Something disruptive always happens towards the end of a year. Should you venture to check my previous post, you may be astonished to discover the date—October 2014. Yes, that’s right. How is that even possible? And how does one return to a neglected blog with a straight face? Anyway, that’s a story for another day (thank God you can’t see my face right now, ha!).
Having last read Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People in October last year, and found her a very challenging writer to read, I decided to challenge myself even more. I picked up on her short story collection, Life Times: Stories 1952-2007. Well, good thing I play some chess and have perfected the art of returning again and again despite bad, ego-crushing defeats. It’s the same thing with the thirty-odd short stories in this collection: one has to have quite some resilience to start reading the next one.
July’s People is indeed a synopsis of Nadine Gordimer’s literary work. In my review, I found her writing esoteric and sometimes difficult to follow. This is reflected in the stories in Life Times. The writing is almost always detached and dispassionate; the prose-poetry is thick for long periods and is layered by complicated sentence constructions; and the stories are heavily theme and plot-based. Characters are almost always relegated in relation to theme and plot, and this renders many of the stories impersonal and therefore difficult to connect with. I thus found just a handful of characters memorable. In addition, there is heavy contextualization as a technique of building the plots. I have seen some reviews referring to the writing in this collection as ‘dry’, and it’s hard to disagree. It indeed acquires a pseudo-intellectual hue, and, as I noted in my review of July’s People, it tests the limits of normal fiction writing.
However, much of the writing is ethical and conscientious. Apartheid and related themes, such as interracial relations, feature prominently of course, as can be expected of a Nobel laureate from South Africa writing in that era. I was most impressed by Something Out There, which brings forth the raw fear among white people of black people, using parallel stories of a baboon on the loose in white suburbs and the constant threat of sabotage from Black freedom fighters. In Town and Country Lovers (Two), we see the distortion, by apartheid, of normal relations among humans on the basis of colour. It conveys the near totalitarianism of apartheid in all spheres of life from the get go:
The farm children play together when they are small; but once the white children go away to school they soon don’t play together anymore…so that by the time early adolescence is reached, the black children are making, along with bodily changes common to all, an easy transition to adult forms of address, beginning to call their old playmates missus and bassie—little master.
The relationship between Paulus (white) and Thebedi (black) however persists beyond this social construct, and they become lovers. Nevertheless, when Thebedi becomes pregnant with Paulus’ child, they cannot escape it anymore, and what happens is the stuff of heartbreak. Gordimer doesn’t present a one-dimensional story of apartheid however. In The Moment Before the Gun Went Off, a white farmer is genuinely distraught—and this puts off a white police officer—when he accidentally shoots dead one of his black farm ‘boys’ because he considers him a son. In Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, a white professor decides to visit a town his great-grandfather lived in for five years in the hope he might meet relatives his great-grandfather might have sired with black women.
There are stories beyond the apartheid narrative. One that tugs at the heart is The Ultimate Safari, about a poor family escaping the civil war in Mozambique and seeking refuge in South Africa through the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga. Some are personal, poignant and poetic, leaving a lasting impression. I very much liked the uplifiting The Soft Voice of the Serpent, about a man having to adjust to life after losing a leg. In an idyllic garden so poignantly portrayed, he notices a locust with a broken leg, facing a similar struggle.
In a week or two he did not have to read all the time; he could let himself put down the book and look about him, watching the firs part silkily as a child’s fine straight hair in the wind, watching the small birds tightroping the telephone wire, watching the old dove trotting after his refined patrician grey women, purring with lust…
Just lovely. Why Haven’t You Written is also inward, depicting a man in mid-life crisis who almost leaves his wife and children in a fit of discontent with his life. In short, the stories Gordimer has written span a wide spectrum of imagination beyond apartheid: an extramarital affair in Rain-Queen; a return to history in Livingstone’s Companions; post-struggle politics in A Soldier’s Embrace and At the Rendezvous of Victory; mild eroticism in The Diamond Mine; and even the life of a tapeworm in Tape Measure. Religion is also not spared—Second Coming imagines the second coming of Christ, who finds no life waiting for him (ouch). Curiously, Letter From his Father imagines a letter by Franz Kafka's father in response to Franz's real life open letter to him. It's pretty much a father's scorn at an unappreciative and wayward child. Franz's fans wouldn't be too happy reading or re-reading it.
I noticed too that Gordimer deftly applies biting irony in most of the stories. For instance, in A Soldier’s Embrace, a white couple has helped a liberation struggle in an African country, and as freedom dawns for the country, it doesn’t in the real sense for their manservant of 21 years, who they leave behind with nothing. Irony cuts through Which Era Would That Be?, in which a group of friends—black, white, coloured—interact.
It is impossible to discuss here all the stories, but they are all interesting in their own ways once one is able to overcome the somewhat difficult writing style that narrates them. If you haven’t read this collection, and are looking for a sturdier challenge than the usual easy reads, by all means, try it.