Something Out There
“Something Out There” is the title story of Nadine Gordimer’s new collection. Eighty-five pages of fictional mastery. Those who know this unsurpassed talent might say, once more, and not surprising. Note the way the author opens the plot, arranges the magical correspondences, finds the fixed points, and sets them in a broad open space where many drifting, always to the point, things can wander. Wander, turn up, just be there, and to the point, revealing but sideways—a certain speed and then off.
Something is out there. It, a large, mysterious shadow, is photographed by a young man with his new bar mitzvah camera. A Persian tabby and an old dachshund are found mauled and the newspapers speak of “wild animal in the plush Johannesburg suburbs.” The excitement is a “nice change from the usual sort of news, these days.” The usual sort is not a puzzle since this is South Africa.
And meanwhile, a few paragraphs on, something else is out there. Mr. Klopper, an Afrikaner rental agent, is closing a deal with a young English-speaking couple who seem to want a few months of run-down privacy and will settle for a decayed farm that has been on the agent’s books for three years. The vague young couple meets with Mr. Klopper and his wife in the Kloppers’ house, a plausible if self-conscious new place filled with modern appliances and crocheted slings for hanging plants and a mini-bar with stools covered in the skins of an impala—and, for all that, a suburban house retaining the gloom of the “long, gaunt passages” of the farmhouses of Klopper’s youth “when the Boers were a rural people.” The dark hallways in the anxious hopefulness of the house design return the Kloppers to history, give them a sort of genetic weight, a shading of melancholy generations behind the splitlevel lounge and the dried-flower-and-shell pictures.
Something out there is making a noise in the trees on the golf course where four doctors are looking for a lost ball; an illicit couple in a borrowed house hears a scuffling sound outside the window next to the bed. (A spy sent by his wife, or is it her husband ruining the afternoon?) Out there on the rented farm the couple is joined by two young black men dropped off by a van. The men give the proper signal and settle in with due accommodation to apartheid. (They will, if seen, pretend to be newly hired farmhands.) The four, saboteurs, begin their preparations by bricking up a shed to hold rifles, ammunition, detonators, and timing devices with which they will blow up a power station.
The shadow, the noise in the trees will turn out to be a lost baboon which will at last be found dead, although by that time its celebrity will have begun to fade because “some of the suburbs the creature had made uneasy were without electricity for eighteen hours” because of the explosion. “No one has ever found out who let the baboon loose” and “nobody knows who the saboteurs, dead or alive, really are.”
Thus the plot, the skeleton of a bold work imagined in layers of episode, some like a cloud briefly overhead and others like a collision on the highway, all blundering intrusions and fortuities binding the larger world to the baboon and the bombing preparations. A black man, tending a corn patch from his days with the previous owner, disturbs the terrorists with his timid, uncertain goings and comings; from the back of the house of Sergeant Chapman, a police interrogator, a leg of venison disappears into the jaws of it, and the sergeant learns the news of it while he is having a snack with his fellow policeman at a Chinese take-out; Eddie, one of the black terrorists, makes an imprudent visit to Johannesburg to look at the things in the supermarket and clothing stores, just to see once more what the old streets are like. The unblinking Mrs. Klopper turns her car into the farm’s driveway to give the nice young couple a tin of her homemade biscuits.
The baboon is nothing special, just the native species, the old stock. The terrorists are strayed native species also. The persons and the animal in disorientation appear on the landscape and disappear into its vastness, leaving gnawed bones and a hole in the ground near the power station where, filled with ammunition, Mrs. Klopper’s biscuit tin will be found. Everything falls into place, connects, flashes forth with a naturalness so very artful—the winged contrivances of reality if there is a gift for them.
Pale freckled eggs. The words begin the masterpiece, the novel The Conservationist (1974). “Eleven pale freckled eggs. A whole clutch of guinea fowl eggs.” Mehring, a man from the city, has bought a large farm for a weekend retreat—only twenty-five miles from town. He thinks of it as a tax deduction, a good investment, a means of impressing his girlfriend and also—this with a rather subdued, businesslike lyricism—a way to get in touch with the pastures and fields that are South Africa. Mehring is annoyed that the children should be playing a game with the eggs that they have found in the field and he is thinking about this nuisance while his black herdsman, Jacobus, is trying to get his attention. Jacobus is trying to tell the weekend farmer something. Something happen, something happen. What he has to tell is that the body of a dead black man, a stranger, has been found on the place.
The dead body of a black man, one of them as they say, lies on the farm, a little earth, a bit of canvas covering it—a corruption. Mehring, a prosperous businessman “in pig-iron,” a uitlander, German, from way back, lies down on his land one afternoon and nods off, to awaken “staring into the eye of the earth with earth at his mouth.” In this curious moment he is merely a body, a stranger seeping into the earth like that other one whose rotting face and shreds of clothing are still there even after a flood of monstrous violence almost destroys the farm. As the waters receded:
A pair of shoes appeared. They held still the shape of feet, like the ones put out to dry up at the compound. They held more than the shape; they were attached still to a large object, a kind of long bundle of rags and mud and some other tattered substance more fibrous, less formless than mud, something that suggested shreds, despite its sodden state and its near-fusion with mud and rotted cloth—something that differed, even in this advanced state of decay, from any other substance, as a wafer of what was once fine silk retains unmistakably its particular weave and quality, its persistent durability in frailty, even when it is hardly more than an impress of cross-woven strands, a fossil imprint against the earth that has buried it.
The rotting body is the twin of Mehring’s indifferent occupation of the land, his assumption, a whim in fact, of the crops and cattle and black families hovering about, working and trying to get through on the phone to the city to tell him something happen, this disaster and that.
Mehring’s last action in the novel also takes place on the ground—a powerful, appalling nightmare in which, on his way to town, almost there, he gives a lift to a girl stranded in the rain and somehow, because he finds her hand on his thigh, he consents to turn off into a filthy, ashy mine-dump, a menacing bit of city wasteland. The girl is a prostitute, perhaps colored, and has set him up to be robbed, disgraced, discovered, ruined. Scenes from the farm and from his life float through his mind. “—Come. Come and look, they’re all saying. What is it? Who is it? It’s Mehring. It’s Mehring, down there.”
The Conservationist? The title does not quite prepare for the creative ferocity of this spectacular novel. True, Mehring likes to say that the point of owning acres is to make them pay, get them in shape. But the land is not pig-iron shares on the market; it is a phantasmagoria of fickle realities: alfalfa, a cow “borned Friday,” a river, swamps, weed-choked beauty, fires, floods, broken pumps, a mile of willow trees, and black Jacobus and Izak and Solomon and all the others. “A typical Transvaal landscape, that you either find dull and low-keyed or prefer to all others (they said).” It is the Indians selling things in their store down the road and the Afrikaner family making a Sunday visit, it is the very poor house, scarcely furnished, not suitable for ambitious assignations—and the body of the dead man which the authorities will not bother to remove. Four hundred acres of veld, fields, and vlei, the ownership of which for those in industry can be “a sign of having remained fully human and capable of enjoying the simple things of life that poorer men can no longer afford.”
Simple things? You drive the Mercedes up for a weekend and there has been a fire. “The whole farm stinks like an ashtray…. A rat with head intact and eyes open is laid out…. Up into some of the older trees fire has thrust a surgeon’s red-gloved hand, cauterizing through a vaginal gap or knot-hole….”
And then: “The weather came from the Moçambique Channel.” It leaves a drowned, nauseating landscape—“obscene whiskered balloons of dead barbel were turned up to iridescent-backed flies in the steamy sun. The crystal neck of a bottle stuck out in the mud; pappy lumps of sodden fur with rat’s tails” and the remains of the dead man.
Fire and flood are not calamities to punish Mehring, the nervous city man. They are merely what he will find along with the alfalfa and willows. (When the knowledge of reed and gulley, planted field, rat and bird and tenant is of such completeness one would have to speak of the great attachment that has instructed the author’s eye with an unabating stream of images.) It is a landscape of squalor, disability, and beauty.
Mehring is distracted, shallow, and sensual. On an airplane, returning from a business trip, he seduces a speechless Portuguese girl by hand, perhaps the phrase is; and all very tiring indeed with no reciprocating touch from the girl. Yet, one does not think of Mehring as meant to be identified by his genital studiousness. He is a bit swinish, more than a bit, somewhat heavy with his lugubrious sexuality, a weight of maleness that seems as much a part of Nadine Gordimer’s white South Africa as the mercurial veld, the chained dogs, the locations where the blacks are herded, the rubbish dumps. See Mr. De Beer, an Afrikaner papa making a visit with his wife and children and his son’s wife. (Mehring’s thought: “To go into those women must be like using the fleshly succulent plants men in the Foreign Legion have to resort to.”) Old De Beer: “his clothes filled drumtight with his body…. The retaining wall of belly and bunch of balls part the thighs majestically. Oh to wear your manhood, fatherhood like that, eh, stud and authority.” So, Mehring also is just a not-so-confident man, with nothing much on his mind except sex and business and brief, baffled attentions to his son who likes to speak of Namibia (“Why do you call it ‘Namibia’?”) and has books on homosexuality in his knapsack.