Gevisser, Mark. “Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
Growing Up in South Africa
Our story starts with a transgression—the armed invasion of a private home in the South African city of Mark Gevisser’s birth. But far more than the riveting account of a break-in, this is a daring exploration of place and the boundaries upon which identities are mapped.
Gevisser was born and raised in apartheid South Africa and as a kid he was obsessed with “Holmden’s Register of Johannesburg”, a street guide that erases entire black townships. He realizes that Johannesburg is full of divisions between black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight; a place that “draws its energy precisely from its atomization and its edge, its stacking of boundaries against one another.” In this book, Gevisser starts a journey to understand the inner life of his city.
He uses maps, family photographs, shards of memory, newspaper clippings, and courtroom testimony to chart his intimate history of Johannesburg. First he traces his family’s journey from the Orthodox world of a Lithuanian shtetl to the white suburban neighborhoods where separate servants’ quarters were legally required at every house. Gevisser, who eventually marries a black man, tells stories of others who have learned to define themselves “within, and across, and against,” the city’s boundaries. He writes of the double lives of gay men like Phil and Edgar, of the servants that the upper classes were lucky enough to have, of the private clubs and swimming pools where there was a chance for intimacy between those of different races. white and black and of the laws of the apartheid which prohibited sex between the ever-present housekeepers and gardeners, and the private swimming pools where blacks and whites could be discreetly intimate, even though the laws of apartheid strictly prohibited sex between people of different races. He explores physical barriers like The Wilds, a large park that divides Johannesburg’s affluent Northern Suburbs from two of its poorest neighborhoods where three men held Gevisser at gunpoint.
The book is an existential guide to one of the most complex cities on earth. Gevisser tells us that, “Maps would have no purchase on us, no currency at all, if we were not in danger of running aground, of getting lost, of dislocation and even death without them. All maps awaken in me a desire to be lost and to be found . . . [They force] me to remember something I must never allow myself to forget: Johannesburg, my hometown, is not the city I think I know.”
We have two contemporary dramas here—one violent, one quiet and they frame the memoir. Gevisser was born in 1964, the year Mandela was jailed for life. He remembers his privileged childhood in a walled white world. Then, in the mid-1990s, he returned to Johannesburg after studying at Yale for years. He had also lived in Paris for a while. His return included when he was held hostage at gunpoint. He was bound and gagged with two women friends when three brutal robbers broke into his home. From this point the story is driven by ire and sympathy. He feels guilty by having lived a life of privilege. Is his assailant a prisoner from the apartheid war? The honest blend of sympathy and fury drives the story: his guilt now about his privilege as well as relief and sadness.
Gevisser asks questions about race, sexuality, faith, and politics and examines his own history as well as Johannesburg’s. He uses a map as a metaphor to describe the borders and lines drawn by class, economics or racial segregation. He writes with an honesty that we do not usually find when we read about apartheid and race as well as his own sexual orientation. There were sections that made me feel that Gevisser is driven to tell the truth and set the story straight.
Parts of the book are unique in that they are intellectually mesmerizing. The part about the robbery is frightening and I was riveted to the page. And this is not something I often say. This is Gevisser’s take on growing up in white, privileged Johannesburg and living steps away from poverty and violence.
The use of the map was a stroke of genius— they take us back to the writer’s personal past, as well as to guide us through the history of Johannesburg. “Maps define and divide, frame and exclude, and so do the boundaries of city ; we are defined by society. Sometimes we don’t fit in and we have to struggle to find who we are beyond these limitations”.