Book Review, Contemporary, Fiction

Review: A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg by Harry Kalmer [Penguin Random House]

Spanning more than a hundred years A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg is a novel that documents and probes the lives of the inhabitants of this incomparable African city the exiled,

those returning from exile, and those who never left.

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg is the story of Sara, who poses stiffly for a photo with her four children at Turffontein concentration camp in 1901, and of Abraham, who paints the street names on Johannesburg’s kerbs. It is the tale of their grandson Zweig, a young architect who has to leave Johannesburg when he falls in love with the wrong person, and of Marceline, a Congolese mother who flees to the city only to be caught up in a wave of xenophobic violence.


I liked A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg (ATTJ) for a number of reasons:

Firstly, I don’t think any other local fictional novel has captured Joburg (how South Africans refer to Johannesburg) as descriptively as Kalmer has. He manages to describe the different landscapes in such a vivid manner that gives the reader a good sense of the setting of Joburg.

Secondly, the storyline of ATTJ is very good! It was really original and different to any other story I read about Joburg, in a long while. I liked how ATTJ told the stories of different people from different aspects (and regions) of the world and how they handled living in a city facing harsh socio-economic conditions.

Lastly, I think the way in which Kalmer wrote ATTJ worked well for the book. The short chapters gives the reader pieces of the characters’ stories without delving too deep too quickly. This allows for the reader to get to know the characters slowly instead of having the different characters forced onto the reader.

I had difficulty reading ATTJ at first because I was able to tell where parts of the book were translated directly from Afrikaans to English. Many times it didn’t quite fit well in terms of grammar and style of English writing. However, the storyline is still good which merits the publisher and author’s decision to have it translated to English.

Something I always seem to love about novels of places I’ve visited is that warm feeling of familiarity! Kalmer’s description of the areas and culture in Joburg is very good. I could relate to many things

If you’re interested in local South African fictional novels, this one is for you!

Loot: R169 here


Have any of you read this novel or any others by Harry Kalmer? Whats your favourite local fictional novel?


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