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Waiting for Revolution

Nadine Gordimer, like many of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, lives in two worlds at the same time. She lives, as the Russians did, in a police state, and she also lives, as they did, in the wider culture of the West, receiving the reflections of the kinds of freedom that the West has enjoyed over two centuries or more. But it is more than a question of living under a police state. A whole analogous social structure is involved. Whites in South Africa, in relation to blacks, have much in common with the nobility in tsarist Russia in relation to the serfs. Turgenev and Tolstoy rejected serfdom but were nonetheless themselves distinctive products of a leisured serf-owning society. South African whites constitute an aristocracy of pigmentation, and even if they do not want to belong to it, they still do belong. A great writer in South Africa—and I believe Nadine Gordimer is a great writer—is living and working in a culture that is closer to nineteenth-century Russia than it is to the contemporary West.

Of all the great Russians, it is Turgenev whom she most brings to mind. Like him, she is alienated from the society which produced her and, as in his case also, that society, at work within her, makes her something of a stranger in the wider world. These conditions produce detachment, strange angles of insight, and a kind of stereoscopic lucidity. There is also in their works—by reason of the kind of world these writers willy-nilly share—an inherent aristocratic sense of leisure, of time to wait and to watch. In Nadine Gordimer’s writings, the conditions of South African life have produced a glorious anachronism.

The style of Burger’s Daughter is elegant, fastidious: a high style belonging to a cultivated upper class. Superficially, there is an opposition between this style and the subject matter of the book. Burger’s Daughter is the story of Rosa, the daughter of a revolutionary, the communist doctor Lionel Burger, who dies in a South African jail. The style is appropriate, none the less, and not just because Lionel and Rosa belong to the white, educated middle class—important though their so belonging is, and is shown to be. It is appropriate because the revolutionary’s daughter is an aristocrat of the revolution, feels herself to be such, and is used to being seen as such. Nadine Gordimer knows revolutionaries and knows them to feel themselves as being, not struggling underdogs, but patricians of a present underworld, and of a future society. Rosa is the daughter of a revolution only just beginning, yet her style has already something in common with a Daughter of the South African Revolution, in the American sense of such a daughterhood: “She didn’t understand the shame of the need to please, as royalty never carries money.” And again, as she talks to a friend from outside the charmed revolutionary circle.

—You seem to think people go around talking revolution as if they were deciding where to go for their summer holidays. Or which new car to buy. You romanticize.—The cartilage of her nostrils stiffened. The patient manner patronized him, displayed the deceptive commonplace that people accustomed to police harassment use before the uninitiated.

Burger’s Daughter is constructed with properly deceptive art. For much of its course—indeed considerably more than half—it seems to be one of those books in which “nothing happens”; or rather in which what happens is an accumulation of small events, individually ambiguous but making a significant pattern, established in a calm and leisurely manner. The events after Rosa’s father’s death are handled in this way. The house—a good, big one with a swimming pool—has to be sold, the plate with Dr. Burger’s name removed.

She returned before dark with an unhealthy-looking fair man with long hair and a straggling moustache, wearing the fashionable garb of shirt with Balkan embroidery, jeans, and veldskoen. He had a screwdriver but found some difficulty in turning it in the grooves caked with layers of metal polish turned to stony verdigris. She did not get out of the driver’s seat. The oblong where the plate had been showed whitish in the twilight. He put the plate in the boot of her car and they drove away.

As she talks with a friend outside the house she is aware of a small change within: “The telephone had stopped ringing in the house. Rosa knew by some faint lack of distraction in her ears. Somebody living there now had picked it up.”

In this part of the book Rosa’s relations to her father, to the revolution, and to South Africa are established with loving precision. She is intensely proud of her father and his revolution, yet she desperately longs to cut loose from them both. She experiences a kind of envy for her conventional, acquiescent Afrikaner farmer cousins,

secure in the sanctions of family, church, law—and all these contained in the ultimate sanction of color, that was maintained without question on the domain, dorp and farm, where she lay. Peace. Land. Bread. They had these for themselves.

Even animals have the instinct to turn from suffering. The sense to run away. Perhaps it was an illness not to be able to live one’s life the way they did with justice defined in terms of respect for property, innocence defended in their children’s privileges, love in their procreations, and care only for each other. A sickness not to be able to ignore that condition of a healthy, ordinary life: other people’s suffering.

That sickness is something she cannot escape, yet she can escape, physically, from South Africa, and she does, for a time. The incident that precipitates her departure is one of two great thunderstorms in the book, deliberate eruptions out of its marmoreal course, like interpolations by Dostoevsky into a story of Turgenev’s. They light up the South African landscape in the way which is wonderfully complementary to the calm perceptions of most of the book. These magnificent passages are pivotal to the novel: the first of them determines Rosa’s departure from South Africa, the second her return to it.

The first passage, which to do it justice I shall quote in full, concerns the beating of a donkey:

I gained a cambered dirt road without signposts just as one of those donkey-carts that survive on the routes between these places that don’t exist was approaching along a track from the opposite side. Driver’s reflex made me slow down in anticipation that the cart might turn in up ahead without calculating the speed of an oncoming car. But there was something strange about the outline of donkey, cart and driver; convulsed, yet the cart was not coming nearer. As I drew close I saw a woman and child bundled under sacks, their heads jerked rocking; a driver standing up on the cart in a wildly precarious spread of legs in torn pants. Suddenly his body arched back with one upflung arm against the sky and lurched over as if he had been shot and at that instant the donkey was bowed by a paroxysm that seemed to draw its four legs and head down towards the centre of its body in a noose, then fling head and extremities wide again; and again the man violently salaamed, and again the beast curved together and flew apart.

I didn’t see the whip. I saw agony. Agony that came from some terrible centre seized within the group of donkey, cart, driver and people behind him. They made a single object that contracted against itself in the desperation of a hideous final energy. Not seeing the whip, I saw the infliction of pain broken away from the will that creates it; broken loose, a force existing of itself, ravishment without the ravisher, torture without the torturer, rampage, pure cruelty gone beyond control of the humans who have spent thousands of years devising it. The entire ingenuity from thumbscrew and rack to electric shock, the infinite variety and gradation of suffering, by lash, by fear, by hunger, by solitary confinement—the camps, concentration, labour, resettlement, the Siberias of snow or sun, the lives of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada, Kgosana, gull-picked on the Island, Lionel propped wasting to his skull between two warders, the deaths by questioning, bodies fallen from the height of John Vorster Square, deaths by dehydration, babies degutted by enteritis in “places” of banishment, the lights beating all night on the faces of those in cells—Conrad—I conjure you up, I drag you back from wherever you are to listen to me—you don’t know what I saw, what there is to see, you won’t see, you are becalmed on an empty ocean.

Only when I was level with the cart, across the veld from me, did I make out the whip. The donkey didn’t cry out. Why didn’t the donkey give that bestial snort and squeal of excruciation I’ve heard donkeys give not in pain but in rut? It didn’t cry out.

It had been beaten and beaten. Pain was no shock, there is no way out of the shafts. That rag of a black man was old, from the stance of his legs, the scraggle of beard showing under an old hat in a shapeless cone over his face. I rolled to a stop beyond what I saw; the car simply fell away from the pressure of my foot and carried me no farther. I sat there with my head turned sharply and my shoulders hunched round my neck, huddled to my ears against the blows. And then I put my foot down and drove on wavering drunkenly about the road, pausing to gaze back while the beating still went on, the force there, cart, terrified woman and child, the donkey and man, bucked and bolted zigzag under the whip. I had only to turn the car in the empty road and drive up upon that mad frieze against the sunset putting out my eyes. When I looked over there all I could see was the writhing black shape through whose interstices poked searchlights of blinding bright dust. The thing was like an explosion. I had only to career down on that scene with my car and my white authority. I could have yelled before I even got out, yelled to stop!—and then there I would have been standing, inescapable, fury and right, might, before them, the frightened woman and child and the drunk, brutal man, with my knowledge of how to deliver them over to the police, to have him prosecuted as he deserved and should be, to take away from him the poor suffering possession he maltreated. I could formulate everything they were, as the act I had witnessed; they would have their lives summed up for them officially at last by me, the white woman—the final meaning of a day they had lived I had no knowledge of, a day of other appalling things, violence, disasters, urgencies, deprivations which suddenly would become, was nothing but what it had led up to: the man among them beating their donkey. I could have put a stop to it, the misery; at that point I witnessed. What more can one do? That sort of old man, those people, peasants existing the only way they know how, in the “place” that isn’t on the map, they would have been afraid of me. I could have put a stop to it, with them, at no risk to myself. No one would have taken up a stone. I was safe from the whip. I could have stood between them and suffering—the suffering of the donkey.

As soon as I planted myself in front of them it would have become again just that—the pain of a donkey.1

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    Excerpts reprinted with permission of Viking Press.

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