Mehring’s qualities do not make him a sympathetic, even sneakingly sympathetic, center of the novel. But he is a center who can attract about him incident and folk and nuisances and gestures, catastrophes, asides, and demonic conjunctions of meaning. He lives by way of the cascading art of the structure, the perfection of language, the oddity and convincingness of the way dialogue and idea flow and flow and circle back to catch the eddies of things not quite said.
The farm is large. He can go off anywhere. (Quite frankly, I can’t wait to get away to my old plaas.—There is a mica-glitter of malice in the polite refusal of weekend invitations. He is still in demand; he’s needed at table. What a pity, and I had such a charming woman for you.)
He escapes the prostitute’s trap, the ashy dump of social annihilation. And out on the farm the blacks bury the scanty flood-scourged remains of the dead stranger. “He took possession of the earth; theirs; one of them.” Pale freckled eggs and the naked nose of one of them—a kind of conservation.
“Among the people waiting at the fortress was a school girl in a brown and yellow uniform holding a green eiderdown quilt and, by the loop of its neck, a red hot-water bottle.” Burger’s Daughter (1979): Rosa on a visit to her communist mother in prison. And some years later Rosa, after an escape to Europe, will make her way back to South Africa and “a woman carrying fruit boxes and flowers” will be at the door on behalf of Rosa herself, detained after Soweto under the Terrorism Act.
That is the frame, the way Nadine Gordimer likes to set things up, as if on an easel. And then the rectangle dissolves, to become only a memory of containment, formal and yet lifelike in the almost infinite repetitions of form in South Africa, itself a four-sided containment, on guard at the corners, pushing all the squirming, anarchic outgrowth back inside.
Now you are free: the true subject of this resonant, unsettling political novel. Free. Rosa’s mother has died of an illness, her brother has drowned in the swimming pool, father, Lionel Burger, dead in prison on the third year of a life sentence (“And here life is life”).
The blood ties are broken. Rosa is young, reflective, able to attract the reader’s full attention, and thus the old word, “heroine,” does not seem astray. She is a daughter, daughter of the political impossibility of South Africa, reared in the stockade of the ideas and actions of resistance. The narration is a winding road of past and present, the pages put together by a very contemporary sensibility and almost effortlessly it seems controlled by a remarkable, traditional narrative gift. The writer needs a sort of musicality to manage the breaks and shifts and alternating speeds of this kind of composition, and here the conducting spirit is confident indeed.
Rosa’s parents married during the black miners’ strike in 1946 and were arrested under the Riotous Assemblies Act; the first Afrikaner nationalist government took office the month and the year she was born; she was twelve when Sharpeville occurred and the black protesters were shot in the back. “Imprisonment was part of the responsibilities of grown-up life, like visiting patients (her father)” or, like her mother, banned as a trade unionist, going off each morning to a cooperative run for blacks and coloreds.
Lionel Burger was famous, a celebrity of anti-apartheid, an early member of the South African Communist Party. A biographer is ready with pencil as the hearse turns into the cemetery gates, a Swede has made a documentary film, and when Rosa meets the man in Europe who is to become her lover he remembers signing an Amnesty International petition against the imprisonment of her ailing father. Burger is a doctor, one of those idealists serving black and white, rich and poor, born into a landowning Afrikaner family, educated at Cape Town and Edinburgh. In his final trial he explains the pity for suffering aroused by his medical studies and his gradual determination against the suffering of his black countrymen. In Marxism he found oppression analyzed as “forces in conflict with economic laws.” He joins the white South African army when the Soviet Union is attacked and the Party goes on “promising the blacks liberation through Communism” after Stalin, the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings, and all the rest. South Africa is another world and they persist, risking everything.
The life in the novel is a vivacious family chronicle of relatives, comrades and their children, a little black boy, Baasie, raised as a member of the family, picnics, swimming lessons, celebrations for the one let out and plannings for the ones taken in. It is a suburban scene of the educated, white middle class with a servant, a swimming pool, the lovable patriarch doctor who visits the sick and responds to the many occasions for martyrdom the society provides. It is the changing country itself, the ANC, the strikes, liberal whites coming into fashion, visits from foreign journalists, black athletes in the news, petitions, protests, propaganda, some exploitation for the cause. For Rosa a certain naturalness—school days, growing up, first love—survives despite the intense political character of the private life.
Now you are free. Lionel Burger is dead, the mother and brother also. The family house is sold, the doctor’s sign on the front removed. Rosa is a “named” person with many restrictions, and no passport. She wishes to go to Europe and the obtaining of a passport is the circumstance for one of the most revealing bits of portraiture in the book.
She solicits the help of Brandt Vermeulen, one of the “New Afrikaners,” member of an old and distinguished family who has been to Leyden and Princeton and New York and Paris and has returned to play a complicated role with certain fresh accents. “He and his kind were the first to be sophisticated enough to laugh at the…Immorality Act,” to be bored by the Reform Church and its denunciation of sport and cinema on Sunday. Vermeulen does not shrink from open contact with blacks and proposes a future, not of power-sharing, but of a sort of peaceful “co-existence through hard bargaining.” It is said of Vermeulen, “—Man!—he won’t scruple to invoke Kierkegaard’s Either/Or against Hegel’s dialectic to demonstrate the justice of segregated lavatories…—“ He receives Rosa amid his Kandinsky and Georgia O’Keefe prints, a poster from an African herbalist shop, his beloved servant Mina and her famous ginger cake, his swimming pool, his memories of Lionel Burger. “Your father was marvellous, we talked rugby—of course he’d been a first team fullback in his medical school days—I decided, what did they mean about this red business!—“
When Rosa asks about the passport, Vermeulen says self-mockingly, “I don’t just whisper in the Prime Minister’s ear.” But he lays out the terms on which he will make an effort. No meetings with exiles, no “apartheid victim’s daughter visits Tower of London, you know the style of thing.—“ He will try, yes. She doesn’t have to be kept prisoner like the “Russians do to their dissident families from generation to generation.” A year passes and she is given a passport and, without saying goodbye to anyone, leaves for Europe. At the airport “surveillance watched her go….”
The second part of the book takes place in France. Her father’s first wife, now a Madame Bagnelli, takes Rosa to the south of France and the landscape is another kind of liberation, worldly bohemianism, “a whole world” outside of what Lionel Burger lived for, as the first wife, herself a communist in youth, puts it. The conversation here is of the Baader-Meinhof gang, of Cohn-Bendit, the Gulag, the new philosophers, Foucault, and food and clothes and lovers. Rosa has an affair with an academic, French, married; one of those memorable and triste unions spent very happily—on the time off. In London she has an unexpected meeting with Baasie, he who had once been the little black boy who lived in her house as a brother and who now repudiates, insults, her father.
My father died in prison. He: “Everyone in the world must be told what a great hero he was and how much he suffered for the blacks. Everyone must cry over him and show his life on television and write in the papers…. Killed in prison. It’s nothing. I know plenty blacks like Burger. It’s nothing, it’s us, we must be used to it….” Rosa returns to South Africa—because of her father and because even her lover, “the one I could talk to,” couldn’t quite imagine South Africa: This place, all of us here. This place, all of us here: the achievement of Burger’s Daughter.
July’s People (1981) is based upon a device, the presumption of a revolution, an immense uprising in South Africa, riots, arson, the whites fleeing the cities. The Smales family, wife, three children, husband, an architect, are offered the chance to make their way to the remote village of their servant, July. They arrive and once there the claim of the novel is not the revolution in the cities but the presentation of the black village, the horror of the Smales family’s sudden adaptation to nothing, the mysteriousness, you might call it, of the actual facts of ancient deprivation, how and where they live. “July’s home was not a village but a habitation of mud houses occupied only by members of his extended family.”
The opening line of the novel is July’s: “—You like to have some cup of tea?” A black (sic) comedy beginning? Yes, perhaps, and more prevailing, the comedy, than the author may have intended. July is in his hut and they, the whites, are there with him. This domestic uprooting is designed to probe the murky gaps in the reasonably liberal souls of the Smales couple by placing them with the black city servant in his unimaginable habitat back there, among his family members who have themselves scarcely traveled more than a few kilometers.
The bodies of the white family are degraded by dirt and countless malicious lacks and, of course, psychological distortions, all so devastating that in the end the wife hears an airplane in the distance and runs toward it, abandoning her family “like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of young.” She runs. That’s it. The last line of the book. Between the tone of “You like to have some cup of tea?” and of “She runs” lies the aesthetic dilemma of the conception.
The Smaleses, the parents at least, are overwhelmed by the vicious deficiency of the village and no detail of smell or nonexistent lavatory is spared. On the other hand, the life of the compound is greatly enlivened by the new circumstance, especially by the father’s gun and their vehicle, a yellow truck of the kind used for recreational journeys, for camping or hunting. Since the family is not there, at least not in history as we have had it, their sufferings, their reduction, and their many remaining reflexes of authority mingle somewhat uncomfortably with the devices of classical comedy: the maladaptations, misunderstandings, reversal of roles, the low shall be made high and so on.
There is a visit to the tribal chief, a potentate of a lowly kingdom of nothing. His mood gives pause even to the unhappy white “refugees.” The chief has no thought of wishing liberation by the black revolutionaries who will dethrone him. Instead he dreams of guns to counterattack. “Those people from Soweto. They come here with Russias, those other ones from Moçambique, they all want take this country of my nation. Eh? They not our nation. AmaZulu, amaXhosa, baSotho…I don’t know. They were already there by the mine, coming near here. If they coming, the government it’s going give me guns.”
July appropriates the truck and is learning to drive. “—You know I’m turning round already? I’m know how to go back, everything. My friend he’s teaching me very nice.—“
Many scenes are stunning, the physicality of the deprivation is fiercely imagined. The encounters between Maureen Smales and July are viewed with a very cold eye. Still, a certain affective dimension is undermined by the situation, the moral fantasy of its terms. A presentness is assumed for an imaginary future; and the village is vivid as an instruction to the whites as they slip into the destitute pit of black life. Their degradation—is it deserved?—is one thing, and yet it is drawn helplessly toward the magnet of the grotesque amusement their presence in the village represents. They watch a gathering they do not understand. July: “—Is not a wedding.—And at the idea of a meeting, he merely laughed.—Sometime we having a party.” The extremity of the Smaleses is no match for that.
The riots and disorders in the cities, perhaps a successful overthrow of the white government, are a possibility, one often predicted and feared, and thus the situation does not quite have the distance of desert island literature. Nor is it meant to. The cities could burn and the whites could flee in their nightclothes, yes. But it is this political immediacy that troubles. It is possible and not yet arrived. The punishment of the Smaleses might be more severe, but in any case there is a question of what we should feel. Their plight is to share the conditions of millions of black people and by that rule are we to feel contempt for faulty adaptation? Or don’t worry too much about the lesson, for they are just now, at this time, in reality back home with their bedrooms and bathrooms, and for the moment July is playing king as he gloriously plows the gears of the yellow car into a crunching reverse. Something is askew in the vehemence of the moral rebuke to the Smaleses, husband and wife, but nothing, nothing is missing in the brilliance of the imagined detail of their struggle against diminishment.
It might be thought a felicity for a fiction writer to be born in South Africa, that place somewhat colonial and boring and yet, in Nadine Gordimer’s writings, so alive with internalized drama that one cannot pass the time of day without meaning something deep and interesting and just there at hand. The warlike alertness in every encounter, the Balkan unsteadiness of Indian, black, Afrikaner, English, European. The psychodrama in the kitchen. But, of course, she has created this world on the pages of her eight novels and seven collections of short stories, and it is one of the major artistic achievements of our time. She meets the challenges of literature, the challenges of language, form, and of an endlessly restless and acute imagination, and also the challenge of a great ambition. If these confront South Africa, she has created that too.
There is always the knowledge—how things grow and are harvested, what it is to be a hotel-keeper, how, exactly, a power station is blown up, what the Indian shops and the bars are like, every passage in the city and the country, what it means to be a daughter of the shiftboss at the mine, a soldier, a black girl discovered with a white man. And sex, for this is an eroticized world.
Nadine Gordimer is a liberal intellectual and you will find the accents and ironies that mind will produce when it recreates dialogues and shifts of perception and crannies of fear and withdrawal. And nature and the land, the gorgeousness of the description, not necessarily to be united with such great sophistication. Sometimes she seems to find everything is tragically occupied and violated and that even the great animals, the baboon and the lion, are displaced. “A Lion on the Freeway,” only four pages. The sound of the creature: “Roar is not the word.” She imagines the lion, “that groan straining, the rut of freedom bending the bars 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.” What he’s never seen, the country where he’s king.
At the end of “Something Out There”: “The mine-working where Eddie and Vusi [the saboteurs] hid, that Charles identified as belonging to the turn of the 19th century, is in fact far, far older…because before the gold-rush prospectors of the 1890s, centuries before time was measured, here, in such units, there was an ancient mine-working out there, and metals precious to men were discovered, dug and smelted, for themselves, by black men.”
Nadine Gordimer’s work is a vast discourse on everything the vast scene provides, the scene itself a landscape created by a majestic imagination.