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RICHARD EDER

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

January 18, 1998|RICHARD EDER

Gordimer makes little attempt to interest us in Duncan, Natalie and the crime. Natalie's infidelity with Duncan's friend and former lover, Carl, was a rebellion against Duncan's effort to control and plan her life after rescuing her from attempted suicide. Confronting a derisive Carl afterward and feeling scorned by his past and present lovers, Duncan grabbed a pistol lying on a nearby table. It was the "house gun," kept in case of burglars--and a symbol of the threat fermenting beneath the apparent order of South African white lives.

The book's most vivid and interesting character is Hamilton Motsamai, the polished, Oxford-educated black barrister who conducts Duncan's defense. From the start, he makes it clear that there is no way to contest the killing but that a defense can be built out of mitigating circumstances pointing to overwhelming anger and no premeditation.

He must get Duncan and his parents to confide and reveal themselves to him, and as he does it, over the barriers of race and background, we perceive a person of power, compassion and playful astuteness. Motsamai, his wife and daughter--they invite the hesitant Lindgards to a boisterous family party--are the only full-fleshed figures in the book. By contrast, the Lindgards are wraiths.

"Gun's" culminating passage, linking Gordimer's story to her political vision, comes in the course of the Lindgards' repeated visits to Motsamai's office. As he lays out the case, a national balance shifts. Now, to a white couple used to thinking of themselves as their country's enlightened voice, "it is a black man who speaks for them and they who are spoken for." Suddenly, "his blackness was the stamp of authority in the room."

Motsamai apart, the thinness of the characters thins out Gordimer's novel. "This is not a detective story," she tells us early on. Indeed, its real and impressive strength is intellectual and psychological, not fictional. This being so, the use of an extended trial scene as a plot climax misfires. What the witnesses, lawyers and judge bring out has already been dealt with in the Lindgards' talks with Motsamai and in Duncan's own recollections. A trial scene that provides neither suspense, surprise nor revealing argument defeats its own purpose.

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