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'Lost and Found in Johannesburg' maps the growth of a writer and nation

Mark Gevisser's perspective -- white, Jewish, liberal and gay -- gives him an original voice in South Africa
Mark Gevisser's memoir is a riveting tale of a young writer's growing understanding of a racially charged land

A love of maps is every true traveler's secret pleasure.

As a correspondent in Africa, years before one could follow a path rendered by MapQuest or Google Earth, I came to love and rely on those hand-stenciled city maps in the Lonely Planet guidebook and the continent maps I'd pick up at Paris bookstores.

Maps are more than utilitarian, though. They allow us to take stock of our surroundings and day-dream — or plot — our next conquest.

In his lyrical and achingly touching memoir, South African writer Mark Gevisser taps into a lifelong love of the street maps of his hometown to tell a story that is personal and universal. "Lost and Found in Johannesburg" is a riveting and enchantingly nuanced tale of a young white writer-to-be's growing understanding of the racially charged land he was born into, as well as a more personal journey: his coming out as a gay man.

The road to self-discovery he traces is all the more compelling because it is set against the broader narrative of modern South Africa — a nation that for years was held hostage by racial division and animosity and yet, curiously, is not the land of stark contrasts that that history would suggest.

A memoir can capture only one person's slice of a nation, of course, but Gevisser uses his personal perspective — white, Jewish, liberal and gay — to say something original and profound about his diverse nation.

Gevisser is a formidable reporter and writer. His 2009 biography of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president, was thorough and eminently readable. It deftly captured the cultured, cerebral Mbeki — a complicated man who spent decades helping lead the African National Congress in exile while his father, one of Mandela's fellow Rivonia defendants, was in prison.

It's not easy for a white South African, even one with anti-apartheid credentials, to pen a respected critique of a black president — South Africa hasn't changed quite that much. But, with extraordinary access to the remote Mbeki, Gevisser painted a portrait of an intellectually agile and charming man with a deep flaw, one that led him to deny the AIDS epidemic, costing many lives.

Writing a memoir too is a challenge for whites in South Africa. Fairly or not, they bear a burden of history. But some of South Africa's most-gifted writers (and political figures) have been white, and they are a fascinating group: Alan Paton; Nobel Prize winners J.M. Coetzee and the late Nadine Gordimer; and Andre Brink ("A Dry White Season").

Gevisser's "Lost and Found," to my mind, stands on the shoulders of one of the most powerful modern memoirs of white South Africa — Rian Malan's 1990 "My Traitor's Heart." That unsparing account captured the racial brutality of South Africa in all its complexity — white on black, black on white, black on black. It was a very special kind of voyage of discovery, a map of a different city.

Gevisser's memoir covers a broader sweep of time with a narrower field of vision. Though sweet and personal, it also is tough-minded and intellectually honest.

His focus is Johannesburg and its suburbs, which was my home for six years. It is a place of crowded slums but also mansions, glittering malls and lushly landscaped private schools — all a lot closer than you might expect.

"There is always a suburban wall, there is always a palisade fence, an infrared beam, a burglar bar, a thick red line, between the city I think I know and the city that is," Gevisser writes. That, he notes, is the "perimeter of denial that all Joburgers have to erect if they are to sleep comfortably at night."

In Gevisser's case, that perimeter was ruptured when three armed men entered a flat where he was visiting two female friends just two years ago. The event, which opens the memoir and ends it, is surprisingly illuminating and not in the way you expect.

Gevisser, 49, had grown up in the suburbs during the apartheid era, with a swimming pool and a housekeeper, in a family that held political views that were considered solidly liberal in the day. "Like so many other well-meaning white South Africans," he writes, "they were torn between their values on the one hand and the benefits of their privilege on the other, both of which they imparted to their children."

"The shortfall between these two," he adds, "can be measured in guilt, that basic unit of currency in liberal white South African identity."

The moment that Gevisser seemed to be both lost and found in this hometown came when he and his partner, after 18 years together, drove to a city office to tie the knot shortly after South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006.

Long lines prevented them from getting married right then, and the black clerk who booked them a future appointment urged them to return with their friends and family — and not to forget the rings.

When Gevisser demurred, telling her that "we don't want to make a fuss," the clerk replied: "Do you think you are a second-class citizen just because you are gay? You have full rights in this new South Africa. You have the right to make a fuss. … We will see you … with witnesses and rings. Goodbye."

"Here I was," Gevisser writes, "an entirely empowered middle-class middle-aged white man, being lectured to by a young black woman about my rights."

They were married three weeks later. With rings.

Kraft is deputy managing editor for the Los Angeles Times.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg
A memoir

Mark Gevisser
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 328 pp., $27

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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