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In which Netty finds a gateway to Africa via Nadine Gordimer …

August 19, 2012

I have a couple of South African-born colleagues. Around the water-cooler, as you do, I remarked to one of them that I was currently working my way through Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, confessing that I didn’t really know anything about apartheid.

“Well, all you need to know,” he replied, sagely, “is that there were some really bad white people who did really bad things to some black people.”

I told him that The Conservationist was set in the early 1970s.

“OK,” he replied. “Well, then, there were some really, really bad white people who did really, really bad things to some black people.”

Nadine Gordimer, who holds a Nobel Prize for literature and shared the 1974 Man Booker (with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday) for The Conservationist, is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s finest novelists and leading exponents of its anti-apartheid movement. Now 88, she has spent her life in, or around, Johannesburg, where The Conservationist is set.

The novel tells the story of Mehring, a successful white businessman who has made his fortune in smelting manufacture (his unnamed mistress mockingly derides him as a “pig iron dealer”). With cash to burn, he buys a hobby farm outside of Johannesburg, which comes complete with its own community of Zulu squatters, several – notably the foreman Jacobus – of whom end up in Mehring’s employ. Mehring initially envisages the property as a tax dodge and weekend retreat, and a place to stage trysts with his now-erstwhile mistress. But fast tiring of the city’s upper-class social circles and his regular overseas business trips, Mehring finds himself increasingly drawn to the land.

In the opening pages the body of a black man, unknown to the locals, is discovered on the property. After wrangling through much bureaucratic red tape, the local constabulary promises Mehring they will deal with the body; it transpires they simply bury it on his property. During the course of the novel the farm is beset by fire, then flood, which unwittingly brings this central motif full circle.

Mehring’s ex-wife lives in the United States, soon to be joined by his teenage son Terry, who may or may not be gay, boasts post-1960s, hippy-esque values and is desperate to escape the compulsory armed-forces conscription that awaits him after his graduation. His ex-mistress, a left-winger whose radical activistism has forced her to flee the country for London, still looms large in Mehring’s mind. But it is young girls on the verge of adulthood – the teenage daughter of old society friends, a Portuguese émigré on a plane, a young coloured girl at a bus-stop en route from the farm to the city – who seem to be his great weakness and threaten to ultimately and finally prove his unravelling. The clever-clogs twist in the final pages, after the novel’s languid gait steps up to a breathtaking pace, is brilliantly realised – especially for a book in which nothing is really what it seems.

While the main thrust of the novel follows Mehring from city to country, in and out of South Africa, the reader also gets to see inside the lives of Jacobus, his family and friends, as well as the Indians whose shop services the community and who have to stay several steps ahead of the officialdom that could close them down and deport them at any time. The depictions of the differences cast by the colour of one’s skin in the various contexts are very subtle, and all the more effective as a result.

Regular followers of this blog may recall that Andy and I were originally slated to read Gordimer’s July’s People (in the month of July, natch). And I may yet do so, along with her other books – even though The Conservationist was probably the most difficult novel I have read this year (Robb’s M notwithstanding, for entirely different reasons), albeit about which I had some forewarning.

I found Gordimer’s writing similar, not necessarily in style and certainly not in content, to AS Byatt, whose Possession (another Man Booker winner) Andy and I tackled a couple of years ago (you can check out what I thought of it right here: https://wellreadweare.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/and-what-netty-makes-of-possession-not-to-mention-victorian-poetry-and-british-academia/). They are both weighty literary tomes, dense and often difficult reads, requiring the time and effort, concentration and commitment (ie, you wouldn’t try and read them, piece-meal, on your daily commute). But where I found Byatt almost wilfully obtuse (sorry, Antonia), I found Gordimer ultimately rewarding. Sometimes if you keep digging, no matter how frustrating at the time, you do eventually hit paydirt.

Indeed, Gordimer’s writing is some of the most lyrical, poetic and eloquent I have encountered in recent times. The flow and rhythm of her words echo the land itself about which she is writing. But it is not an easy task, and it took me a hundred, 150 pages, to adapt to her style. A lot of the book’s “action” (for want of a better word) takes place in its protagonist’s head – the plot may be moving forward at a logical pace, then the novel will slip into one of Mehring’s reveries, where he is recalling a past conversation that may or may not have actually occurred with another character (usually his ex-mistress). Nor is it easy to negotiate the lack of quotation marks, which makes it difficult during the passages of dialogue to follow exactly whom is saying what.

While I was still only halfway through the book, I had another conversation with another South African colleague, wherein I commented that I was enjoying the book immensely, was becoming quite fascinated with the country and its culture, and was thinking I would like to go and see it all for myself. “We all come from Africa, originally,” she replied. “It is only natural that, eventually, your thoughts should turn to it.”

Bly op die hoogte…

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