Nadine Gordimer: Life Times: Stories 1952-2007

Apartheid and beyond


By Rosemary Friedman
Bloomsbury £30

Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, devotes most of the 38 stories in this volume to a multi-faceted exploration of the coarsening effects apartheid had on black, coloured and white people alike. Yet, however fraught the situation, she never allows the political to obscure the personal - someone always remembers milk for the cat.

Brought up in apartheid South Africa by her Russian-Jewish father - who went to synagogue only on Yom Kippur - and her London-born mother - who identified more with the Presbyterian congregation, never to drink from a cup one of their black servants had used - it took Nadine some time to realise that the laws keeping the races apart were man-made rather than God-given.

In Town and Country Lovers, two couples find themselves in trouble with the law when they fall in love with someone of the wrong skin colour. In the town, the solitary academic is drawn to the light-coloured check-out girl: "She was rather small and finely made, for one of them…" In the country, the Afrikaner boy continues to love the little black girl he played with as a toddler until he is confronted by the fact that she has borne him a child.

In Through Times and Distance, the successful, Jewish, travelling salesman is suddenly abandoned by the black boy who has been his faithful assistant when they are held up by a violent group protesting against the pass laws.

In The Smell of Death and Flowers, a white girl at a mixed-race party is astonished she feels nothing out of the ordinary when dancing with a black man. Later, when she takes part in a multi-racial anti-apartheid demonstration, her years of upbringing with "the colourless formula of good manners… serves to stifle fear."

In Not for Publication, the bright black boy, educated to become "someone who will turn out to be a politician without challenging the tribal system", is stretched beyond endurance and disappears just as he is expected to do brilliantly in his examinations.

Surprises include the autobiography of a tapeworm - Tape measure - and, most memorable, Letter from his Father in which Hermann Kafka is writing from beyond the grave to his equally dead son regretting that they did not know and like each other better when alive: "You were not blessed to bring happiness to this world with your genius, my son… I didn't find it easy to understand your kind of writing, it was all strange to me… We had some good times, didn't we? Franz? When we had beer and sausages after the swimming lessons? At least you remembered the beer and sausages when you were dying."

Kafka appears again briefly in the last, most recent story Second Coming in which Jesus in jeans walks through a desolate, depopulated world "… there is no life in the seas. No fish to come a second time, begin again evolution, become human on one of the planets of the six-day Creation."

Perhaps it is up to us readers of this renowned, courageous writer to help disprove that pessimistic conclusion.

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