The Interview – Mark Gevisser: The divided citizen

2014-03-09 14:00

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Thabo Mbeki’s biographer, Mark Gevisser, has written a memoir. Lost and Found in Johannesburg is an intricately crafted, at times infuriating, portrait of white political consciousness emerging in the divided city. Charl Blignaut spent a morning with the author

I enter the address of the boutique hotel in Houghton and a bold blue line snakes across the Google map.

But it’s clear the bold blue line can’t account for the city’s random roadblocks, boomed-off suburbs or backed-up traffic from the relentless late-summer rain. We arrive late. At the gate, Mark Gevisser’s name is sought on a list and found. Room 7. We may proceed.

Of course, the security is not up to scratch. If people wanted to get in here with guns, they could.

There’s a driving B-story cutting through Gevisser’s new book where three men with guns break into the Killarney apartment where he and friends are watching DVDs one night, and a cruel assault and robbery plays out. It’s only told in full near the end of Lost and Found in Johannesburg.

It is, on the face of it, the “real” Joburg story and its psychological crime narrative has the power to blow apart the book’s perfectly stitched chapters. These have to do with maps, borders and identity – and the people the author meets as he expands his world beyond the kidney-shaped pool in the garden of apartheid suburbia.

The people range from an old gay couple in Soweto to a feisty historian in Lithuania, where a section of Gevisser’s Jewish family was wiped off the map by Nazis.

“Your book is very serious,” I say, when we are seated on plump couches, flutes drifting in from the pipe music.

He smiles and says: “I think of myself as a very serious person, actually.” He bursts out laughing.

“The book is an act of calculated flânerie,” he says later. “It looks like I’m getting lost in the way a flâneur does.”

In the book, he references the flânerie of Teju Cole, Orhan Pamuk, James Joyce and Czeslaw Milosz. It casts a tinge of the heroic literary figure.

Dispatcher was an equally romantic game played by a young Gevisser. Obsessed with maps of Joburg, notably the Holmden’s Street Map in his father’s car, he sends imaginary messengers to destinations on the map. But he hits an obstacle: the map offers no route between Sandton and the adjoining Alexandra township.

Between Nadine Gordimer, Bram Fischer and Estoril Books in Hillbrow, teenage Gevisser starts to find an underground. But he’s only truly politically conscientised in the library at Yale University, reading Steve Biko and weeping. It was, he says, the night he came fully out of the closet.

Returning home, first as a journalist, he visits the territories and people neglected by the Holmden’s Street Map.

“I’ve tried to construct it as a series of interconnected essays [that explore] what it means to be a Joburger,” he says. He’s keen to speak with the black readers who buy his award-winning Thabo Mbeki biography.

I can’t hold myself back any longer.

“The thing is, Mark,” I hear myself say on the recording, “as beautifully written as your book is, there’s something about it that infuriates me. Firstly, there’s my feeling that black South Africa has had enough white noise, enough with the white crisis of identity already?…

“But what actually makes me angry is how we grew up. The white unconsciousness. What was wrong with us? How could we be so completely oblivious?”

There’s a pause, quite a long one.

“This is what I grappled with,” he says. “The framing mechanism of the book is the difference between Page 75 and Page 77. Alexandra and Sandton. I wrote from the perspective of a boy who could not find a way through to the next page but knowing, now, that the people who live on Page 75 know exactly how to get through to Page 77 because they work in their homes. That’s brutal and fundamental. It’s an injustice for which I feel a terrible responsibility.”

Of course, it’s as much my white noise as it is Gevisser’s. In fact, listening to the recording, it takes a moment to even distinguish our voices.

I hear that at the book’s second launch the next night at the Troyeville Hotel there was a great squirming of whiteness and a similar discussion at the tables.

I notice we’ve all avoided the phrase ‘white guilt’. I guess it’s just so last decade.

“We’re taking number 7. We’ll bring him back,” I joke with the guard on the way out of the hotel.

We’re going to visit the old cemetery in Braamfontein next to the M1 highway that Gevisser visits in the book – also in the rain – to find the graves of two of his ancestors.

The Jewish tombstones are dense and beautiful, running down the middle of the cemetery. On one side are the good white Christian graves among oak trees and roads wide enough to drive through.

“On the other side are the heathens: the Muslims and the Malays, and the ‘Christian k*****s’. It gives a lie to the fact that it was about religion. It was about race,” he says under his umbrella.

Black graves had crosses made of wood. Today, that entire area is grass and blue gum trees. Obliterated.

He tells of a letter that came with his family tree from Europe. A relative wrote to say he had escaped death, but the entire Gevisser family of Lithuania was wiped out. He asked if the family wanted to know what happened.

“My aunt said no. She couldn’t stand it. Rather send him a pretty Happy New Year card every year. There’s something amnesiac about us as people.”

On the way back, we discuss Joburg and crime.

Gevisser says his Joburg is a feeling – of edginess but also of humanism. And of intense relationships.

Joburg was always a den of thieves, from the get-go. As mining took root, it was called Frenchfontein because of the proliferation of brothels.

“Yet it is also a city you can come to reinvent yourself – and it always has been. One of the reasons Joburg is a place where you can boo Zuma

is because it’s a place where you think things can be different. And I can be different. Better.”

I only finish reading the book the next day and again Gevisser has me gripped – until I get to the closing chapters. The penultimate chapter is called Hope in Alexandra.

Hope spent time growing up in the Gevisser yard, the daughter of a nanny. The author reunites with her in the Alexandra township once so inaccessible to him, where she lives.

As in the “fantasy” game of Dispatcher in the final chapter, for me it is a conceit too far, a need for closure more of his making than hers.

» This article was updated after first published to correct the name of the last chapter of the book.

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