Free of the Bad Old World

None to Accompany Me

by Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 324 pp., $22.00

Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer; drawing by David Levine

Prisons have opened, exiles have returned, the notion of apartheid is in ruins. Blacks have moved into white suburbs, a new constitution is being drafted, the old opposition is practicing for new habits of rule. But there are hit lists, muggings, murders; violent rearguard actions; there is a housing shortage, there are land disputes, squatters risking their lives to reverse old patterns of settlement. There are unheeded warnings that corruption doesn’t vanish easily, and isn’t a respecter of race or class or political and tribal boundaries. This is the last year of the old South Africa, or as Nadine Gordimer puts it in her new novel, “this is the year when the old life comes to an end.” The year, as she says later in the same book, “of the last white parliament that would ever sit,” but also of the rise of the swastika “from bunker to blazon.”

History has moved on since then, and many things have changed (utterly) in a very short time. Other things, reports suggest, have changed less than we might have thought, former structures and familiar faces looking to linger well into the foreseeable future; and of course the moment just before change, that last old year, would in any case be a gift to any novelist who cared about times and places, and was ready for the formidable challenge the moment presents. But what sort of gift would it be?

Nadine Gordimer is interested in what history does to particular people, both those who embrace it and those who seek to ignore it, and also in what history forgets, or cannot afford to remember. The end of the old life, as a setting and a story, allows her to weave personal and political destinies into an inconclusive but disturbing question about solitude. “Perhaps the passing away of the old regime makes the abandonment of an old personal life also possible.” Perhaps. But wouldn’t you then just be exploiting the public moment, making a false equation between your needs and the country’s? Or would you be saying that history really has written itself into your most intimate assumptions, that the end of public lying may be a start of private truth?

Vera Stark, the person around whom these questions circle in the novel, abandons everything except a certain kind of public life, her work on the new constitution and at the Legal Foundation, but what does she find? She gives up her property, the house that came to her with her divorce long ago, and becomes the tenant of a black landlord, ironically miming in white, so to speak, the insecurity of the black lives she has been trying to protect. She is fond of her children and her second husband, but has slipped away from them into a kind of anonymity, because her children don’t need her and her husband does. The final straw,…

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