Perilous Relations

A Soldier's Embrace

by Nadine Gordimer
Viking, 144 pp., $8.95

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 up!

Open up!

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.”


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.