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Future Shock : THE HOUSE GUN. By Nadine Gordimer . Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 292 pp., $24

January 18, 1998|RICHARD EDER

Harald Lindgard is a prosperous South African insurance executive; his wife, Claudia, a respected physician. Claudia treats her black patients in the free clinic with the same solicitousness she uses in her private practice. Harald works to make loans for black housing and businesses, now that the end of apartheid has made it not just legal but strongly encouraged. When it was not legal, he obeyed the law while feeling bad about it.

He is a practicing Anglican and frequent communicant; genuinely conscientious and a man, as Nadine Gordimer puts it, devoted to his temple, though not to the point of pulling it down about his ears. The Lindgards are liberal, civilized and safe. They are comfortable in their lives and consciences.

Well, not entirely comfortable. South Africa under Nelson Mandela is a wound stitched but virulently unhealed. For convenience, as they would point out, but also for security, as they would be less eager to point out, the Lindgards have moved from their house to a condominium with controlled access.

One access, though, cannot be controlled: that of the day and the times. The Lindgards have a son, Duncan, a moody young architect out in the world and beyond the reach of their safe arrangements. On a Friday night, a friend pushes their buzzer to announce that Duncan has been arrested for killing a friend whom he surprised as the friend was having sex with Duncan's lover, Natalie.

"The House Gun," though it tells of Duncan and Natalie and the killing, is essentially a story of despoliation. It is the stripping of Harald and Claudia's privileged immunity as they try first to help and then to understand their son. Gordimer achieves an acute psychological portrait of the middle-aged couple in a fall that, though particular to them, depicts a concentric series of larger falls.

There is the ebb of parents' power to shape and protect. There is the waning of one generation's hold on the world, as the next generation crowds in. And as in other recent Gordimer novels, there is the displacement of a small but significant class in South Africa's tumult of change.

Gordimer is one of her country's historians. Specifically, she is the historian of a white segment: not the apartheid upholders and recalcitrants but those whose sense of justice ranged them anywhere from active resisters to people of passive and non-risky--though not necessarily unpainful--goodwill. The Lindgards, for example.

She has used her vantage point to much larger effect, though. Gordimer lights up a great deal of South Africa's black world. In fact, as time goes by, her most savory and substantial characters tend to be black. Her whites, though their virtues are real and sometimes impressive, become more and more spectral: eggshells in abandoned nests.

Gordimer's portrait of the Lindgards, in their initial state of stunned disbelief, their impulse to try to find some control of the situation and their slow apprenticeship to helplessness, is masterly. She writes with an irony that accommodates a fearful sense of the pain and dislocation of each of the Lindgards' discoveries. She writes, in fact, something like a doctor whose sympathy never clouds a cold knowledge of the patient's lethal disability.

Nobody conveys better the operations of mental shock. The parents are certain that some terrible mistake must have been made; yet, as if anesthetizing themselves for a worse possibility, they obey their son's instructions not to go to the jail but to await the arraignment three days later. When they see him in his holding cell, what strikes them is his silence. He talks about incidental things; at no point does he protest innocence.

The silence speaks damnation to both husband and wife, but each reacts differently. Claudia throws up, then rallies to insist on Duncan's innocence and to lament not having assured him more emphatically of their trust. "When he has said what?" Harald rejoins. "He has said nothing." The split is archetypal: the mother's instinct is to take refuge in the defense of her son; the father's to take refuge in abstract justice.

This is only a starting point in Gordimer's complex elucidation of Claudia's and Harald's shifting defenses and gradual advance into a desolate reality. It is a brilliant series of psychological observations, though there are times when the nuances grow tedious.

When they do, it is more than a small difficulty. The Lindgards are real to us chiefly by their situation, their intelligence and eventually their courage. Otherwise, they are fairly indistinct: exemplars more than characters. The pain we feel for them, our involvement in their quandaries, comes not from our sense of them as individuals but--a tribute to Gordimer's lucidity--from their crystalline reflection of where we might be in such a situation.

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