houghton. Every side street would bring me back to the eastern suburbs, where I lived for so long and which turn out to be closer than I thought. A right turn off Second Avenue takes me to Munro Drive, winding elegantly up to Louis Botha and Yeoville. The soaring stone embankments of this pass were completed in the early thirties. If I carry on down Second, past the Houghton Golf Course and the Masjid-ul-Furqaan, I can turn right at Lloys Ellis. Stay with me for a moment. Sharp right, a jink through Death Bend, then left into Acorn Lane, and I’m dip­ping down to the singular crossroads where Houghton, Bellevue, Bellevue East, and Observatory meet. Not this way, not today. Let’s rewind, put me back on Second Avenue, skipping the turn into Lloys Ellis and going straight to the T-junction with Osborn on the border of Fellside. Now right to the robots at Louis Botha, where the homeless pile their bedding against the wall of the Victory Theatre, straight over and left into Hope. This is one of the love­liest streets in the city, a long cool tunnel arched with jacarandas and lined with sandstone walls. Watch out for speed bumps, their cautionary chevrons long unpainted and hidden in the dappled leaf-shade. After a kilometer the street runs into Fairwood, where a right turn will take you onto Sylvia’s Pass, which snakes up to Cooper. This is another graceful eastern suburbs boulevard, wide and shaded, sweeping down through Cyrildene, then further east to Kensington, my old turf.

Rewind again. Don’t worry. Leave me here at my desk, house­bound, with the mouse concealed in my hand like a faceless compass.

if you live in a place long enough it becomes peopled with ghosts. Pass down a street or turn a corner and you see people you used to know, sometimes as they were many years ago, stepping out of a car, going through a door, walking along the pavement smoking a cigarette. Some of these ghosts are impostors, mere emanations of the living, to whom they are still attached. Others are true spirits. They represent the dead. Ghosts and memories are easily mistaken for one another.

In familiar places you might see yourself too, as you once were, standing at a window or waiting on a corner for a light to change, doing one of the many forgettable things you used to do. Occasionally you might even see yourself as you will be, years from now, let’s say bending to pick up a dropped key or looking over your shoulder to make sure you aren’t being followed.

Returning to familiar places after an absence can bring the ghosts from the shadows. In The Old Ways, the British writer Robert Macfarlane tells a moving story about his friend Roger Deakin, with whom he once walked the holloways, the sunken paths of Dorset. After Roger died suddenly, Macfarlane returned to walk the same route, and was not surprised, as a seasoned wayfarer, to find his friend still there—to catch “startlingly clear memory-glimpses of Roger himself, seen at the turn of a corner or ahead of me on the path.”

Much of our experience is made up of fleeting, irretrievable moments. While revisiting places might sustain those rare associations that survive in memory, long absence can sever them completely. My friend Janice lived in Johannesburg as a young woman before emigrating to America, and when she returned from time to time seldom saw much more than the homes of her hosts. Once I offered to drive her around to some of her old haunts. The geography of the city had faded from her memory and with it many of the things we had done together. But don’t you remember when we used to visit Debra here? We were living in Tudhope Avenue. You must remember! Certain places and events came back to her, but in isolation, like photographs in an album from which most of the images had been pilfered.

Losing territory, in the sense of access rather than ownership, undoes memory. As the doors to parts of this city have closed, the memories associated with them have faded. I am cut off from this past as surely as if I had emigrated. Like other exiles, I write against the fear of oblivion, tending and replenishing my file in the archive of collective memory. Recreating a place in words gives it some kind of continuance, even if the exhibit has the artificiality of a museum and cannot provide a home. “In the end,” as Theodor Adorno understood, “the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing.”

Ivan Vladislavić is the writer of novels such as The Folly, The Exploded View, Flashback Hotel, and The Distance (all published by Archipelago), among others. In 2015, he was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction. He lives in Johannesburg.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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