|Ja, No, Man by Richard Poplak|
|Saturday, 26 January 2008 17:00|
Take the nostalgia bred from having spent sixteen years growing up in South Africa, and then sixteen years out of it, and combine it with a lot of thought around the responsibility of white South Africans during Apartheid, and you have Ja, No, Man in a nutshell.
Described as ‘a memoir of pop culture, girls, suburbia…. and Apartheid’, Ja, No, Man is Richard Poplak’s story of the first sixteen years of his life, which is special because (as he says), ‘What makes my experience remarkable and my perspective unique is that I lived in South Africa only under the Apartheid regime… My South Africa, the universe I inhabited as a boy, died three months after I left it.’The book is divided into sections – Beginnings, Early Days, Awakenings, and Depths and Depths – and each section consists of a number of short essays on different topics. When melded together, they provide a thorough evaluation of life in the early eighties in Johannesburg, and of the awakening of a young teenager to what Apartheid really meant. Well researched and full of both touching personal anecdotes and very honest confessions, Ja, No, Man provides a guidebook to those unfamiliar with South Africa pre-1994. For a South African reader, however, much of the information is redundant (he explains what Chappies are and how braais are a common weekend activity). Although he does not try to pretend he was more socially aware than others his age, the finely detailed reminisces provide a glimpse into a young white Joburg boy’s mentality during that time; and for anyone who was not a young white Joburg boy at the end of Apartheid, it is intriguing.
If Ja, No, Man had stayed a memoir of remembering, I think I would have liked it a lot more. As it is, it frequently strays to a kind of moral lecturing on whatever story has just been told, as if to reassure the reader that he no longer feels this way, or acts in this manner. There is also much deliberation on the country as a whole, which makes the memoir feel heavy and laboured at times, too carefully thought out and plotted, not quite genuine enough.
That is, until the last chapter, where Poplak admits that he spent four months researching the book in South Africa, and he obviously can’t know all there is to know from a short research trip when there are so many others living there day to day.
It is always clear to readers when a writer is being honest, and in the moments where honesty shines through, Ja, No, Man is quite wonderful. If only it were on every page.