5 August 2014

South Africa: 'Unruly Places - Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies'


Lost? Find yourself by losing yourself. And use this book as a guide. RICHARD POPLAK reviews an essential read.

The South African poet Lionel Abrahams once reminded us that, "Memory takes root only half in the folds of the brain: half's in the concrete streets we have lived along." Abrahams was Johannesburg's unofficial poet laureate, the reigning flâneur of an unwalkable city. He spent the last decades of his life confined to a wheelchair, and I have always imagined him rolling slowly over the city's unused sidewalks, peering through the shadows cast by brutalist high rises and Victorian-era mining houses.

Abrahams understood that cities - our cities - are haunted places: Johannesburg, which is in a constant process of erasing itself and its history, is crowded  with the ghosts of ghosts. In his poem "Connection", written in 1999, Abrahams rendered the looming twenty-first century as a "hurricane of sheer futurity", one that would "change change itself, language and history". The poet's role, the flâneur's job, was to slow time by acknowledging the spaces in between, the gaps in the agreed-upon world that acted as reliquaries for what we'd lost.

Abrahams remains largely unknown outside of South African literary circles, but I wonder what Alistair ...

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