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The Conservationist – Andy knows he’s supposed to be impressed. It’s just that he isn’t

August 27, 2012

Nadine Gordimer. Nobel Prize or not, she’s one of those names that Readers Of Good Books are supposed to get round to, yes? And, as RGBs, Netty and I have spent the past few years getting round to plenty of those names. Last month (sorry, yes, late again) we got around to Nadine. Netty was impressed.

Me, not so much. Mehring? More “meh”, methinks, than “ring!”

If you hit your teens in the ’80s, as Netty and I did, apartheid was one of the Big Issues (incidentally, did I mention…? Oh, nevermind). Like HIV/AIDS, like famine in Africa, like Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland, like Monger Thatcher and Retard Reagan or whatever their names were,  like Gorby and Perestroika. Big Issues. Apartheid was among the biggest. I remember having, with a female student, one of those idiotic arguments you have when you’re in high school, me saying racism was a Bigger Issue than sexism and her saying … well. Stupid, stupid Andy. Anyway. You’d have thought a book set in some of South Africa’s darkest years, by a woman whose values are very similar to mine (and therefore, needless to say, impeccable, assuming values can in fact be described as impeccable, and I’m not absolutely sure they can), such a book should have me bouncing off the ceiling yelling “WHY THE FUCK WASN’T I READING THIS IN HSC INSTEAD OF THAT ANTIGONE SHIT, HEY?”

Except it doesn’t have me doing any such thing. And I’m still really glad I read Antigone.

The Conservationist wasn’t a terribly easy read but it wasn’t an especially hard read, either. My Name is Red was probably harder but more interesting and more enjoyable. It was certainly more entertaining. Perhaps a sense of humour was something you couldn’t afford in ’70s South Africa, and perhaps it’s something you can’t live without in Turkey, ever. I don’t know. Not that My Name is Red was hysterically funny, but there was a lightness of touch – in translation, mind you – that is missing in Gordimer. I do get that living in South Africa under apartheid as a person of basic decency must have been incredibly difficult, especially if you are a person of basic decency who happens to benefit from the system of prejudice but who can’t or won’t just up and leave. Gordimer, like so many anti-apartheid whites, was presumably such a person. Nevertheless: The Conservationist is rarely engaging. It is almost never enthralling (one scene towards the end excepted). it isn’t particularly enlightening. It is often turgid. It is, more often than not, a slog. I don’t mind a slog, but the slog has to pay dividends. The Conservationist didn’t.

I wonder whether, in trying to depict the dehumanising impact of racism in general and apartheid in particular, Gordimer chose to dehumanise not just her main character but her entire narrative. Perhaps she did. And perhaps she succeeded. The Conservationist left me as cold as the corpse that bookends the story. I have a collection of Gordimer’s stories and I might dip into that at some distant point in the future but I can’t see myself reading any more of her novels. Ever. No, you’re not supposed to say that about Nobel Prize winners. And I think you’ve mistaken me for someone who gives a fuck.

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