Book review: Lost and found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser

Weirdly enough, as I read Mark Gevisser’s neatly crafted memoir of place and identity I found myself thinking about yet another writer born 12 800 Kilometers away in Harlem, sometime in the 1920s, who, in his lifetime, became more than an essayist or a novelist or a social critic, but came to embody the voice that would attempt to draw America and the world back to its humanity by taking his country and the world through his Harlem, where he grew up. It isn’t such a startling thing when you consider that Mark Gevisser is a queer Jewish writer who grew up during apartheid and James Baldwin, a queer black writer of 50s, 60s America. And Baldwin, by the way, wasn’t so radical a writer as popular culture has made him out to be. In his own word he wanted “to be an honest man and a good writer” and I can say the about Mark Gevisser and this book. I find in both writers a compassion for humanity, be it from different positions within the systemic structure of oppression and the complex drama of humanity – one being from a position of privilege and the other from without. When I looked at both writers I didn’t think of comparisons – for none can be made – but rather each writer’s commitment to his own truth and the manner with which he shares his story.

Reading this book, I had expected to encounter a lens into Johannesburg not too dissimilar to that of ‘Conversations with Bourdieu’, the book by Michael Burawoy and Karl van Holdt sans the overt prism of Marxism, of course. But something similar to it. Instead I found myself drawn in by Mark Gevisser ‘The Dispatcher’ and his odyssey (for the book unspools as such) to memorialise his city and to restore his memory: the memory of his childhood and upbringing; the memory of his family; tracing it back to an obscure town called Zelva, somewhere in east Lithuania. This is how thorough, if not pedantic, Mark Gevisser’s research process is, that he went far and wide and within, as if desperate to map out his own identity by so doing, and this book is the diary of that journey, rendered in three parts. He pulls out maps and pictures and books, dispatching the reader as he did so himself in his childhood and both – reader and writer – begin the journey of collecting the constituent parts of his memoir.

The narrative is enriched by countless actors, stories of political activists turned politicians, artists and laymen, robbers and writers, former Security branch police and current policemen; in the end one gets a sense of Johannesburg as a place of many moving parts, being one thing at one intersection and the other just down the road. However, the one thing that remains constant about the city in Gevisser’s words is its premise: “Johannesburg had none of the allegiances to the past that constrain ancient cities. Everybody came from somewhere else, and they all came for one reason – to make money.”  Through his curlicued style of writing – a show of his writerly sensibility, no doubt – he lured me in, page by page, then chapter by chapter, until I realised the book was nearly finished only after a day of reading.

I lived in Joburg for 10 years, moving from Lombardy East, then Braamfontein, then Parktown, then Naturena, Rosettenville, Randburg, Fourways, Douglas Dale, and finally, Bryanston, before relocating to Cape Town a few years ago. In a sense, the topography of the city, especially downtown, as Gevisser maps it out in this book, evoked my own intimate, if not complicated, relationship with the city as I remember it. When I began living in Joburg, Hillbrow was already dinge and dangerous (according to my parents). As first years at WITS we would waddle along Enoch Sontonga Avenue on our way to visit our colleagues at the then WITS Technikon scantily aware that in the cemetery – just to our left – one of apartheid spatial policies was alive and well even in death, for “The southern portion of the Old Cemetry” as Gevisser puts it “…had been consecrated for Christian denominations…while the northern portion seemed to be reserved for other faiths: ‘Chinese’, ‘Coolies’, ‘Cape People’, ‘Mahomedans’, ‘Kaffirs’, and – my favourite – ‘Christian Kaffirs’, this last exposing the fiction that [the separation] was about religion at all. It was, of course, about race. Separating the two portions was a large buffer, running to almost the full extent of the cemetery: ‘Jews’.”

These boundaries – frontiers, really – are laid out and deconstructed throughout the book. The boundaries that existed (and still exist) between the home owner and his domestic servant; between the Jew, the black, and the Afrikaner; between the life of privilege and its counter-point, between a normative existence and its other. In one passage that speaks also of the particular condition of subaltern black bodies in the post-apartheid drama, a passage surely to resonate with anyone who had been reading newspaper in the recent years about the protest movement in Cape Town, Mark Gevisser writes: “Like the Klip River, the Jukskei also rises in the city…churning down rapids as it enters Alexandra, flooding its banks every rainy season and leaving squatters homeless. Until the relatively recent laying-down of sewers, the townships human effluent streamed down open dongas into the river…Even after the sewers were laid, there were problems…because the township’s pipes were so much narrower than Sandton’s, even though all of Sandton’s sewage needed to flow through Alexandra to get down to the sewage-treatment plant on the Jukskei.” In this passage, a certain Sizakele Nkosi “an Alexandra ANC politician” remarks: “It was the shhhit! from Sandton that was causing all the trouble in Alex” and continues a page later “…the rich man’s shhhit! must trouble the poor man.”

It is this and all other kinds of “shhhit!” that make it impossible to place the book aside for later reading. However, its magic is in the way Gevisser helps you over the fence – guided by his own internal cartography – into the laager of white suburban enterprise and its fears of the known and the unknown. There are wonderful facts in the book and intriguing insights into history and present. How this book reminded me of that famous Harlem writer, James Baldwin, is its refreshing honesty even when it doesn’t bode well with your own predispositions, even the prejudices he harbours about the world around him. I would hate to spoil this book for anyone, but there are really beautiful parts that will arrest even the most bigoted among us: the story of Phil and Edgar, for example; or, the bit about the late Bram Fischer’s backyard pool on Sundays. In the end, Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and found in Johannesburg’ is a book for a curious reader. Its bibliography alone will whet your appetite. There are references and detours to works of Ernest Cole, Wally Serote, Mbuyiseni Mtshali and William Kendridge, interwoven with the narrative to give you a thick, satisfying slice of Joburg, of childhood, trauma and healing.

Originally appeared in Cape Times*

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