By Michele Magwood for The Sunday Times
Lost and Found in Johannesburg
Mark Gevisser (Jonathan Ball)
Long after finishing this exceptional book images linger, stained on the mind’s retina. Jews herded into spherical underground oil tanks in a deep green forest in Lithuania, and shot “like fish in a barrel”. A prisoner in the yard of the Fort looking up to a flat in Hillbrow and seeing a “queer” party on the go, the people hanging over the balcony sipping their “parfaits d’amour”.
An illicit ’60s pool party with blacks and whites in the water together. The sussurating eucalyptus trees in the old Braamfontein cemetery, sprouted from the twigs traditionally set on the graves of black people in “their” section of the graveyard. Apartheid even in death.
Mark Gevisser uses the scaffolding of maps to construct this absorbing memoir; maps physical and mental, maps of family, of identity, of consciousness and conscience. As in the best memoirs, the single life refracts a wider, deeper, more complex picture, one that pulls the reader in to their own examination of their place in the world.
Beginning with the maps that obsessed him as an anxious, singular boy, he charts his growing awareness of apartheid. He played a self-invented game called “dispatcher”, choosing a random name in the telephone directory and then dispatching an imaginary courier across the pages of the map book to deliver something to that address. But when he found an address in Alexandra he realised that it didn’t exist on the map. It was unseen.
In Lithuania he studies the map of the village of his forebears, noting that the Jews and Lithuanians lived together, peacefully, for centuries. Back in Johannesburg he finds maps of the mines under the city, and segues into exploring the underground world of the gay scene.
Threaded through the book is the disturbing story of his armed attack one night in Killarney, and the ultimate healing in its aftermath.
Fluent, affecting and wise, Lost and Found in Johannesburg is a story of boundaries: how we define ourselves by staying within them, pressing up against them, or by transgressing them. It is a profound work from one of the country’s most brilliant young writers.