Writing vigorous material is not easy. And documenting a life from within a first person perspective can be a pit of snakes: what you might consider utterly fascinating about your own life might not be enough to get your reader to turn one page before soporific murkiness pulls in. Vigorous, funny, real and in the first person, Mark Verbaan’s Incognito is unputdownable.
If for the past decade or so, you looked forward to his various print media columns under his pseudonym Ben Trovato, which ruthlessly and relentlessly pulled opened the blinkers and poked into the sensibilities of South African crass stupidity and governmental mediocrity, you will completely relish this book which gives the back story of how the name and the idea of the pseudonym grew.
Admittedly, this element of the rich life Verbaan has lived, in, under, over and alongside the proverbial radar, only crops up from chapter 18, but the writing has so much wisdom and magnificent ability that it is not only a book about a pseudonym explained and set free, as it were. Or one about a columnist and sub-editor who was given short shrift by the newspapers he wrote for, or gave them the finger when he’d had enough of their petty politics. It’s not even only about a young man sailing, traipsing and gingerly wading through the poisonous contradictions and heady nuances that being young and white and articulate in a country rotten with apartheid values was like.
It’s about all of these things, but it is underpinned with such flawlessly crafted writing that you will want to eat this book from beginning to end, and will have difficulty not reading it all in one night.
Resonant with the kind of breathless pace in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Incognito might remind you a little of the focus of JH Thompson’s An Unpopular War, as it offers a running commentary on life, love, loss, letting go and bewilderment in a manner that reeks with such honesty and genuineness that you will laugh – and at times cry – out loud. Never sinking into the maudlin, it’s a breathless read for all the finest reasons, but the laughs conjured up are never hollow. Cynical, yes. Obscene, certainly. Amoral, indeed. And totally laden with drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll. But as you read, the rhythm of the language is audible in your head, and it’s cast with such unselfconscious capability that it leaves you reeling. And makes you fall a little bit in love with a man who can write with such rigour.
This is a lovely book which keeps the mystique of Trovato behind his dark glasses and black Fedora intact as it celebrates Verbaan with all his flaws and graces, offering simultaneously, beautiful, brave and critical insight into the monstrous incompetence that makes our world turn.
Incognito: The Memoirs of Ben Trovato by Mark Verbaan (2014: Macmillan, Johannesburg)