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A Sport of Nature by Nadine Gordimer (Knopf: $18.95; 341 pp.)

April 19, 1987|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a Los Angeles-based writer critic

Nadine Gordimer's career as a writer began about 35 years ago, with the publication of "The Soft Voice of the Serpent," a collection of her short stories. She now has to her credit eight collections of stories and eight novels. Some of her work has been banned in her native South Africa. All of her work has been acclaimed and honored throughout the world.

Her extraordinary gifts were evident from the start: a precise ear for spoken language that lent great authenticity to her dialogue; a sensitivity to the rhythms and texture of the written word that gave her prose the power of poetry; a keen eye that made her a tireless observer; an even keener sense of social satire based upon her ability to see through appearances to the heart of the matter, and a strong feeling of moral purpose, composed in equal parts of her indignation at the sheer injustice of South Africa's entrenched racial oppression and of her commitment to speak the truth as she saw it.

Yet, as Gordimer's reputation has steadily and deservedly risen, there have been signs of falling off in her most recent work. The possibility that success is "spoiling" her is, frankly, unimaginable. It is possible, however, that success has isolated her--not so much from the realities of political life as from the kind of truly critical response an artist needs to gauge the effect and effectiveness of her work. It is also possible that the weaknesses afflicting her ninth and latest novel, "A Sport of Nature," as well as some of the stories in her last collection, "Something Out There" (1984), are reflections of her deepening pessimism about the future of her country and a growing disillusionment, not only with liberalism, which she dismissed decades ago, but with all kinds of human endeavor from rationalism to radicalism.

Because Gordimer is a voice worth listening to, it is important, before going on to evaluate her latest novel, before giving vent to one's own reactions, first to take account of what this book has to tell us. Gordimer begins with a definition of the book's title, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary. The Latin term, we are told, is lusus naturae ; the meaning has to do with change. A sport of nature is a "spontaneous mutation" exhibiting "abnormal variation from the parent stock" and productive of new varieties.

The heroine of this novel is just such a "mutation." She is the product of a "typical" South African Jewish family, given the name "Hillela" in memory of a Zionist grandfather, and brought up in the comfort of white bourgeois surroundings in the years following World War II. Yet, from the outset, she is something of an oddity: Her real mother, Ruthie, ran off with a Portuguese dancer from Mozambique when Hillela was still a baby, leaving Hillela's nominal father free to attach himself to a lower-class restaurant hostess in then-Rhodesia.

Hillela, who fancies herself the daughter of the Portuguese, is brought up by her mother's sisters, Olga and Pauline, who represent two types of white South African Jewry. Olga, married to a rich man, is chiefly interested in comfort, security, and the acquisition of paintings and antique furniture. She is a kind woman, who treats Hillela "like her own daughter," but she has no interest in the problems of South Africa's nonwhite population except insofar as the situation may affect her servants. Hillela's other aunt, Pauline, married to an idealistic lawyer, is sincerely devoted to doing whatever she can to bring about a just, multiracial society. She, too, treats Hillela "like her own daughter." In Olga's case, that phrase means giving the girl all the material advantages; in Pauline's case, it means trying to imbue her with a social conscience.

But neither Olga's version of the good life nor Pauline's vision of a better world appears to make an impression on Hillela. Hillela lives to please herself; she cares neither for convention nor conscience. She lives, we are told repeatedly, through her senses, motivated mainly by her sex drive. And even in this, she is passive: Men fall for her; she does not have to pursue them. She is presented as a veritable force of nature; a woman with the instinctive cunning of a cat, always managing to land on her feet.

Her early conquest of her cousin Sasha, Pauline's son, shocks the family because of its incestuous overtones and sends Hillela out on a series of picaresque adventures with a series of different men in different countries: white and black, European, African and American, traitor and revolutionary. Yet, in committing the act with her almost-like-a-brother cousin, Hillela was not engaged in a deliberate attempt at subversion undertaken to outrage propriety, undermine family or make a statement: She was merely latching onto whatever was closest at hand.

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