The Pickup

by Nadine Gordimer
Penguin, 270 pp., $14.00 (paper)
Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer; drawing by David Levine


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…

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