Love across sexual and racial boundaries: Lost and Found in Johannesburg
By DREW ROWSOME
Post-foreshadowing prologue, Lost and Found in Johnnesburg begins with an ode to the magic of maps, their potential, and a game that author Mark Gevisser called "Dispatcher." As a young boy in the '70s, Gevisser would, way before Google Maps, pick destinations in Johannesburg and "dispatch" imaginary deliverymen to the addresses. He would chart and time their progress by tracing his finger along the pages of a book of maps.
But in the '70s, South Africa still existed under apartheid and many parts of the maps were uncharted, some were forbidden, and some were just mysterious as white men, as surveyors would have been, did not go there. Gevisser quotes from Peter Pan, Beryl Markham and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, to evoke the magic of maps and the unknown.
And the magic of exploring the unknown.
I have often wondered about the links between my budding understanding of my sexual difference and my early experience of being stifled by the whiteness, the privilege of my childhood. I do not remember making any connection, even into my teens, between my illicit sexuality and the inferior conditions of the black people who worked for us and lived around us. . . . But it also triggered a thrill: the thrill of transgressing these boundaries that is the very definition of desire.
The connection between the gay experience and the horrors of apartheid is nimbly and subtly drawn but that is not Gevisser's only aim. The chapters and thoughts appear random: family history, the discovery of gay porn is linked to a South African magazine Drum that fought for interracial connections, a brief history of Johannesburg's gay bars, tours of Johannesburg's architecture and fauna, an extremely lovely recounting of a forbidden love story between two back gay men, and always, always, hints dropped of a horrific crime to come.
The biographical and historical fragments are all linked by metaphors of water - beaches, baptism, rain in a cemetery, integrated pools, cruising beaches - and metal - gold mines, wedding rings, cars and finally the barrel of a gun - and faith, religion, superstition and art. What appears to be random research and musings unfold and refold until they are less like a map guiding us somewhere specific and more like an atlas opening to offer us a multitude of tantalizing destinations. Gevisser is a skillful and direct writer, so the journey is a fascinating one with constant surprises of facts, people, points of view, geography and ideas that are just enough outside the realm of the everyday to demand page turning.
The last third of the book chronicles "The Attack," a violent home invasion and robbery, and its aftermath. The pace picks up and the author's white guilt - multiplied by his struggle to come out and marry his other race, same sex husband - is used in an attempt to consolidate all the ideas and metaphors into one neat thesis.
The thematic finale is illustrated by a car tour of Johannesburg, the dispatcher finally entering the map. But the ephemeral can't be easily corralled and the climax is not as compelling, despite vivid descriptions of violence, as the journey. We understand Gevisser's state of mind, as intellectually removed as he sometimes admits to being, and Johannesburg herself becomes a lively character, but Lost and Found in Johannesburg ends up illustrating just how impossible, but how necessary and poetically beautiful, it is to attempt to map the human soul.
Gevisser never pretends to offer a documentation or definitive history of either apartheid or the gay experience. No one person can do that. But by gathering his history and experiences and weaving them into a story that is a pleasure to sink into, Gevisser invites us to look at our own world and surroundings with fresh eyes and make the connections that map our own soul.
Lost and Found in Johannesburg is available at Glad Day Bookshop, 598 Yonge St. gladdaybookshop.com