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The ghosts of apartheid linger

May 04, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.


And Other Stories

Nadine Gordimer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 256 pp., $23


Nadine Gordimer turns 80 this year, and South African apartheid, the obdurate block of granite against which she honed her fiction for decades, is gone -- without a trace, it would seem. But this collection of short stories -- Gordimer's first since she won the Nobel Prize in 1991 -- asserts the contrary. Ghosts still haunt the land; evil is vanquished only to assume new shapes.

In "Mission Statement," for example, a middle-aged Englishwoman on the staff of an international charity organization has an affair with a married government official in a nameless African country that has undergone civil war and an epidemic of AIDS. He warns her not to hike in rural areas from which land mines haven't been cleared. Driving to his farm for a tryst, they pass an abandoned copper mine that, she realizes with a shock, her grandfather used to manage. Family legends spring to life.

"On Monday morning a member of the kitchen and ground staff ... set off to walk fifty miles to town with the master's note for the liquor store. A case of Scotch whisky. The man walked back with twelve bottles in the case on his head, arriving on Friday. Every Friday. The feat was a famous dinner-party story, each weekend: that's my man -- what heads they have, eh, thick as a log!" The shame of this -- and the further shock of visiting an AIDS hospital and confronting, she feels, "[s]omething incurable in the nature of human life itself, taking many forms of which this was the latest" -- jars her out of the poise with which she has navigated the subtleties of foreign-aid politics in her previous postings. She confesses her family's sin to her black lover. He forgives her -- but his solution for the illicit nature of their union harks back to an oppression even older than the colonial one.

In the longest story here, "Karma," Gordimer playfully uses the idea of reincarnation to suggest how the past haunts the present. A spiritual entity inhabits several human bodies in scenes that range from South Africa to Russia. The point isn't to perfect the self or to punish one for the sins of past lives; it's to set up strange echoes. Anti-apartheid activists ape the corruption of the former regime. A Russian youth is killed by the Nazis in World War II, his last sight the bars of his cell; later a young Russian woman who has married a rich Italian farmer sees cattle fattened without ever being allowed to move. The bars of their cells trigger in her an unexplainable sense of deja vu.

Gordimer ("Burger's Daughter," "July's People") has long specialized in feelings of exile and alienation, of discomfort creeping into the lives of the comfortable. In "An Emissary," the Anopheles mosquito, bearer of malaria, brings death to unlikely places. In "Look-Alikes," homeless people infiltrate and subvert a university. In another episode from "Karma," a white girl abandoned as a baby and raised by a Coloured family tries to take her place in white society in the 1970s -- a goal supported by her foster parents, who want the best for her, though it means giving her up -- and is frustrated by the apartheid laws: Everyone can see she's white, but she can't prove it with a birth certificate.

Some of the shorter tales here, such as the title story -- about an earthquake that bares the riches of the sea floor to scavengers who are drowned when the water returns -- have the compressed quality of fables. Gordimer writes in a kind of telegraphese, even in longer stories such as "The Generation Gap," about grown children's consternation when their 67-year-old father leaves his wife for a doomed affair with a woman half his age. Take the opening sentences:

"He was the one told: James, the youngest of them. The father to the son -- and it was Jamie, with whom he'd never got on since Jamie was a kid; Jamie who ran away when he was adolescent, was brought back resentful, nothing between them but a turned-aside head (the boy's) and the tight tolerant jaw of suppressed disapproval (the father's)."

Eventually we learn what was told, by whom and to whom, and figure out that the second "he" refers to someone other than the first. Gordimer, of course, is trying to suggest the characters' hurry and confusion, their sense of being plunged into a crisis they can't explain (though it makes perfect sense to the father, who wants a last experience of joy before he dies). Yet the time saved by her economy with words is canceled out by the time we spend rereading as we go.

Some of the most moving stories in "Loot" are the simplest, which allow Gordimer's prose room to breathe. "Homage" is narrated by a man who is recruited from an African refugee camp to assassinate a European politician; he knows nothing of the victim or of the agendas of the people who paid him. It's simply his way out. In "The Diamond Mine," an old woman recalls her furtive sexual initiation as a teenager by a South African soldier during World War II, in a car being driven by her parents. Her memories -- not of love, but of being somehow "found" and freed -- shine fiercely, like unburied gems.

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