Books

Shaped and shafted by the city

Luke Alfred

Mark Gevisser’s memoir of growing up in Jo’burg is sweeping in its range and ambition, but falls short on ordinary details and a sense of humour.

Little Mark Gevisser and his doting father. (Supplied)

LOST AND FOUND IN JOHANNESBURG by Mark Gevisser (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

To while away the empty hours of childhood, Mark Gevisser became fascinated with the pages of Holmden's, a curiously idiosyncratic early Johannesburg street guide. When linked to a trawl through the telephone directory it provided the basic ingredients for a wonderful childhood fantasy called Dispatcher, in which he would pick a random entry from the directory and, using Holmden's, chart a route from his house to an arbitrary address through the softly spreading city of the 1960s and 1970s.

Sometimes there was no route for Gevisser's imaginary journey and so Holmden's was not only fascinating for what it represented but intriguing for pathways it couldn't provide. Like maps of old, there were inevitably the proverbial sea monsters on the edge of the known world, terra incognita, the enigmatic blankness of nothing.

Street and suburb didn't always link. The points of Holmden's compass were often worryingly unstable. It was perplexing, even alienating, a handy metaphor for not only the troughs, peaks and peri-urban sprawl of the city, but also Gevisser's growing sense of self and his awakening political and sexual identity.

As Gevisser's consciousness grew, so did his appreciation that maps all have moments of blindness, little lapses in their story. He details, for example, the ludicrous cartographic convention of what he chirpily calls "Soweto denial", a convention dating back to the 1930s that blanked Soweto out in the corners of maps because an enlarged grid of the Johannesburg city centre was superimposed in the space where Soweto should have been.

Such occlusions and denials led Gevisser to become more sensitive to the occlusions and denials in family and social life. As he grows, suddenly sprouting into puberty and the dry wastes of terminally misunderstood adolescence, so his consciousness becomes sensitive to space and the boundaries between them: political, sexual and cultural.

The Holmden's conceit reminded me a little bit of Bruce Chatwin's Songlines, his book about the way in which Aborigines sing the inhospitable outback into reality with song, mapping their way across the desert by singing it into life. Through directory and street map, through Treasure Island-like fantasies such as a touching game he calls Treasure Valley, so Gevisser memorably sings his city into being, except that what he finds is not wholeness and completion but its lack – the city of apartheid social planners, the city where marginal populations are shovelled, quite literally, to the side of the map and to the dusty margins of history.

Buying forests
After this extraordinary supple start, so Gevisser's memoir moves through the gathering of the clan, the arrival of his ancestors from Lithuania and their growing prosperity in the waste-recycling-cum-rag-and-bone trade in Durban. The Gevisser boys washed bottles, ground bones for fertiliser and restitched hessian sacks to sell them onwards to ice factories. Most importantly, they did a trade in wooden crates and boxes, a situation that soon necessitated that they buy forests of their own, ones not unlike the woody pockets of eastern Lithuania from which they had sprung.

Given the natural expansion of the business, Gevisser's father – called Dovidl by the family – was duly sent off to study forestry at Stellenbosch, the only university then to offer such a course. Clearly Jewish, Dovidl was a shy, unworldly boy with a terrible stutter. To get to university he first had to endure a two-day train trip from Durban to Stellenbosch and then all the ritual abuse, fascination and humiliation he could stomach from his fellow passengers.

In his memoir, Gevisser's father confesses that he should have left Stellenbosch as soon as he arrived but with a spirited tenacity he stays, soon attracting the attentions of a group of boys who adopt him as their totem, protecting him from the frothing, anti-Semitic mob. "It was here my father developed his particular power and singular vengeance," writes Gevisser. "He could befriend anyone."

Although Gevisser mildly accuses his father at one point of extreme ambition transferred on to his son, dad is clearly the parent with whom he has more of a bond. In a book full of photographs, some of the most touching family Kodachromes are of father and son, the boy sitting on the grass, cradled in the protective embrace of a doting father.

Despite the imaginative work done by the photos, it would have been more satisfying as a reader to have this relationship explored in all its emotional intimacy. Gevisser's gay marriage to his longtime partner, for example, coincides with his father's illness and death the following year. Gevisser writes movingly about dad's insistence, despite his cancer, to throw him and C, his partner, a party, as he had done for Gevisser's brothers. Wilting dad makes a speech "brimming with love and cut with emotion", but what exactly does he say? The concrete details of the event, the human stain, the aroma of the flowers and the memorable literary incidentals plucked from the swirl of the occasion are missing.

Gevisser is very good at reaching out from the personal and private into the sweep of large events, apartheid among them – indeed, he is forever locating the flower of the private moment only to threaten it with the boot of history – but sometimes the reader pines for a passage or chapter that stands by itself, which isn't located forensically in the aspic of great events.

Slightly hectoring feel
This might be partly explained by such foregrounding being a necessity for non-South African readers. Reading Lost and Found in Johannesburg in contemporary South Africa, though, gives such narrative foregrounding a slightly hectoring feel. The secret art of a memorable memoir is perhaps allowing one's material to breathe without continually moulding it like dough into the correct historical and cultural shape.

A more extreme version of wanting to know more concerns Gevisser's relationship with his mother. About this we learn almost nothing, although there are small giveaways scattered through the book. In what is probably the memoir's most tender photograph, we see his parents on holiday in Xai-Xai, Mozambique, early on in their marriage and shortly after Gevisser's birth. They are partly underwater, in tender embrace, looking into each other's eyes. It is a photograph of blissful, timeless love, before, as the American poet Stephen Dunn would have it, distances set in, before nappies and school lunches and taking work home on weekends.

About it Gevisser writes memorably: "They are a human conch; a heart drawn in the water, so beautiful that their son forgives them their solipsism, as he imagines how he must have been abandoned to facilitate this moment."

This is a rare instance of Gevisser stumbling, of him flouncing away – rhetorically speaking – in a self-important strop. Importantly, the moment is not about him, whether he has been abandoned or not; it is about them, and what led to his creation. It is a moment of purity, unsullied and beautiful because, like all photographs that linger, it is secondarily about time and its passing. For that reason it is a photograph filled with pathos. Love of this kind will always die. As writers we are obliged – doomed maybe? – to record it without due reference to what its implications are for us.

In fairness to Gevisser, the book has a lighter, airier, more generous feel after all the stories about his ancestors have been moved, like so many battlefield soldiers, into place, and some of the angst of adolescence is safely tucked away. This is partly because his subject matter becomes more intimate, detailing the clandestine sexuality of Jo'burg's black and white gay community, the famous Forest Town parties and the double lives of black lovers Phil and Edgar. Indeed, here we find Gevisser at his most gentle and at his most touching as a result.

One of the book's most radiant chapters, The Ecstasy of Immersion, is also here, detailing as it does the healing power of water, baptismal rites and the flaunting of petty apartheid by the Rev Allan Hendrickse's provocative dip in the Indian Ocean from a whites-only beach in 1987.

If there is a further criticism of Gevisser it is that there is not quite enough ordinary detail in this memoir, and not quite enough drama in its structure. Some of the book's most intriguing passages and ideas – the Treasure Valley chapter, the excruciating section about him being reluctantly paired off with a classmate with the intention of the two of them losing their virginity – are closed off almost as soon as they are opened up.

Such blind spots are the book's equivalent of the empty space of Holmden's between pages 75 and 77, a space Gevisser relentlessly reminds us of throughout the book. There is not quite enough humour here and paradoxically – because it is such a sweeping, ambitious book – not quite enough life.

There is also, perhaps, not quite enough disappointment. Gevisser is a secular intellectual Jew, deeply sensitive to social injustice. His mouth, slightly down-curled in disapproval, suggests this in his photograph on the dust jacket. Yet, bravely, disappointment is not a luxury he seems to afford himself. It might have struck a more truly human note if he had.

Luke Alfred's When the Lions Came to Town will be published by Random House/Struik in September.

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