by Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
It’s not an outrageous overstatement to say that for decades Nadine Gordimer’s writing told the English-speaking world what to think about South Africa. She started publishing in the late 1940’s, just as the Afrikaner Nationalist Party was elected, and both her bibliography and her life became international testaments to committed political dissidence. Her books were so deeply and perceptively responsive to the sustained crisis of apartheid that the scholar Stephen Clingman called them ‘history from within.’ In the 1970’s and early 1980’s several of her novels were banned by the South African Censorship board—a fate that befell a great many South African writers, of all races– which of course served to heighten rather than diminish the interest of her readers abroad, some of whom came to see her as nothing less than an embattled prophet of her nation’s future. Gordimer is a child of apartheid in the same way that Doris Lessing calls herself a child of war: someone whose consciousness has been permanently shaped by national violence, and whose ambition as a writer is to try to understand how that violence is both a summons to ethical imagination, and a limit.
The rigor with which Gordimer thinks about imaginative limits helped to earn her a Nobel Prize in 1991, but it doesn’t always make her easy to read. I’m not referring to her literary style, which is usually more or less realist, or to the fact that she always punctures the naïve humanism that might persuade us that good will and empathetic imagination make it possible to transcend the perceptual impasses created and enforced by the state. Her compatriot J.M. Coetzee, who was awarded his own laurel crown in 2003, is at least as pessimistic about the liberating powers of imagination as Gordimer is, and most of his novels end in death, delirium, or damnation. But in general I find Gordimer bleaker than Coetzee, perhaps because she tends to hold the reader at such a chilly distance from her characters, whom she turns this way and that like a jeweler busy at the work of faceting. In the end, we understand a great deal about the men and women Gordimer invents, and particularly about their errors, indulgences, and cruelties, but we judge with a rather cold eye. This is never the case in Coetzee’s feverish novels: here judgment is accompanied by the desire to call for a cool cloth and murmur a few comforting words. Full disclosure, then: I’ve been reading Gordimer for twenty years, and although I admire her work enormously, I don’t always warm to it.
Yet Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007, which excerpts short fiction from ten of Gordimer’s collections, is filled with glad surprises as well as classics. I decided to read these stories out of order, jumping across decades and collections with no plan at all, other than to see how the stories felt in unexpected juxtaposition with one another. I was struck right away by the range of styles and subject matter, including the fables that make their first appearance in a volume called A Soldier’s Embrace, first published in 1980. Little parables like “A Lion on the Freeway,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “Loot” are structured by series of compressed images rather than by character or plot, and despite the fact that these dreamy little tales are deeply menacing, they are also magical. “Loot,” which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1999, is about an earthquake that tilts the ocean to reveal the wealth on its floor and tempt hordes of looters to abandon their wits and run over the sand to gather the strange harvest. But it’s also about the relationship between art and life—a subject Gordimer has written about more straightforwardly in non-fiction works like The Essential Gesture and Writing and Being—because we’re not sure whether the tsunami that comes in the end to drown the grabby masses is real, or Hokusai’s famous woodcut, “The Great Wave,” miraculously come to life. “Loot” is also about regime change, but for me it’s much richer than more conventional stories like “At the Rendezvous of History” or “A Soldier’s Embrace,” which also chart the unexpected reversals produced by moral and political victory, but without the iridescent and inexhaustible strangeness of a fairy tale.
This is not to say that the fables in Life Times are necessarily the best in the anthology. “Tape Measure” and “Dreaming of the Dead,” both from Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black (2007), are strange in a totally unsuccessful kind of way. The narrator of “Tape Measure” is a tapeworm that has just been expelled from the bowels of its host– why, oh why, could this cruel human not accept my peaceful presence? the unhappy creature asks—but courageously determines to survive exile in the sewer system. Why, oh why does this bizarre tale exist? the reader wonders. “Dreaming of the Dead” is a heavy-handed eulogy for three of Gordimer’s close friends—Edward Said, Susan Sontag, and Andrew Sampson—who take her out for dinner in Soho, where they all praise each other at length and then talk about the projects they’re working on in the afterlife. Luminaries like these may live on, but there’s no hope for the rest of us, or so the final story of the volume, “The Second Coming,” suggests. When Christ comes back, he finds a ruined and depopulated world in which there is no possibility of transfiguration: just a stinking charnel house. But it feels churlish to devote even a short paragraph to the weakness of Gordimer’s most recent stories when for fifty years she gave us so much to marvel at.
And this collection really is filled with marvels. Take “A Lion on the Freeway,” which in just over three pages condenses the claustrophobic paranoia of apartheid into a single image, or is it a sound? It’s a pant, a groan, a roar, a last breath, and it’s right in your ear when you wake up at the most vulnerable hour before dawn. Is it a lion, lovers, intruders, traffic, the wind, or the final aspiration of the dying? All of these, and it’s also the “black strikers” marching through the streets, which is how the story ends:
They went all through a city not far from this one, their steps are so rhythmical, waving sticks (no spears any more, no guns yet); they can cover any distance, in time. Shops and houses closed against them while they passed. And the cry that came from them as they approached—that groan straining, the rut of freedom bending the bar of the cage, he’s delivered himself of it, it’s as close as if he’s out on the freeway now, bewildered, finding his way, turning his splendid head at last to claim what he’s never seen, the country where he’s king.
“A Lion on the Freeway” reads like a fast-forward dress rehearsal for “Something Out There,” published four years later, which is the centerpiece of this anthology and, at almost one hundred pages long, very nearly a novella.
“Something Out There” arrays all of Gordimer’s gifts. Its central premise is that some predatory creature is at large in the suburbs of Johannesburg—a baboon, a monkey, an ape, a black man?—and Gordimer uses the movements of this creature to enter and leave the lives of her characters just as in the opening pages of Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf follows the car and airplane into the minds of the people who watch them. Woolf wants to show the fluency of human connection, but Gordimer has the opposite aim: she wants to quietly remind us that the Afrikaans word ‘apartheid’ means ‘apartness,’ and that this apartness is maddening because it invades the most intimate recesses of daily life and of consciousness, and then returns to terrorize those it was meant to keep safe. As one affluent white character observes,
But you are never alone in this country. They are always there; the house-boy, the garden-boy mowing the lawn. They see everything; you can only do, in the end, what it is all right for them to see and remember.
It’s no accident that the outlaw predator only hunts in the rich white suburbs. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something out there that haunts the two main black characters, Eddie and Vusi, who are trained anti-apartheid agents preparing to undertake a mission while masquerading as house-boys on a farm. They’re as hungry for revolutionary trespass as the animal that wouldn’t respect “its proper station in life,” but what haunts them isn’t fear, but rage and desire. Eddie senses “a horizon darker than the dark” that “held the cold forms in which the old, real, terrible needs of his life, his father’s life and his father’s father’s life were now so strangely realized,” and the legislated refusal of those needs makes him blow up a power station and plunge Johannesburg into primal darkness.
What do the radically dehumanized become, exactly, in the imaginations of those who do not want to know them? It’s one of Gordimer’s lifelong questions, and in Life Times we see her answer it in all sorts of ways. “A Lion on the Freeway” and “Something Out There” play with the idea that the infra-human return as frightening animals (it’s a conceit adapted from Kafka, who poached it from Ovid). “The Ultimate Safari,” one of Gordimer’s most beautiful stories, reverses this premise: it’s about a group of black refugees from Mozambique who are making an illegal trek through Kruger Park to the relative safety of a South African displaced persons camp, and it’s told in the voice of a child who describes the most horrifying events with heart-breaking simplicity. The little girl’s father is away fighting the government, and her mother has disappeared in one of many violent raids on the village, and so the child and her siblings set off with their grandparents through the game park, where they must evade park rangers, tourists in jeeps, and wild animals. This desperate walk, Gordimer suggests, is the ultimate and true safari of our time, not the one undertaken by mostly white, prosperous tourists who want the pretend danger of ogling big game. The thinning band of refugees, who literally lose their dead in the tall grasses, are far more vulnerable than the animals for whom the park is a sanctuary:
We were never thirsty without finding water, but the animals ate, ate all the time. Whenever you saw them they were eating, grass, trees, roots. And there was nothing for us…. The only food we could eat was what the baboons ate, dry little figs full of ants that grow along the branches of the trees at the rivers. It was hard to be like the animals.
But they’re not like the animals, because absolutely no one wants to see them. Oh sure, at the end a crew of white photographers and filmmakers comes to the refugee camp to ask questions, but Gordimer presents these earnest folk as safari-goers of a new sort. The little girl’s grandmother is very polite, but she really has nothing to say to them:
I didn’t think our grandmother wanted to speak again. I didn’t think she was going to answer the white woman. The white woman put her head on one side and smiled at us.
No one has depicted the brokenness of empathy quite like Nadine Gordimer, with such tremendous calm and so little commentary.
Strange animals get attention, and sometimes corpses do too. “Six Feet of the Country,” first published in 1956, is among Gordimer’s most famous stories, and it asks whether death can restore the full humanity withheld from a black man in life. The short answer is no; but a dead body can discomfit the white baas. In this case, the boss and his wife are weekend farmers from Johannesburg who like the fact that in the country their “relationship with the blacks is almost feudal,” which is “more comfortable all around.” At least until a nameless illegal immigrant from Rhodesia sheltering among the workers on their farm dies, and his body is taken away by the health board for a postmortem and then buried in an unmarked grave. The dead man’s family wants the body back so that they can bury it themselves, and they give their life savings to pay for the exhumation, which the white boss agrees to arrange with the appropriate authorities. But as the dead man’s father carries his son’s coffin toward its grave, he realizes that it’s much heavier than his son ever was, and he calls the cortège to a halt and with his own hands prises open the pine box to reveal the corpse of a stranger. The gentleman farmer is outraged—mostly at the inefficiency of the authorities—and he spends weeks trying to find the right body, or at least get the money back. He achieves neither, but remains troubled by the ease with which the young man vanished:
At last, it became clear that we would never get Petrus’s brother back, because nobody really knew where he was. Somewhere in a graveyard as uniform as a housing scheme, somewhere under a number that didn’t belong to him, or in the medical school, perhaps, laboriously reduced to layers of muscle and strings of nerve? Goodness knows. He had no identity in this world anyway.
In the end, the dead man’s father goes back to Rhodesia wearing a hand-me down suit given to him by the farmer’s wife. At least the old man “went back home rather better off, for the winter, than he had come,” thinks the farmer. He got six feet of second-hand fabric instead of the six feet of the country in which he wanted to bury his son.
Did I say that Nadine Gordimer told chilly stories that let us understand and judge but not feel? Shame on me.
Alice Brittan teaches post-colonial and world literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is currently working on a book about material and imaginative exchange called Empty-Handed.