|Jozi is a collection of sketches or anecdotes interlinked by the same cast of characters and the city spaces they negotiate. Five or six young men are friends and hang out together in inner city Johannesburg, which includes Joubert Park, Hillbrow, Braamfontein, Berea and Yeoville.
These places all occupy a nostalgic spot in my heart because I grew up there, went to school in Yeoville, visited Joubert Park, hung out in Hillbrow in my late teens and had friends who went to Wits. I saw these places change over the years and I relish hearing them described in this novel. Although the topic is different, the novel reminds me of the film, Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon. In this film, a man spends time scouring similar areas looking for someone he met by chance, and encounters an aspect of Johannesburg that he had not previously known. In the novel, the narrator also has different chance encounters, some of which enrich his life while others endanger his life.
The narrator introduces his various friends by relating anecdotes about their current situations and dilemmas in the period spanning the 90s and the early 2000s. The over-riding sense is of young men with promise but little direction; they are educated and well-read but disillusioned by the state of affairs in the country. They seem to lurch from one disaster to another. AIDS is a lurking presence “at funerals where the cause of death is never discussed.” Some have jobs where they are tokens employed to satisfy affirmative action, some dabble in criminal activity while others, like the un-named character known as the poet, have opted out of living.
On one of the narrator’s attempts to find the poet, he is instrumental in stopping a pickpocket in his tracks. A mob gathers and assaults the pickpocket while others stand and watch. This scene is very well illustrated, from the actions of each individual to the description of the “thief’s inert body” and the indifference of the policeman to the incident. Unfortunately, the effect this has on the narrator is not developed and the action jumps quickly to a scene in which he has drinks with Duma and Buhle where he has been summoned “to play peacemaker between the warring lovers”. There are also violent scenes of brawls and fights between drunk people, encounters with a Congolese man, Michel, who buys everyone beers as well as sexual encounters with a kept woman.
The chapters are short and those that describe the friends of the narrator are interspersed by his musings on various topics such as the way ‘coconuts’ butcher their own language in their efforts to be accepted, the Skierlik shooting in 2008 where black people were gunned down by a white racist and discussions on xenophobia. It seemed as if these inserts are a way of expressing the writer’s opinions and come across as didactic. On the one hand, this commentary on society is important and needs to be heard but, in a novel, it works better if this forms an integral part of the text and the action.
Even though the men described in the novel are still young they often reflect on memories of loss.There is a beautiful piece of unpunctuated stream of consciousness writing when the narrator berates himself over the loss of his one true love, Fisanga. He wonders about our wayward human nature and why we are “apt to pour scorn on those who adore us.” Most of the narrative is in the first person but sometimes shifts to the third person. This is initially confusing until I realised that Frank and the narrator were the same person.
Towards the end of the novel, a rural father searching for his lost daughter arrives in Jozi. This seems to have been tacked on, as is the experience of Senzo and his reaction to falling ill. This novel holds promise but could have been so much more if characters had been contextualised and the storyline developed and expanded upon. The writing is good and the sense of place extremely well drawn. I recommend reading it, despite its flaws, as it certainly brings Jozi to life and captures the dilemmas of this generation of young black men, (and to a lesser extent, women), disillusioned and cynical about their lives and their unfulfilled dreams.