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Memoir of a savage Eden

Mandla Langa | 2014-03-31 23:59:40.0

Although a memoir, Mark Gevisser's Lost and Found in Johannesburg reads like a work of fiction in which he has harnessed all the traditional elements - setting, character, plot, theme and point of view.

However, the setting - the streets of Johannesburg - gets the lion's share of the action. Gevisser offers a microcosm of our society and gives us a glimpse of how the different sections of the South African community see the spaces in which they live. It also puts in stark relief the fact that the apartheid state's policies of segregation will continue affecting our lives for generations to come.

Navigating this world through Gevisser's bespectacled eyes, which make Holmden's street guide their starting point, we make many detours and hit a few culs-de-sac strewn along the path of discovery.

Voyages are the staple of history, which is paradoxically intertwined with fiction. There are cameo appearances from an army of Gevisser's relatives, who could have inspired characters in Joyce's Ulysses. Distressingly, since some of the victims are women and children, there are vignettes featuring kinfolk that endured shtetls, ghettoes and, here and there, the shrugged-off reality of pogroms. Gevisser is skilful in offering scattered titbits that are held in reserve. Much like a jazz musician who lets loose a riff that later takes over the harmonies of the piece, these nuggets congeal into something strong, memorable and evocative.

The ambivalence of the city and its preoccupation with itself mirrors the conduct of the inhabitants. Gevisser's sexual awakening, the taboo of being attracted to a member of the same sex - a taboo complicated by a state preoccupied with colour - must have made him all the more watchful and somewhat untrusting. The book is as much an exploration of the mysteries of the world as of Gevisser's strivings to find his place in it.

While it has been possible for Johannesburgers to take their city for granted, a city that has loved and rejected them with equal measure, it is unlikely they will regard it in the same way after reading Lost and Found.

It is at once illuminating and challenging.

There is an insinuation of violence in the earlier sections of the book. There are accounts of murder and the unspeakable cruelty of concentration camps.

This violence becomes all the more chilling when brought closer to home, as in the attack suffered by Mark and Bea and Katie. I couldn't help referring back to the tender scene where the Mozambican man he remembers as James is carrying the prepubescent Mark; the assault, later, by hands that could have once shown him care, must have deepened the trauma.

This is a story with which most South Africans are familiar - which causes many city dwellers sleepless nights but is never really analysed because its analysis would mean going to the root of iniquity.

Gevisser's rendition is not so much a recording of a shameful series of events as a meditation on the naked question of our collective humanity. What, he asks without asking, are we capable of? What are we likely or even willing to endure? What is the price of living in this savage Eden?

It tells South Africans more about ourselves and the world around us.

  • Langa is a poet and novelist

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