Nadine Gordimer, a white South African, won the 1991 Nobel Prize for literature. Born in 1923, she grew up amidst the turmoil of the beginnings of apartheid policies.
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A bit of history
In 1948, the first Afrikaaner-based government was formed in South Africa. Shortly after, the Population Registration Act was passed. Boards were set up to determine the race of everyone in the country. The Group Areas Act followed this, which restricted certain residences, occupations and trades to white people. People could be and were forced to resettle as a result of the act. In the 1950's, Verwoerd, the Minister of Native Affairs, and thus the ruler of all Africans in South Africa, used the arguments of liberal segregationists to justify setting up reservations for black people. He argued that separate development was better for black people, as there would therefore be no comparison to white people.
He also argued that in a reservation system, traditional institutions would be restored and respected, and that there'd be a measure of self-governance for black people. What this did, however was to shut off black people from the benefits of the society for which they'd provided the cheap labour. It politically marginalized them, as well, and grafted a "tribal" character onto black people in South Africa that had not necessarily been in place before the white people arrived.
The 60's and 70's brought sharp conflict in South Africa, on all sides, and sanctions from abroad. It was in the face of all this conflict and upheaval that Gordimer wrote her fiction and non-fiction.
Although able to settle in many other Western countries, she remained in South Africa, unlike many of her fellow countrymen. Gordimer should be held up as a shining example of "someone who tried to change things from within". Living in a police state, she managed to not only involve herself in the political world of a protester, but also remain prolific and relevant as both a fiction writer and an essayist. Plus, well aware that she was able to do all this because of her skin colour, she actively promoted black artists as well. An amazing woman.
What makes her more amazing, of course, is the vibrancy of her stories. I would say that her writing is detached, but it's not. It's precise, and reveals her desire to convey the exact interior thought. Her writing is unrelenting in its exploration of the unvarnished truth in all its complexities. There was enough irony to choke a horse, in South Africa, and certainly her writing reflects that.
She has been criticized by white South Africans for presuming to show the rest of the world the South African experience, and by black South Africans for presuming to speak for them (Safari, a story included in Jump, and other stories is told from the perspective of a young black girl, making her way from a destroyed village to a refugee camp).
Format of review
Jump, and other stories contains sixteen short stories. Rather than deal with them all individually, I'll discuss three in particular. All sixteen are worth reading; I'll say that up front.
Jump, and other stories is a collection of her short stories, published the same year she won the Nobel prize. In my edition, a naked man with rather fleshy thighs is leaping from a ledge, a reference to the first story.
Rites of passage
A safe house holds a willing confessor (the public head of a rebel organization) to the atrocities of a regime planning to bring down (or destabilize) the legitimate black government. He has long since outlived his usefulness, as he's repeated his story again and again to the world's press, publicly explaining: Why?
- Why did you finance a brutal campaign that tried to overthrow the government?
- Why did you support a secret army that burned villages, killed indiscriminately?
His answer, painfully related, is that horror comes slowly. Heading up the rebel army, he saw the conflict for his country in terms of pins pushed forward on a map, in euphemisms that disguised the reality of the bloody and brutal conflict.
Gordimer's clever writing accomplishes several things in this short story. She draws a parallel between the rite of passage inherent in making a first jump in parachute school, and that of ending his life after unburdening a soul ravaged by the knowledge of what had been done to people in his name. The irony of his final jump would be that he would be jumping into the midst of a ghetto, filled with children made orphans, and men and women who bore the physical and mental scars of years of internal conflict, made possible by him.
Stressed throughout Jump is the tawdriness and ordinariness of the General's post-confession existence. A congealed fried egg and the nicotine stain between his fingers signify all that is repellingly pedestrian about the informer's life after he's no longer useful.
Jump is a personal political story, in that it chips away at the headlines to see the shell of a man behind them.
Once upon a Time
In what would have been a horrible addition to the Children's Story write off, Once upon a time concerns a family trying to keep themselves safe in their white controlled suburb, in the midst of a breakdown of order. The fairy tale portion of the story is written in a style reminiscent of bedtime stories, but with modern South African reality filling in for magical kingdoms. The family's house becomes their castle. The wife's mother becomes the "wise old witch". The young son becomes "The Prince". As the family adds more and more security measures to their castle, it becomes apparent that rather than keeping troubles out, it restricts them more and more to their castle's grounds.
The story begins with a pre-story reeking of symbolism. The author wakes in the middle of the night, unsure whether she's heard the sound of an intruder's footstep or not. Time takes her terror away, and she realizes that it's just the ground subsiding. Her neighbourhood is built on gold mine shafts that every once in a while, subside, collapsing inward 3000 feet under the surface of the ground.
Just in case you didn't catch that symbolism:
1) Her neighbourhood is built on gold mines.
2) These gold mines are collapsing.
1) White-dominated South Africa arose on the wealth of the gold and diamond mines; these mines used cheap black labour.
2) The circumstances under which these mines were cheaply exploited are crumbling.
The fairy tale portion of Once Upon a Time, written in caustic response to an annoying academic, is horrifying. The ending clicks together like the final wheel of a combination lock, and about as fast. So fast, you don't have time to breathe, and after you read it, you won't be able to. Grouch wrote, in his review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon about movie moments that make you smile and perhaps cry, they are so perfect. Once Upon a Time contains writing that will make you laugh at the audacity while you're cringing in terror.
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night
Sometimes, as readers, we get fooled. We begin a story, wary, knowing that we've been taken for a ride before, but willing, because we derived so much enjoyment from the last ride, to saddle up again. The ride begins nicely, comfortably; the scenary is familiar (this is the last you'll see of this metaphor, by the way; I despair of my ability to sustain it). A young girl finds worth and maturity in her association with a self-contained foreign-born lodger. There is muted conflict between the girl and her parents, but nothing to cause any great anxiety.
Life moves forward, plans are made, proposals made and accepted. Everyone is happy, and full of the excited joy of the prospect of an interesting life ahead.
And then you get firmly whacked between the eyes by a two by four wielded by Gordimer.
Far from being angry, though, you just stand there, smiling, a fresh bruise rising in a knot on your forehead.
Hit me again, Nadine.
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