In one of the stories in Nadine Gordimer’s collection Jump (1991), a working-class family in England takes in a lodger, a quiet, studious young man from the Middle East. The daughter of the family becomes intimate with him and falls pregnant. He proposes marriage; dubiously the parents consent. But first, says the lodger, the girl must travel, alone, to his home country to introduce herself to his family. At the airport he secretes a bomb in her suitcase. The plane is blown up; all the passengers die, including his unborn child.
From her reliance on the stereotype of the diabolical Islamic terrorist, one would guess that, at the time she wrote the story in the 1980s, Gordimer had not thought deeply about the question of why, in the human family, young Muslim men have assumed the role of the bad boy, the delinquent. A decade later, as if to make amends, she revisited the kernel situation of the story: the Arab who for ulterior motives woos and marries a Western woman. In it she found the potential for a far more original and interesting development; The Pickup (2001) is the fruit of that development.
Julie Summers is a white South African from a wealthy family. She is young, she is liberal in her attitudes, she has a job in public relations. Her life is going well, or well enough. One day Julie’s car breaks down in the center of Johannesburg. The mechanic who deals with it is handsome, dark-eyed, foreign. She befriends him.
Abdu, as he calls himself, turns out to be an “illegal,” one of the hundreds of thousands of foreigners in South Africa without papers, working on the fringes of the formal economy. Most of these illegals are from other African countries, but Abdu is from the Middle East, from a country that is not named but is described as small, poor, backward, and without oil. South Africa is only one of several destinations he has tried: he has already had spells in Britain and Germany doing jobs the locals turn up their noses at.
For the land of his birth Abdu has only contempt. It is not even a proper country, he says, just a patch of desert demarcated by lines some European once drew on a map. His burning ambition is to become a legal immigrant, preferably to a wealthy Western democracy.
Abdu and Julie begin an affair. The sex is wonderful; for the rest they have little in common. She reads Dostoevsky; he reads newspapers. She, with her South African background, sees people in terms of race and class; he sees them as legals or illegals. He dislikes her circle of friends, disaffected members of the new, post-apartheid intelligentsia, black and white, whose lifestyle he disapproves of and whom he considers naive, ignorant of the real world. He prefers Julie’s father and his banker colleagues, of whose crass values and moral vacuity Julie herself is ashamed, and who in turn want nothing to do with the penniless foreigner she has picked up.
Abdu presses Julie to enlist her family on his side in his struggle with the immigration authorities. But Julie is reluctant, and anyhow Abdu has left it until too late: notice arrives that he is to be deported.
At this point he expects Julie to drop him, as he would drop anyone whose usefulness to him has expired. Instead she goes out and buys two air tickets, which she holds out wordlessly to him. The gesture shakes him. For a moment he sees her in all her mystery, an autonomous being with hopes and desires of her own. But then the old barriers go up again: if this woman cleaves to him it is because she is in thrall to him sexually, as all women are subject to their passions; or because she is involved in some complicated moral game of the kind that only the idle rich have time to play.
Julie’s decision to leave South Africa with him creates a problem, however. He cannot introduce into the bosom of his family a woman who is no better than a whore. He will have to marry her first. So hastily they are married in a registry office.
Why does Julie take the momentous and apparently foolish step of abandoning a not unsatisfactory life in not uninteresting surroundings to run away to a benighted corner of the world with a man who, she must know, does not love her, who switches his very smile on and off as a way of controlling her?
One reason is sex, with the meaning that Julie, with Gordimer behind her, gives to sex. Even when words lie, sex can be relied on to tell the truth. As long as sex with Abdu remains profoundly satisfying, there must be some potential to the relationship. Furthermore, in Julie’s feelings for Abdu there is something maternal and protective. Beneath the surface of his hard male contempt she finds him touchingly boyish and vulnerable. She cannot abandon him.
Most of all, however, Julie is tired of South Africa in a way that, while it may be hard to believe in someone of her age, twenty-nine, is all too easy to accept in someone of Gordimer’s generation—tired of the daily demands that the country, with its history of exploitation and violence going back centuries, and its disheartening contrasts of poverty and affluence, makes upon the moral conscience. Wistfully Julie quotes to Abdu (who is indifferent to poetry) lines by the poet William Plomer:
Let us go to another country
Not yours or mine
And start again.
But for the fact that James Baldwin has already annexed it, “Another Country” would be a fitting title for Gordimer’s book, capturing its central concern—how to make a new life—better than “The Pickup.”
So Julie and Abdu arrive in Abdu’s disdained country of origin, and the true name of Abdu the abductor is revealed: Ibrahim ibn Musa, brother to a butcher’s assistant, a waiter, and a domestic servant. Ibrahim returns not full of glory as the son who has made a successful life abroad, but as a deportee, a reject.
Having settled his wife under his mother’s eye in the bleak provincial town where they live, Ibrahim repairs to the capital, where he spends his time haunting embassies, pursuing contacts, in quest of the elusive visa.
For Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “the insolence of office,” having to kowtow to bureaucrats, is good enough reason to put an end to one’s life. No one in our times has to endure more of the insolence of office than a third-world visa petitioner. Ibrahim, however, will swallow any amount of it as long as the beacon of “Permanent Residence” continues to blink. Permanent Residence is a blessed state. Permanent Residents own the world. They have only to show their magical papers and all doors open.
What Ibrahim has to offer the world is a dubious degree from an obscure Arab university, a halting command of English, a deep thirst to shed the identity he was born into, a strategic readiness to accept the West at its own valuation, and, now, a trophy wife, “the right kind of foreigner.”
While he is waiting for word from on high, Ibrahim sits in coffee shops with his friends talking politics. His friends are representative young Arab nationalists. They want the modern world but do not want to be taken over by it. They want to be rid of their corrupt government, by revolution if necessary, as long as revolution is driven by morality and religion.
Ibrahim is quietly skeptical. Getting involved in national politics will, in his eyes, doom him to permanent residence in poverty and backwardness. His longings are of another kind; they arouse him in obscure ways and set him apart from his fellows.
Australia turns him down, then Canada and Sweden. But after a year of petitioning the United States comes through with two visas. Ibrahim is jubilant. He and Julie will live in California (“Everyone wishes to live there”); he will go into information technology or else, with the help of Julie’s stepfather, into the casino business. He cannot believe his ears when Julie announces she is not coming. She will remain with his family, she says; she has found another country, and it is not America, it is here.
Ibrahim’s friends want a new, better Islam that incorporates the best of the West. Ibrahim’s family has the same vision, though in a more down-to-earth form. They want big cars, soap operas, cell phones, gadgets. As for the rest of the West, they prefer to have nothing to do with it. The West is a “world of false gods.” They cannot understand why Ibrahim wants to go there.
One explanation for why Western-type democracy has failed to take root in the Middle East despite a century of democratic movements and uprisings is that Arab nationalists have wanted to pick and choose from the Western cornucopia, taking over science and technology and/or educational systems and/or institutions of government without being ready to absorb their philosophical underpinnings as well, the false gods of rationalism, skepticism, and materialism.
If, in this account, Ibrahim’s friends are in the process of falling into the same trap as their fathers and grandfathers, while Ibrahim is in the grip of a delusion, where does Julie stand? Plunged into her husband’s family, Julie is at first dismayed by her lowly position as a woman, as well as by the absence of the comforts she is used to. But she soon knuckles under and becomes a good daughter-in-law, doing the humbler household chores, contributing to the community by offering English lessons, commencing a study of the Koran, and generally adapting to a new rhythm of life.
This is no mere show, nor is it an exercise in cultural tourism. We are unambiguously given to understand that in the course of the year she spends in Ibrahim’s home Julie undergoes a fundamental change of a spiritual if not religious nature. She begins to understand what being part of a family can mean; she also begins to understand how life can be so deeply infused with the Islamic code that everyday behavior and religious observance can hardly be distinguished. None of this comes about because Ibrahim’s family is a particularly exemplary one. Though his mother, who becomes Julie’s model and who gradually warms to his foreign bride, lives a deeply spiritual life, the other members of the family are unexceptional people of their place and time.
The question of Julie converting to Islam is not raised. The spiritual development that takes place in her is determined not by doctrine but by what one can only call the spirit of the place. Ibrahim’s home is near the town limit. A few blocks away starts the desert. It becomes Julie’s habit to rise before dawn and sit at the edge of the desert, allowing the desert to enter her.
Ibrahim dismisses the pull of the desert upon his wife as silly Western romanticism. But Julie is no less dismissive of what she calls the “charades” of the likes of T.E. Lawrence and Hester Stanhope. The desert has another meaning for her, which she can express only by saying that it “is there always.” It is hard not to infer that in her lone daily confrontation with the desert, this young woman, who has already turned her back in most ways that matter on the false gods of the materialistic West, is learning to face her own death.
In Gordimer’s novel July’s People (1981), set in a future which by good fortune did not come to pass, South Africa is plunged into civil war. A white couple, their world turned upside down, take refuge in the back country, protected by a former black servant. Their world picture undergoes a chastening revision. As in The Pickup, it is the woman rather than the man who is sensitive and pliant enough to grow from the experience.
The Pickup has an inward, spiritual dimension absent from July’s People. But it has its political thrust too, not only in its exploration of the mind of the economic migrant, or one type of economic migrant, but in its critique and ultimately its dismissal of the false gods of the West, presided over by the god of market capital, to whose mercies Julie’s South Africa has abandoned itself so unreservedly and who has extended his sway even into Ibrahim’s despised patch of sand (Ibrahim’s father draws a salary as a straw man in an international money-laundering operation).
As a work of narrative art The Pickup is less than perfect, and narrower in its range too, than such products of Gordimer’s major phase as The Conservationist (1974) and Burger’s Daughter (1979). The Pickup is in fact a novella rather than a novel: this becomes clearer once the subplot, which concerns an uncle of Julie’s, a gynecologist falsely accused of unprofessional conduct, and which is only tenuously connected with the story of Julie and Ibrahim, is excised.
Even the main plot rests on an implausibility. With an expensive education and some business experience behind her, a trust fund in her name, and a mother married to a wealthy American, Julie could easily acquire residence in the United States; Ibrahim could then—in the world of The Pickup, the world as it was before September 11, 2001—come as her spouse. If Gordimer ignores this option, it can only be for plot imperatives: the application process must be lengthy and demeaning, her heroine must end up in the Arab Middle East.
Nevertheless, The Pickup is a deeply interesting book, interesting as much for what, through Julie, it suggests about Gordimer’s personal odyssey as for the two types she has chosen to explore: the confused and conflicted young man, emotionally bound to his mother, blind to the history and culture that have formed him, striking out against the desires of his own body, imagining he can remake himself by relocating to a new country; and the unexceptional young woman who trusts her impulses and finds herself by humbling herself. Not just an interesting book, in fact, but an astonishing one: it is hard to conceive of a more sympathetic, more intimate introduction to the lives of ordinary Muslims than we are given here, and from the hand of a Jewish writer too.
The Pickup was published two years ago. Now it is followed by Loot, a story collection that carries further, though not deeper, the spiritual turn in Gordimer’s thinking. Pride of place is given to a ninety-page cycle of stories called “Karma,” in which, with a more than glancing nod to Italo Calvino, Gordimer follows the adventures of a soul as it achieves or fails to achieve reincarnation in various individual human lives.
The voice of the soul as it comments on its progress is whimsical in tone, sometimes rueful too, but the stories themselves are far from whimsical. The most impressive tells of a Moscow hotel chambermaid who falls for a visiting Italian businessman. Her lover brings her to Milan; then, tiring of her, he marries her off to a cousin of his, a butcher and cattle-breeder. On a visit to the enterprise (one hesitates to call it a farm) where the cattle are raised, she recognizes for the first time what she represents to these Western Europeans: an animal, a breeder, a female unit with a functioning reproductive system. Unwilling to submit to such a role, she aborts the child she is carrying.
In another of the “Karma” stories a lesbian couple, liberal white South Africans with a bruising history of anti-apartheid activism behind them, decide to have a child. But then it occurs to them that they can never be sure the sperm they get from the bank does not come from an apartheid torturer. Fearful that the being they bring into the world may reincarnate the old South Africa, they change their minds.
In these two stories the soul knocks at the gate but is barred from entry: for its own sake, the women who guard the gate decide not to let it into the world in its present state. In another story, however, the puzzled soul is granted not just incarnation but double incarnation in a South African trapped in limbo by the race classification laws of the old apartheid state, with a genetic identity that makes her “white” and a social identity that makes her “Coloured.”
The “Karma” series blends historical critique, mainly of the new world order, with wry observations, some of them cosmic in perspective (And this too shall pass, Gordimer seems to be saying), some metafictional: participating in one life after another, reflects the soul, is much like being a novelist inhabiting one character after another.
The second substantially long piece of fiction in Loot is “Mission Statement,” a report from Africa in more familiar Gordimer vein. Roberta Blayne is British, in her forties, divorced, a cool and sensible woman. She works for an international aid agency that would, by most standards, count as enlightened. In its view, Africa is not “ontologically incurable,” though the cure has not yet been found. Roberta, who in this respect embodies the subdued pessimism about earthly improvement that pervades Loot, is similarly skeptical.
In the unnamed Anglophone African country to which she is sent, Roberta meets and has an extended affair with a senior civil servant, Gladwell Shadrack Chabruma, a married man, similarly cool and reserved. They become, in effect, a couple. With the end of her tour of duty nearing, Chabruma proposes to Roberta that she stay behind. He will marry her: as his second wife, the wife for official occasions, she will be able to further his career while pursuing a career of her own too. It is an African way of doing things; his first wife, an uneducated woman, what a colleague of Roberta’s calls a “homebody of the new kind, [a] city peasant,” will adapt.
As so often with Gordimer, this story works at the intersection of the private and the public. Although Roberta has been born and bred in England, she turns out to have an African skeleton in her closet. In fact, no one in England, we are given to understand, can escape the shadow of that country’s imperial entanglement with Africa. In Roberta’s case, there was a grandfather who ran a mine in this very province, a grandfather whom she dimly recollects telling a story of how once a week he would dispatch an African servant to fetch a case of whisky from the store, a trip that took several days on foot. The servant would bring back the case on his head. “What heads they [Africans] have…thick as a log,” the grandfather would say, and his friends would laugh.
In a moving moment, Roberta lies weeping in Chabruma’s arms, owning up to this legacy of racist contempt, resisting the longing to cradle and caress her lover’s abused and insulted head. It is a perfect instance of Gordimer’s most useful contribution to the theory and practice of fiction, the idea of “essential gestures,” epiphanic moments when, in a posture or motion or configuration of bodies, the truth at the heart of a story emerges more starkly and completely than pages of analysis could achieve.
Chabruma comforts the grieving Roberta. Racist talk was “their tradition,” he says; she does not have to carry the blame for it. But this puts her in a quandary: If she is to be relieved of the burden of the past on the grounds that history is just history, how can she reject Chabruma’s argument that custom is just custom, that his own tradition entitles him to two wives?
Gordimer affords her heroine no neat way out. The story ends with Roberta in deep unease. If she were to accept Chabruma’s offer, might it not merely be out of a wish to atone for the past; and if she were to refuse, might that not merely be out of a Western woman’s pride in what is owed to her?
As a whole Loot is not up to the standard of such earlier collections as Livingstone’s Companions (1971), A Soldier’s Embrace (1980), and Something Out There (1984)—it contains too many slight, forgettable pieces for that. One of the shorter pieces, “The Diamond Mine,” ought however to be singled out. It is a marvelously deft and confident treatment of a girl’s sexual awakening, and a reminder of how well Gordimer has always written of sex.
Since early in her career Gordimer has been exercised by the question of her own place, present and future, in history. The question has two forks: What will the verdict of history be on Europe’s project of colonizing sub-Saharan Africa, of which she has willy-nilly been part; and what historical role is available to a writer like her born into a late colonial community?
The ethical framework for her own life’s work was laid in the 1950s, as the iron curtain of apartheid was descending, when she first read Jean-Paul Sartre and the Algerian-born Albert Camus. Under the influence of that reading she adopted the role of witness to the fate of South Africa. “The function of the writer,” wrote Sartre, “is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it is all about.”* The stories and novels Gordimer wrote in the next three decades are populated with characters, mainly white South Africans, living in Sartrean bad faith, pretending to themselves that they do not know what it is all about; her self-ordained task is to bring to bear on them the evidence of the real in order to crack their lie.
At the heart of the novel of realism is the theme of disillusionment. At the end of Don Quixote, Alonso Quixana, who had set out to right the wrongs of the world, comes home sadly aware not only that he is no hero but that there are no more heroes. As stripper-away of convenient illusions and unmasker of colonial bad faith, Gordimer is an heir of the tradition of realism that Cervantes inaugurated. Within that tradition she was able to work quite satisfactorily until the late 1970s, when she was made to realize that to black South Africans, the people to whose struggle she bore historical witness, the name Zola, to say nothing of the name Proust, carried no resonance—that she was too European to matter to the people who mattered most to her. Her essays of the period show her struggling inconclusively in the toils of the question of what it means to write for a people—to write for their sake and on their behalf—as well as to be read by them.
With the end of apartheid and the relaxation of the ideological imperatives that under apartheid had overshadowed all cultural affairs, Gordimer was liberated from such self-laceration. Her latest fiction shows a welcome readiness to pursue new avenues and a new sense of the world. If her more recent writing tends to be somewhat bodiless, somewhat sketchy by comparison with the writing of her major period, if the devotion to the texture of the real that characterizes her best work is now only intermittent, if she is sometimes content to gesture toward what she means rather than pinning it down in words, that is, one senses, because she feels she has already proved herself, does not need to go through those Herculean labors again.
*What Is Literature?, translated by Bernard Frechtman (Harper and Row, 1965), p. 18. ↩
*What Is Literature?, translated by Bernard Frechtman (Harper and Row, 1965), p. 18. ↩