You and I are sitting next to each other on a plane. We’ve never met before, but you notice that I’m reading Lost and Found in Johannesburg. Do you tell me that you wrote it?
If we are sitting next to each other on the plane right now, you will notice, at the same time, that I am reading Arctic Summer. Which I am, actually, at this very moment. I would recognise you immediately, because I’ve read your other books and seen your jacket photo, and although I have an iron rule of never talking to the person sitting next to me on the aeroplane, the coincidence would compel me to break it.
I tell you that several disconnected elements in your own past resonate exactly with mine. I name them for you:
1. That our Jewish ancestors came from Lithuania to South Africa several generations ago.
2. That – despite being Jewish and English-speaking – our fathers both studied in Stellenbosch.
3. That I also underwent a major adolescent frisson when Michael York’s character in Cabaret admits to sleeping with the blond German man.
4. That we too spent several school holidays in the (then) Eastern Transvaal.
Is this the start of a beautiful friendship?
Jewish Geography. I tell you that your judge-to-be grandfather and my communist-hothead grandfather shared a flat in Pretoria in the 1920s. And Queer Geography. I remind you that I reviewed your novel The Quarry many years ago.
You don’t need to remind me of your review of The Quarry. It was one of the few thoughtful and considered responses the book got at the time, and I’ve always remembered it with gratitude. It’s partly the reason, in fact, that I’ve engaged in our mid-air conversation so enthusiastically, when I’m usually misanthropic with strangers.
But you’ve really surprised me with what you say about our grandfathers. Really? Is that true?
My mother mentioned it to me recently. I was worried, when I sat down next to you, that you’d remember the review badly. I was an angry young gay man at the time. Recently out of the closet and full of fire. I fear I might have blown some in your direction.
That part of our past we have in common. But I can see on the moving map that we’re leaving South African airspace. This prompts me to reflect that I have always felt more at home in what I’ll call, for want of a better term, nameless zones. The Quarry was about a man with no name, fleeing to a town that is also not named. By contrast, you mentioned geography – one of my weakest subjects at school – and it occurs to me that your new book is very much about naming things and places and plotting relations between them. Our newfound friendliness prompts me to say that I think this is a significant difference between us.
I’m aware that your email handle is “nomadic”. And mine might as well be “homeboy”! So, yes, we’re different. At seventeen, you published a novel. I tried, and failed, and became a journalist. A namer of things. I envy you hugely, because you write in your fiction about things I feel, but do not have the words for, or the courage to express. In a Strange Room is a very important book for me, because you give words to the feeling of alienation – an alienation I experience, and that is at the root of the “dispatcher” game I played as a little boy that I describe in my book, in such a way that I felt I understood it and could make my peace with it. My refuge from this alienation – which might have had to do with my sexuality, as well as a sense of the aridity of white suburban South African life, despite its comfort – was to place myself, to plot myself into a grid, while using maps, too, to imagine escaping that grid. I need a map – if only so that I can study it, throw it away, and then make my own map.
Please come back from Boyes Drive and back onto the aeroplane… where a woman on the other side of the aisle has been eavesdropping on our conversation. She interrupts us now to say that she deeply disagrees with me. There are no nameless spaces, she says, except those created under repressive regimes. Your biography of Thabo Mbeki has helped her to fill in some historical gaps – “terra incognita”, as your map analogy might have it – and she is looking forward to reading Lost and Found, because it sounds like a similar sort of book. What do you say to her?
There’s a line from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost that I just love, which I cite in the book: She’s looking out of an aeroplane window as she crosses north America, and what she sees below her, she writes, is “anonymous, unfathomable, a map without words… These nameless places awaken a desire to be lost, to be far away, a desire for that melancholy wonder that is the blue of distance.” But maps themselves provide a fiction of omniscience. I tell the kind woman that I’m really happy she found The Dream Deferred helpful, and that I hope she buys Lost and Found, but that writing my new book has only increased my appreciation that there is no birds-eye view, and that there is always terra incognita, and that no-one’s life is mappable, Those mysteries are what make both the writing and the reading of both biography and autobiography so exciting for me.
Several hours later, our flight touches down in Paris. This is your destination, where you have a home with your spouse and where you have spent many years of your life by now. I am changing planes and going on to a writers’ festival somewhere else. I feel displaced, uneasy; but as we say goodbye it occurs to me to wonder whether you feel in any way (your “soul-home” notwithstanding) whether you are coming home at this moment. To put it another way, is Paris another point on a larger map or will it always be off the edge of the chart?
Paris has been a wonderful sojourn and retreat. But South Africa is home, and I’ll be coming back.
- Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser
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Image courtesy Mark Gevisser