In my estimation, Gordimer is one of the giants of the 20th century. Unlike artists who insist that they don’t want their work ‘tainted’ by political content, hinting that such works then become simply propaganda, Gordimer is and has always been a political writer. Indeed, her works were banned in her own country until apartheid came to an end, including the novel that won her the Booker prize in England--a wonderful novel about the colonization and exploitation of Africa, entitled The Conservationist.
Gordimer understands very well that the explo
itation of Africans did not end with the official end of apartheid; she understands economic imperialism as well as anyone, and she knows that it does not end by government edict. Gordimer is not a writer for those who read simply to be entertained; not only is she tough politically, she also writes dense and complicated prose that requires close attention even of experienced readers. Often enough, her writing is simply page after page of stream of consciousness, the stream varying from character to character. Like a very few writers can do, instead of saying everything as slowly and as carefully as possible, Gordimer is an optimal user of the language, and she says as much as she can as fast as she can and invites her reader to keep up with her. She has an incredible vocabulary, a wonderful understanding of world economies, a fine grasp of (even very esoteric) philosophy, and an awe-inspiring grasp of human psychology.
There is no formula for understanding this novel short of close attentive reading. Two upper middle class white South Africans, a woman doctor and her upper level businessman husband are sailing comfortably along in their lives, drifting from each other (as old couples often do), often enough as bored with themselves as with each other, and despite rather liberal political leanings that make them cluck and shake their heads over events they read about in the paper or catch on the telly, they do very little other than send the occasional check to ‘worthy’ causes. They are above the fray. And then, out of nowhere, they are summoned one day to the police station and told that their precious only son has been charged with murder. Though they know, of course, that there must be some mistake, some confusion, they hurry to his side to rescue him.
I won’t be telling you much of the story if I let you know now that the son confesses to the killing! Apparently, he has killed a young man who lives with him and a group of other young people in a house and cottage rented by the whole group. The gun used in the killing has been located, tossed apparently carelessly into the bushes outside the house. Somehow, a woman with whom the son has been involved is at the center of things, having apparently slept with the murdered man, rather publicly, on a divan in the living room of the house, and now the man is dead.
When they visit the son, full of condolences for him and outrage at the obviously mistaken authorities, he is oddly calm and quiet, not denying the charges, not reassuring his parents of his innocence. And what is even worse, the semi-rich white couple are told to hire a black attorney who is famous for handling such cases. As the story begins to unfold, this clean, white, upstanding couple has to admit first that their son has done the killing (or will not deny it), and, even worse, that he has also been involved homosexually with the man he is accused of killing! What is worse, the charge of murder, or the sordid details of his bisexual life? And which of the parents is to blame for the twisted behavior of the boy?
The father, at least, has the refuge of his childhood Catholicism which he has not discarded despite his wives half amused, half disgusted dismissal of all such superstitious nonsense. Is it her fault, he wonders, that the boy has turned out so? She has been a rather cold mother, occupied so much with her patients and her practice and her (isn’t it unfeminine) lack of spirituality? Both parents ask questions, of themselves, and if not overtly of one another, then in their covert reveries. And this facile and too well dressed African attorney who asks such personal questions, and implies so much with both what he says and what he doesn’t, what are they to make of him?
I think rather than trying to tell you more of the story, I am simply going to read a rather lengthy passage which I hope will give you the flavor of the entire novel and of the questions these people have to ask themselves. The Senior Counsel referred to is the attorney, Hamilton Motsamai. The writing is abbreviated, a kind of short-hand stream of consciousness style, and I think this one passage will give you some feel for the whole and for the attention required by the reader. I only hope I can read it in a way that will carry its sense and its impact.
Well, a sample at least of this wonderfully complex novel, whether or not my reading did it justice.
As you know, Senior Counsel said. But what concern had it been of theirs, except in the general way of civilized people—privately uncertain whether crime could be deterred without the ultimate retribution—dutifully supporting human rights and enlightened social practices where these had been violated in the country’s past. There had been so much cruelty enacted in the name of the State they had lived in, so many fatal beatings, mortal interrogations, a dying man driven across a thousand kilometres naked in a police van; common-law criminals singing through the night before the morning of execution, hangings taking place in Pretoria while a second slice of bread pops up from the toaster—the penalty unknown individuals paid was not in question compared with state crime. None of it had anything to do with them. Murderers, child batterers and rapists; if Dr. Lindgard [the wife] once or twice had professional contact with their victims and related to her husband the damage that had been done, neither she nor he had in their orbit, even remotely any likelihood of knowing the criminal perpetrators. (And perhaps, after all, they ought to be done away with for the general good?)
The Death Penalty. And now, too, it still seemed to have nothing to do with them or with their son. They had been obsessively preoccupied with why he did what he did, how he, one like themselves, their own, could carry out an act of horror—they had been unable to think further, only abstractly, confusedly now and then half-glanced at what a penalty could be, for him. The penalty had seemed to be the prison cell they had not seen, could not see, and the visitors’ room which was the only place of his material existence, for them. Even Harald; who in his religious faith, concerned himself with the act in relation go God’s forgiveness, and committed the heresy of denying that this grace, for the perpetrator, exists: ‘Not for me.’ The Death Penalty: distilled at the bottom of the bottle pushed to the back of the cupboard.
Hamilton Motsamai has left them. Door closed behind him, footsteps became inaudible, car must have driven away through the security gates of the townhouse complex. He was all there was between them and the Death Penalty. Not only had he come from the Other Side; everything had come to them from the Other Side, the nakedness to the final disaster: powerlessness, helplessness, before the law. The queer sense Harald had had while he waited for Claudia in the secular cathedral of the courts’ foyer, of being one among the father of thieves and murderers was now confirmed ... The truth of all of this was that he and his wife belonged, now, to the other side of privilege. Neither whiteness, nor observance of the teachings of the Father and Son, nor the pious respectability of liberalism, nor money, that had kept them in safety—that other form of segregation—could change their status.