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True identities

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black And Other Stories; Nadine Gordimer; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 180 pp., $21

December 02, 2007|Stephanie Zacharek | Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon.com.

When you've won a Nobel Prize, you can do pretty much anything you want, including write a short story from the point of view of a tapeworm. And that's what Nadine Gordimer has done: "Tape Measure" is one of the 13 works included in her new collection, "Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black." We join our astonishingly articulate parasite friend as he -- it? -- recounts his shock at having been banished from his host's body, catapulted into the toilet bowl and flushed into whatever lies beyond: "And now! Now! The whole putrid torrent had somewhere it was bound for -- it discharges (there is a moment's blinding that must be light) and disperses into a volume of liquid inconceivable in terms of the trickles and even gouts that had fed me."

It's enough to make you chortle, "Oho, little fellow!" although there's some veiled metaphorical value here: This segmented interloper knows he'll find a hospitable housefly to carry him to his next piece of meat or shred of lettuce -- his opportunism makes him not much different from your average politician or big-business man.

Perhaps it's uncharitable to hold one little tapeworm against the beloved 84-year-old South African author. Kafka, after all, made a name for himself by identifying with a cockroach (a feat Gordimer references in the story "Gregor"). And the stories here have appeared in the likes of the New Yorker, Harper's, Daedalus -- and Playboy: You can't accuse her of courting only snobs.

But that doesn't make this collection particularly engaging. On nearly every page there's evidence of Gordimer's intellectual rigor, as well as the upright discipline all serious writers possess. But the prose is often mannered and parched. This isn't the work of someone who doesn't care about language but of someone who perhaps loves it too much. Gordimer's sentences don't breathe, they march, having been gently shaped and paddled into parade formation.

That's not to say that Gordimer is self-righteous or strident; if anything, her arguments are gentle and willowy. And there are several stories here that reach a certain degree of emotional depth as well as cleverness. In "History," an African parrot, having been imported to the South of France, becomes a treasured fixture in a restaurant. But he also spouts terrible secrets, unbidden. His chattering tongue recounts shadowy horrors even though his brain has no idea what the words mean. In "A Beneficiary," the daughter of a self-absorbed, recently deceased actress comes to learn that the man she's known as her father may not be. She circles, with both curiosity and caution, the highly respected actor-director who may be her real father, only to realize that DNA isn't necessarily what shapes our identity.

The search for identity -- personal, political, intellectual and particularly racial -- is a motif in this book, introduced most directly in the title story: A white biology professor and former anti-apartheid activist reflects on the life of his great-grandfather, who left London for South Africa to become a diamond magnate, and wonders about the possibility -- something of a certainty -- of having mixed-race cousins whom he'll never know.

But even when Gordimer ponders the big questions, her approach is so tasteful that it's bloodless. And even if a person qualifies as a heady intellectual, writing about heady intellectualism can be deadly dull. In "Dreaming of the Dead," a narrator imagines showing up at a lower Manhattan Chinese restaurant for a dinner with three deceased thinkers: Edward Said, Susan Sontag, and British writer Anthony Sampson, Nelson Mandela's biographer and author of "The Seven Sisters," an examination of the international oil industry published in 1975.

These literary lights pick over platters of food as they toast one another's brilliance with numerous exclamation points and a raucous disregard for question marks. Sampson praises Sontag for the way she "shamed the complacent acceptance of suffering as no-one else has done. Since Goya!" Said gushes that it was Sampson, "[w]ho foresaw it was those oilfield witches' brew that fuels the world which was going to be more pricey than gold, platinum, uranium, yes! -- Yes! -- in terms of military strategy for power, the violent grab for spheres of supply, never mind political influence. Who saw it was going to be guns for oil, blood for oil. You did!"

Perhaps we, the lowly readers, are meant to exclaim, "Yes!" as we reach across the table for another imaginary turnip cake. We should probably be grateful to have this opportunity to bask in the presence of their genius. But even though there's plenty to go around, you can't help wondering whether maybe the tapeworm isn't having a better meal.

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