This is my final installment of my four part review (with excerpts) of Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank, A Memoir of a South African Childhood.
Literary memoir often requires that the author apply novelistic techniques on one’s own life story or a portion of that story. Unlike autobiography which seeks to lay out the facts of a life or event, memoir is more concerned with all kinds of truth rather than just literal fact. At times dialog is re-imagined, scenes may even be combined, but in my opinion, the goal remains to get to the emotional truth of a personal narrative. As a result, the work may serve as confessional for the author, who if she or he works hard at it, does not stray into self-pity or justification.
In Retief’s memoir he does not simply spill the beans on his country, South Africa, with the racism and white privilege that choked most of its inhabitants during Apartheid and beyond. Retief does not only reveal the rampant male on male violence within the state-run boarding school he attended and likely existed in other such schools around the country. He also unearths tragedy, trauma, and injustice within his own family–including exposing his own pedophile grandfather who sexually assaults one of Glen’s family members. Layer after layer Retief pulls back the curtains and reveals the ugly, sick side of human nature hidden behind the family friendly Braai and the young boys’ and good old boys’ clubs.
But the author does not let himself off the hook. He does not emerge the perfect hero rising above it all in order to redeem his family and country. He too is touched by the violence and racism. As he attempts to become part of a Black community–dating Cecil, a Black South African and staying in the all-Black Soweto township during a time of unrest, he discovers that he too is damaged goods. In one of the books final scenes, Retief seeks shelter during an Inkatha attack in Soweto. Musa, a friend of Cecil’s, risks his own life (and ultimately gets kidnapped by Inkatha fighters and nearly beaten to death) in order to protect Retief. Reflecting on “The Jack Bank” or the accrued interest of violence that infects every sector of South African government and society, Retief poignantly discloses yet another deposit he has made into this inhuman system.
“I am going now to the hospital,” Cecil says. “I have to see Musa.” A pause. “Do you want to come?”
I can hear the sadness and grief in Cecil’s voice, his need for support. Regardless of my irritation for the night on the telephone and the Soweto eviction, I still love him. I need to be his boyfriend. To Musa I need to affirm his courage: “Cecil has been looking for you for a whole week, Musa. We didn’t forget about you.” I need to hug Cecil, to show I’m proud of him.
I also need to become blacker. This half-decade yearning for a dark-skinned community of refuge—for all its foolishness, it can lead me out of terror and into convalescence if I only take it seriously enough. Community—the word implies reciprocity. The purpose of life, it suggests, isn’t to avoid agony or duck the jack bank, but to band together with others against it. To find in solidarity a fragile but sustaining redemption.
Finally, of course—I cannot leave this out of the roster—at this moment I owe it to Musa. Whatever the wisdom of his decision to go to his girlfriend’s house, the fact remains he gave up his room, that afternoon, for my protection. A white man like you shouldn’t be outside. A deposit of jacks made not in his own account, but in mine.
“Well,” Cecil asks, “are you coming?”
“Will you get me?” I’m playing for time, now—I know this isn’t practical. Cecil is an hour and a half away by public transport. If he ferries me around all day he won’t get anything else done. “I really want to see Musa, babe.” This, too, is a lie: he must sense it. I do not want to to be reminded of my trauma. I do not want to feel Musa’s pain, and by extension my own.
“But I don’t know how to drive there. Is it dangerous if I get lost?”
“It is OK, Glen, really. Don’t worry. I cannot come for you—I am too busy.” We say goodbye and hang up the phone on friendly terms.
But it’s not genuinely alright. Really, he sees through my ploy; understands my the cowardice of my decision. A week or so later, in an over-the-phone breakup conversation, Cecil will say: “I do wish you had come to visit Musa that day, né? It would have showed me we were equals, as you always said.”
The Jack Bank, though a dark tale much of the time, has something for everyone–exotic breathtaking scenes of wildlife in Kruger National Park–young tentative tender love between two friends–revelations about the white supremacist South African government and its death squads–conflicts and confusion between the white Afrikaans and English-speaking worlds co-existing–family dysfunction–the exhilaration of sexual, romantic, and intellectual liberation in revolutionary-era Cape Town–and a the story of the first country to grant equal rights to gays and lesbians in its constitution. Through it all Retief provides steady, deep reflection, vivid details, and startling insight.
But don’t just take my word for it. Listen to what others are saying about the book.
This week Advocate Magazine lists The Jack Bank on this week’s Hot List (along with Glee and Scream 4 :-P) and in its review states:
“If it only dealt with his growing up against the harrowing backdrop of apartheid in a South African military boarding school trained to groom privileged white boys like him into violent oppressors — “jacks” are beatings — then this would be a riveting memoir; the fact that Retief was also coming of age as a gay man makes it essential reading. He also details his efforts to ban antigay discrimination in the post-apartheid Bill of Rights.”
Publishers Weekly reviews it as well and says:
“Probing deeply into his personal memories of race, sexuality, and violence, creative writing instructor Retief has written a potent, evocative chronicle of his youth.”
And writer Robert Olen Butler praises the book and Retief saying,
“A remarkable memoir with the deeply resonant literary power of the finest fiction. The Jack Bank is an important book by a supremely gifted writer.”
And even if I didn’t adore Retief for lots of reasons other than his magnificent writing, I would still strongly endorse his book and encourage you to run out and get it or order it on-line.