Double Negative is one of those novels that you keep thinking about long after you’ve read them. Not for some shocking storyline or a bizarre setting but because it has so many layers that it takes a while to understand them. We follow Nev, a dropout university student at the start of the book and a photographer at the end of it. By then, he is just starting to get known, and spends some time with a blogger cum journalist Janie driving around Johannesburg and taking photographs of walls and letter boxes. Rewind back to Nev’s younger days, and we see him in a reversed situation, spending a day – arranged by his father who is worried about Nev’s future – with a famous photographer Auerbach, following him as he shows the city to a British journalist.
The day with Janie is post-apartheid. The day with Auerbach – when the apartheid regime is still in full swing, albeit amongst protests and demonstrations that Nev had taken part in, although not as actively as some. Shortly after the day with Auerbach Nev leaves Johannesburg for London.
Ten years away is a long time. Any country in crisis would probably be different after a decade, and upon his return, Nev sets out to find his way around the city he used to know by heart. But the place has changed, there are new areas, new streets, new walls everywhere, and Nev drives around this newness, trying to make sense of it by taking photographs.
Nev did not consciously intend to become a photographer, and even as he finds his first fame, he rejects the idea of being an artist, or even a real photographer like Auerbach. He is not a storyteller, he is convinced, he is uninterested, even disgusted in what goes on behind the walls he photographs. And yet one of the first things Nev does when he returns to his home town after a decade in London is find one of the houses he and Auerbach were supposed to visit, the house Nev had picked himself. What he finds there will become – he doesn’t really know what, all he knows is that he has to hold on to it, to make it part of his next project. Everyone seems to have moved on, almost forgotten the past, while Nev is still feeling the earth trembling, shaking, the country still marked by what used it be.
Any Cop?: Double Negative is a multi-layered, complex novel, deceptive in its first-impression gentleness, and just like Nev, I’m still experiencing the effects of it unfolding even after it has ended.