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A Murder in South Africa

The House Gun

by Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 294 pp., $24.00

Two quotations seem to carry the main architectural load of Nadine Gordimer’s new book, whose design is strange and not entirely that of a work of fiction. One is from Dostoevsky. It is the voice of the satanic Rogozhin in The Idiot, speaking of doomed and rebellious Nastasya Filippovna: “She would have drowned herself long ago if she had not had me; that’s the truth. She doesn’t do that because, perhaps, I am more dreadful than the water.”

The second comes from Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, in the translation by Edwin and Willa Muir:

…The transition from any value system to a new one must pass through that zero-point of atomic dissolution, must take its way through a generation destitute of any connection with either the old or the new system, a generation whose very detachment, whose almost insane indifference to the suffering of others, whose state of denudation of values proves an ethical and so an historical justification for the ruthless rejection, in times of revolution, of all that is humane…. And perhaps it must be so, since only such a generation is able to endure the sight of the Absolute and the rising glare of freedom, the light that flares out over the deepest darkness, and only over the deepest darkness….

It’s tempting to imagine that those lines from The Idiot were the seed from which the idea of this novel germinated in Nadine Gordimer’s mind. A most un-English writer, whose sensibility began with Kafka and the Russian novelists, she needs nobody to point out to her that the territory of Dostoevsky’s Russia—a land tortured by vast injustice and cruelty, haunted by millenary dreams of violence and redemption—overlaps with the apartheid South Africa in which she lived and wrote for most of her life. Now she lives and writes in a new country, a half-formed society of a kind almost never seen before anywhere on earth, in which black and white have agreed to suspend their disbelief and bring about a multiracial democracy by their faith as much as by their works. But the present can only be made out of the past, and the old system’s radical contempt for human life now finds expression in a plague of street killings, gang massacres, and armed robbery. The gun is kept close to hand in the white man’s apartment, but also in the black township. A democracy must be built around the right to life, not around the death penalty which was almost a constitutional principle of the old regime. But the inheritance of violence is all too real, and even those who rejoice that South Africa has changed cannot escape the fact of the gun kept at home.

The central characters of the novel are two white parents whose son kills. Harald is an insurance executive, Claudia a doctor in general practice. He is a Catholic; she is an agnostic liberal: “Harald is prompted by the Jesuits, Claudia by Freud.” They are good, intelligent, well-read people who were heartily glad to see the end of the apartheid state, but took no active part in protesting against it; they were “simply not that kind of person.”

Into their well-secured life slips a messenger with dreadful news. Their only son, a young architect, has killed a man—not an intruder or attacker, but one of his own friends. Duncan has been living in a garden cottage next to a house inhabited by a group of laid-back young professionals, gay men who lead a cheerful, multiracial life with impromptu parties and much listening to classical music and jazz. It is one of these men, a sardonic hedonist called Carl Jespersen, that Duncan has killed with “the house gun.”

Gradually the parents put together what has happened. Duncan, normally “straight,” was seduced into a brief affair with Jespersen, who soon grew bored and rejected him. In the aftermath, Duncan rescued Natalie, a young woman intent on drowning herself after giving up a baby for adoption, who then comes to live with him in the cottage and becomes part of the little community. Natalie, often referred to by Gordimer as “Natalie/Nastasya,” is an entirely Dostoevskyan figure. A self-destructive and malevolent Fury, she blazes with aggression against the man who has saved her from death and now, in her view, thinks that he owns her and has the right to shape her. It is she, in fact, who scrawls the Idiot quotation into one of Duncan’s notebooks. And later, as a witness at his trial, she will say: “I have never had any comfort from Duncan. I don’t know what he brought me back to life for.”

One night, after a party, she lets Jespersen make love to her. The lights are on; they lie on a sofa in front of open windows and doors; it is as if it’s done for Duncan to discover and—walking in from the garden to seek Natalie—he does. Nothing is said; he turns away. Natalie gets into her car and vanishes. Next day, after a day spent waiting and brooding, Duncan returns to the house. Jespersen, lounging on the same sofa, greets him cheerfully and suggests a drink. Duncan picks up the house gun from a table and shoots him in the head.

This sequence of events only emerges fragment by fragment. The novel is not the story of the murder, but essentially a travelogue about the journey—moral, emotional, political—undertaken by Duncan’s father and mother as they try to comprehend what has happened and then to limit the damage. They are directed to the best defense lawyer in town, who—in the new South Africa—is black: the dazzling but not altogether likable Hamilton Motsamai, “a new form of national sophistication” with his London law diplomas and his excellent brandy in the office cabinet. They are ashamed to find that they have doubts about his blackness: wouldn’t the “cleverness” of a Jewish or Indian lawyer be safer in this case—safer in front of a (probably white) judge—than one of Them? But Motsamai takes charge, and they lose their doubts while still aware of the ironies in their relationship. “One of those kept-apart strangers from the Other Side has come across and they are dependent on him. The black man will act, speak for them. They have become those who cannot speak, act, for themselves.”

Their connection with Motsamai, and their dependence upon him, steadily deepen. First, he has to break down their instinctive denial of the truth and persuade them that their son really has killed somebody. Then he must restrain them as their emotions swing to the opposite extreme, and convince them that the act of killing does not automatically transform Duncan into “a murderer.” Motsamai knows well what sort of people Harald and Claudia are, and how sheltered their lives have been. In the past they observed wicked Afrikaner policemen or unendurably oppressed blacks committing dreadful deeds, but they assumed that people like that—people not like us—simply lacked the civilized power of self-restraint.

All their lives they [Harald and Claudia] must have believed—defined—morality as the master of passions. The controller. Whether this unconscious acceptance came from the teachings of God’s word or from a principle of self-imposed restraint in rationalists. And it can continue unquestioned in any way until something happens at the extreme of transgression, rebellion: the catastrophe that lies at the crashed limit of all morality, the unspeakable passion that takes life.

Under Motsamai’s tutoring (his own people have never enjoyed the luxury of such illusions), they learn more about morality and passion. At his trial, Duncan will plead not guilty, on the grounds that the shock of the discovery of the two on the sofa—a blow aimed at him by both his lovers—had temporarily robbed him of the capacity to tell right from wrong. A “blank-out,” not a “blackout,” is the tenuous formulation. His parents grasp at this shred of hope. But Duncan accepts the tactic almost with indifference. Although he has no memory of picking up the gun and firing, he knows that he must have done it, and he is inclined to agree with Thomas Mann’s remark in The Magic Mountain that “it is absurd for the murderer to outlive the murdered.” The death penalty, though suspended, is still on the South African statute books, and one of the themes running through the novel is the debate on capital punishment and the session of the new Constitutional Court which finally abolishes it.

There are a lot of separate strands in The House Gun, as this summary ought to suggest, and they are very different in texture. One of them is about freedom and the search for freedom, and the extremes to which that search can lead. Natalie/Nastasya is a rebel against every form of personal dependence, fighting it off with a frenzy which destroys other human beings as it almost destroyed her. Duncan’s parents seek in their own way to deny freedom to Duncan, although they are trying to free him from his cell: “…They feel they own him now, as if he were again the small child they were forming by precept and example.” They, Claudia and Harald, have lost one sort of independence forever. But through Motsamai and his ebullient extended family—as upwardly mobile in the new South African meritocracy as a volley of fireworks—they begin to recognize the taste of a much more elemental sort of freedom.

But there are also large non-fictional strands in the book. The narrative constantly slows down in order to make way for a meditation or a piece of reportage. There is a reflection on the death penalty, a discussion which is in itself wise and moving. There is a highly detailed description of the Constitutional Court in session, of the evidence that it hears, and even of the physical appearance of the judges. Accomplished as this is, it feels like the reworking of pages from the notebook of an excellent journalist, an observer sitting for the first time on the Court’s press benches and recording the historic scene as human rights are finally incorporated into South African supreme law. Less successful are the enormously long courtroom scenes from Duncan’s trial—which is, after all, nominally fiction. There are moments of subtlety and emotion, like Motsamai’s cross-examination of Natalie in the witness box. But much of this section seems superfluous. It is as if Gordimer were merely using the fictional frame to hang out a series of thoughts about criminal capacity (legal concepts of guilt), or about the general climate of violence in the country, or about the contrast between penal philosophies of retribution and rehabilitation.

This is not Nadine Gordimer’s best novel. Apart from the disconcerting structure—that alternation between the fable of violence and the high-class reportage—she occasionally writes quite carelessly. “He presses the electronic gadget which lets them into their home but provides no refuge.” I wish the author of Burger’s Daughter had not written that. But the explanation may be that her own South African world has been so completely and suddenly transformed, by an event which was not so much a revolution as one of the most astounding collective acts of faith in modern history, that she is searching for new literary forms to encompass its new reality—and unreality. Reading The House Gun is, at times, hearing a voice which has been close and familiar speaking on the telephone from a remote country. The sensibility is recognizably the same, but the people and scenes and colors the voice wants to convey cannot be easily put across in the old tones, or evoked with the familiar allusions.

Gordimer has described, long ago, what she called the writer’s dialectic. This was the tension between “excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others” and “a monstrous detachment,” a tension which can release itself in a “synthesis of revelation.” It may be that the last four or five years have made it hard for her to be sufficiently monstrous in her detachment to set the dialectic moving in the old manner. In some ways, she is filled with delight and pride at what is happening to her country; the upsurge of the new black elite, with all its energies and ironies, is as exciting to her as the solemn installation of the rule of law. At the same time, as this novel continuously shows, she is afraid of the avalanche of greed and crime and violence which the great change has unleashed. She wrote once in the 1980s, about the decay of Communism, that “[we must] pick up the blood-dirtied, shamed cause of the Left, and attempt to re-create it in accordance with what it was meant to be, not what sixty-five years of human power-perversion have made it.” Can the state ruled by the African National Congress, the party which is already post-Communist and must soon be post-Mandela, live up to that hope?

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