Sensing the earthquakes in society

Hubert de Santana November 2 1981

Sensing the earthquakes in society

Hubert de Santana November 2 1981

Sensing the earthquakes in society


Hubert de Santana

"People curl their lips and say that we writers imagine that we’re seers; the answer is that we neither arrogantly imagine that we can look into the future, nor do we like this label to be put upon us. But we do have this prescience which comes from being very sensitive to all the undercurrents and waves that are going on below the surface. It’s the way that animals get the warning of an earthquake: they sense it before human beings do. We sense earthquakes in our society.”

Nadine Gordimer has been recording the seismic tremors in South African society with painful honesty for more than 30 years.

Her eight novels and seven collections of short stories have established her as one of the world’s major writers.

In 1974, Gordimer was cowinner of the coveted Booker Prize in Britain.

France has awarded her its Grand Aigle d’Or. And South Africa has acknowledged her importance by banning three of her novels, a high accolade in a repressive society.

Gordimer draws her themes from the very heart of South African society.

She writes of the ways in which apartheid assaults human dignity, cripples personal relationships and poisons the wells of decency. She confronts the physical and psychic violence done to people in her country with moral courage and a fierce irony that burns on the page.

Nadine Gordimer is a small, pale woman whose intellect irradiates her personality. Her nose is strong, the mouth firm and expressive, the large dark eyes deep with intelligence and compassion. Her hands are fine-boned, the slenderness of the fingers accentuated by heavy rings. Her hair, silver on black, has the appearance of shot silk.

Although she has the exquisite manners and calm self-possession of an aristocrat, Gordimer’s origins were relatively modest. She was born in 1923, in a

small gold-mining town about 48 km from Johannesburg. It became the setting of her first novel, The Lying Days (1953). Her father was a Lithuanian Jew who emigrated to South Africa when he was 13 and mended watches for miners. “By the time I came on the scene,” Gordimer says, “he was a petit bourgeois businessman, a small shopkeeper who called himself a jeweller.” Her mother, also a Jew, came to

South Africa from England at the age of 6.

Nadine was the younger of the two girls. “I was brought up in that little town like every other white child,” she remembers. “I went to a convent school there, and I lived the segregated life of the white people there.” Later she was to recall the solitude of growing up not only as a member of a white minority, but as an “intellectual-by-inclination.”

She was “walled up among the mine dumps, born exiled from the European world of ideas.” The town library offered her a way of escape. “A child doesn’t understand why it turns away to live in a dreamworld and in the world of books,” Gordimer says sadly. “You only analyse this afterwards; but I suppose it’s a kind of hunger that isn’t being fed.” She began writing at the age of 9, and her first story was published when she was 15.

Gordimer’s youth was spent in the sun, but it was a corrupting sun, the kind that breeds maggots in a dead dog. All around her she observed the tragic devastation caused by apartheid: and she made it the main subject of her fiction. She could have chosen a safer theme, but her commitment to the truth made this impossible. “You must keep the freedom not to write that lie that’s going to die on the page, because in the end you’re not serving anybody—neither your art, nor your society.”

Her attitude inevitably brought her into conflict with the South African government. Her second novel, A World of Strangers (1958), which described the close friendship between a white and a black man, was banned for 12 years. The Late Bourgeois World (1966), which examined the psychology of people driven ¡2 to armed resistance against the state, was banned for years. The acclaimed Burger's Daughter (1979) was banned briefly, then unbanned following an international protest. So far, July's People, published this year, has not been banned, but it has been embargoed. The release of every one of Gordimer’s novels is delayed up to two months while government officials decide whether it is safe. This hurts the sale of the book, and there is an edge of anger and bitterness in Gordimer’s voice when she declares that “writers in South Africa are punished before sentence has been passed.”

The dangers of outspokenness extend beyond the suppression of literature. In South Africa, imprisonment, banning or house arrest are not uncommon for

'Yes, it’s strange to live in a country where there are still heroes’

those who criticize the state. Gordimer’s formidable international reputation gives her a measure of protection. But others, as noble spirited as she, are more vulnerable. “Yes, it’s strange to live in a country where there are still heroes,” reflects Rosa Burger in Burger's Daughter, and this heroism, both of whites and blacks, is something that fascinates her creator. Gordimer remarks: “They came out of this incredibly distorting society where we go through all sorts of inner convolutions in order to justify the wrongs that we do. . . . But out of this pressure there

come people who are absolutely sure, who feel that they’re not making any kind of evasions at all. They go in and out of prison, they stand up to interrogation; they may be banned or housearrested, but they will not leave South Africa.”

Gordimer, too, refuses to leave South Africa, though she cannot say what she would do if a bloody revolution came. For now, married with two children, she lives in Parktown West, a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg. She serves her passionate belief in the cause with her pen and by speaking out against injus-

tice. Hers was one of the most articulate and moving voices heard at the recent conference on The Writer and Human Rights held in Toronto in aid of Amnesty International.

Her eloquence has made her South Africa’s prose-poet of alienation. Her writing is dazzling in its range: it can be ornate and sensuous, or spare and savagely realistic. Her images are striking: a donkey being senselessly flogged is a symbol of black South Africa; the aspirations of the black population are expressed in a lion’s roar: “the rut of freedom bending the bars of the cage.” Her latest novel, July's People, is set in an imagined post-revolutionary South Africa with the blacks in control of the country. A Liberal white suburban family is rescued from a collapsing Johannesburg by its servant of 15 years, July, to his remote tribal village where he becomes its protector. The novel is not apocalyptic: rather it is an elegy for people “born white pariah dogs in a black continent.”

Does Gordimer sense an earthquake in South Africa’s near future? “I think that there’s a very good chance that South Africa could have a just, nonracial society with a black majority government. And it will come about through the activity of the black unions, which represent a rallying point for peaceful change. But of course I am here skipping the terrible interregnum when this supposed change is going to be arrived at. For the rest, I think that we have to take a Pascaban wager: we don’t have to assume that there is a God; we have to assume that there’s going to be a democracy for all the peoples of South Africa.”

‘You must keep the freedom not to write that lie that's going to die on the page'