Book Review: “Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir” by Mark Gevisser

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Turn left.

You used to need a map to know that info but these days a voice from a screen tells you where to go on your trip.

It’s easy and fairly reliable; so who would want to go back to wrestling with a map, or wondering if they’re making a wrong turn?

Meet Mark Gevisser.

No, you haven’t used a paper map in eons but author Mark Gevisser has, and his maps show a city under change. In the new book “Lost and Found in Johannesburg,” you might see how.

Growing up in South Africa, Gevisser was obsessed with maps; in particular, an archaic book of streets and neighborhoods that helped him play a pretend-game with himself.

It wasn’t until many years later that Gevisser realized that segments of his hometown of Johannesburg were missing from the book — specifically the neighborhoods where the city’s Black population lived.

Though his Jewish ancestors had endured discrimination when they immigrated to South Africa a century ago, Gevisser was born into a life of privilege and was mostly insulated from the Johannesburg filled with poverty and Black faces. And yet, his family had Black servants that lived, by law, in small houses behind the main home.

Eventually, though, it dawned on Gevisser that the racial system in “Joburg” was flawed. Perhaps he noticed because he had been immersed in a culture of activism, in which whites ignored rules and regularly mingled with blacks. Maybe it was because he was a world traveler and had gone to school in America at Yale, or because apartheid was beginning to unravel back home. Or maybe it was because he was gay and could in some way relate to divisiveness on any level.

Today, Gevisser lives in Johannesburg, a city that’s surprisingly progressive on issues of sexuality. He’s married to a man he calls “C,” who is of Indian descent. You would think these factors — an award-winning white, Jewish gay writer married to a man of a different race in a city that relatively recently rejected apartheid — would make for a very fascinating book.

But alas, “Lost and Found in Johannesburg” is anything but exciting.

First, it takes 80 plus pages to get past chapters on infinitesimally-detailed streets and neighborhoods, and a litany of author Mark Gevisser’s immigrant ancestors – neither of which will mean a thing to anyone who’s not related or in Johannesburg. I lost both interest and patience, but I sallied forth anyhow.

Admittedly, that led me to small pockets of interest – life as a gay South African, brief accounts of apartheid and racism, heartbreaking stories, and a breathless but disturbing tale of robbery – but they were buried beneath passages of esoteric literature and dozens of names, all of which become a blur.

Yes, I suppose that if you’ve lived in South Africa for a good length of time, or if you’re interested in the detailed genealogy of total strangers, you could certainly give this book a try. Most people though that read “Lost and Found in Johannesburg,” will want to turn left and keep on going.


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