On the dust jacket of this book, with what looks like the African veldt in the background, is Nadine Gordimer, sporting a fedora, tiny, delicate as a gazelle. She reminds one of that other teller of African tales, Isak Dinesen, also delicate in appearance—like her half-tame gazelle Lulu described in Out of Africa. In a photograph from The Life and Destiny of Isak Dinesen* she poses, in a picture hat, with that gazelle. Gazellelike she was, but a crack shot with a rifle and her Africans gave her the title “Lioness Blixen.”
She might have been the fairy godmother of Nadine Gordimer, bestowing on her the gift of art—and the fate of being a white woman in Africa. Nadine Gordimer lives and writes in Johannesburg. A Soldier’s Embrace is a collection of thirteen of her stories, all very short. Still, although they are short, and strong, like almost everything she writes, they are not easy to read. They hurt. They are as sad and as beautiful as the true if rather enchanted tales of Out of Africa.
There are lions in Nadine Gordimer’s tales too—as well as safaris—and when one of her women hears the zoo lion roar at night beyond the new freeway it makes her think of the black strikers in the streets, dockers with sticks and knobkerries—“(no spears anymore, no guns yet); they can cover any distance, in time.” She imagines the lion loose on the freeway, “bewildered, finding his way, turning his splendid head at last to claim what he’s never seen, the country where he’s king.”
Tragedy hovers over Gordimer’s Africa as it did over Isak Dinesen’s Africa fifty years ago. Like her lovers, white lovers, black lovers, white lovers of loving blacks, the two races are doomed. The thrill of black freedom is like the thrill of the first encounter of lovers.
Open your legs.
It will end like a love affair, in loss. “How many men really love women? Without any secret resentment, pity, or even disgust?” The Baroness said, “The relation between the white and the black races in Africa in many ways resembles the relation between the two sexes. If the one of the two sexes were told that they did not play any greater part in the life of the other sex, than this other sex plays in their own existence, they would be shocked and hurt…. The tales that white people tell you of their Native servants are conceived in this same spirit. If they had been told that they played no more important part in the lives of the Natives than the Natives played in their own lives, they would have been highly indignant and ill at ease. If you had told the Natives that they played no greater part in the life of the white people than the white people played in their lives, they would never have believed you, but would have laughed at you.”
The Baroness could not imagine how quickly this would change, that indeed the races would become real lovers, black and white, and of deadly importance to one another. Jomo Kenyatta, when perhaps he alone dreamed he would rule the old colony, commended her on her stand for her people and their land; but she thought the Natives would have to undergo a process exactly like the two thousand years and more of Western civilization, if maybe rather accelerated, before they could become Modern. The fairy godmother could not foresee that her inheritors would witness the breaking of the two immemorial taboos, would witness black and white killing one another and loving one another.
The Baroness could not have imagined what happens in the story that gives its title to Gordimer’s book, “A Soldier’s Embrace.” “The day the cease-fire was signed she was caught in a crowd.” It is some unnamed country, like Rhodesia become Zimbabwe (like South Africa, but when?), and the war is over. The colonial troops have lost to the freedom fighters. The enemies are rejoicing together now, jostling, shouting, in that exhilaration of the two races suddenly finding themselves real and equal. Emblematically, as in a poem, but at the same time utterly believably, two soldiers block her off in their “clumsy embrace (how do you do it, how do you do what you’ve never done before) and the embrace opened like a door and took her in—a pink hand with bitten nails grasping her right arm, a black hand with a big-dialled watch and thong bracelet pulling at her left elbow. Their three heads collided gaily, musk of sweat and tang of strong sweet soap clapped a mask to her nose and mouth…. She put up an arm round each neck, the rough pile of an army haircut on one side, the soft negro hair on the other, and kissed them both on the cheek.”
The kisses should have been magical, should have enchanted the two races forever, as a lover’s kiss should enchant the loved one forever but does not. Through the rest of the story the woman remembers the nail-bitten fingers, the smooth black fingers, more and more vividly, in new detail, eidetically, hauntingly. She does not tell her husband, a liberal lawyer, friend of the black regime. Things go badly for them. The blacks ignore him. At last the woman and her husband pack to leave; too late their old friend, a minister of government now, comes and bursts out weeping. “Twenty-one years of life in that house gone….” After being forced to sell her farm, back in Denmark on every night of her life Karen Blixen went out to her courtyard and looked toward Africa.
Given the gift of telling tales, the writer is more than blessed to have tales to tell. Tales of a place or a time we do not ourselves know are, whether we like it or not, better than tales of our cities or suburbs. Tales of danger are better too. All life is dangerous but the daily perils of our own treacherous heads and hearts, in our cities or our suburbs, are best aroused and exorcized by stories of faraway happenings we never shared and will not.
Nadine Gordimer is wonderful on the mysteries of sex, the strangeness of women to men. In one of her stories a boy sees for his first time a woman’s naked body. The woman is his cousin, only a girl really, lost—a runaway, drug addict, crazy, outcast; by chance she changes her clothes before him. Her naked body is described as only a woman could do it. No John Donne rhapsodies on “The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts / Not of two lovers but two loves the nests,” or “O my America, my new found land, / My kingdom, safeliest when by one man manned….” To men, a country for conquest—but what of the conquered? Her poor raddled body transfixes him and she seemed to him to be all women. “She had no shame for what she had done to herself; just as because she was so afraid, so afraid, she lived as others would find it too dangerous to live.”
“What he had seen for the first time was woman’s nakedness, all stages of change and deterioration, of abuse and attrition by pain, loving and unloving use, he would be seeing as he lived and knew women. What he was feeling was deep distasteful awe at the knowledge of their beauty, and its decay.”
Women suffer deeply in these tales of Africa. But then, so do husbands, fathers, sons, lovers; and they suffer largely because of women. In some of the stories, notably in “Town and Country Lovers,” women and men suffer together because of the Immorality Act that forbids sexual relations between the races. Yet the harsh Act seems only a cruel legality erected on some older and color-blind law of nature. One story tells of the haunting memory of a child’s vision of the destruction of the white fat queen of termites burrowed out from under the plank floor of a lonely bungalow by the exterminators.
“Ughh. Why’s she so fat?”
“S’es full of ecks,” the white man said, “They lays about a million ecks a day.”
Nadine Gordimer’s novels, and particularly Burger’s Daughter (Viking, 1979), have been widely praised for their political intelligence. That novel tells, in her lyrical, circling, accumulative manner, of the escape from and then return to South Africa of a heroine who has fled and then finally accepted—if I understand the oblique tale—the inheritance of her father who died a communist hero in a South African jail. She returns for none of the doctrine so extensively and dialectically reproduced in the novel, but—again, if I understand correctly—because she meets by chance, in exile, a black man she had known almost as a brother when they were children. He responds to her greeting—a kiss, as in “A Soldier’s Embrace”—with insults to her, her father, and all whites. She then goes back, back to jail.
Rosa Burger, like the heroines of the stories in A Soldier’s Embrace, is presented as a woman of extraordinary intelligence and the utmost delicacy of feeling. Yet for all the exposition of Marxism and counter-Marxism, the tale does not seem to me political. Just so, in another delicate and artful novel, The Conservationist (Viking, 1975), we read about a fine man who loves the veldt, a gentleman farmer, obsessed with his own reveries, and—if I understand—brought down not so much by the cruel politics of his country as by the cruel importunities of sex. And it is hard not to feel that the grown women in Gordimer’s stories are doomed to find that their own bodies and the men they have chosen (pretty feckless men, for the most part) will betray them.
These stories and novels—and stories, it seems to me, are better suited to the delicate prose of this writer than are the bolder reaches of the novel—raise far more questions than a mere sometime visitor to South Africa could pretend to answer. How she views the prospect of the racial war that lies just beyond the horizon of these stories remains unclear.
Yet, as much as anyone can, Nadine Gordimer tells us of the strange and immensely moving peril of being a woman in South Africa, as well as of the strange and immensely moving peril of the races. As in some bad and vivid dream these things all come together in her stories. This may be our waking world as well, and if it is, we may, like her imagined heroines, die of it.
October 23, 1980