By Karin Magdalena Brink
DURING the performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Nadine Gordimer recognised the discrepancy between the black community in the audience and the life staged in the play before their eyes.
The experience opened Gordimer’s eyes to her own existence as part of the white community of her parents. This incident stood in a line of some others that contributed to her awakening to the true reality of her country – South Africa, not Great Britain.
Reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), which depicts the inhuman conditions of the Chicago meat-packing industry around the turn of the twentieth century, also had a great impact on her understanding of the circumstances of the black mine workers in the area she lived in. She became aware of the similarities between the predicaments of exploitation of these workers and the meat packers in Sinclair’s novel.
She recalls: it was “the beginning of an autodidactic course in political awareness, brought to me through the relation between the ‘literature of conscience’ and my experience of the life around me, within me, as a white in a racist country”. This “course in political awareness” continued with other novels such as EM Foster’s A Passage to India (1922-4).
In the 1950s, when Gordimer was involved in the making of the famous Drum magazine, working along and making friends with black fellow writers, and starting to publish on a very regular basis, South Africa witnessed the introduction to more and more segregation laws.
JM Coetzee once said that the origins of these laws “lie in fear and denial:
denial of an unacknowledgeable desire to embrace Africa, embrace the body of Africa; and fear of being embraced in return by Africa.” At the same time as the country was moving further and further away from that embrace, Gordimer was encompassing it more and more fully.
In the following decades she dedicated herself to exposing the injustices of her world and to bringing about change. Her dedication to literature and human rights has been honoured with the Nobel Prize in 1991. Three years later, with the first free democratic elections in 1994 and with Nelson Mandela inaugurated as the new President, Gordimer experienced another, third, birth as a postcolonial citizen:
It is not only in religious sense that one may be born again. In 1994 the struggle, the final process of decolonisation was achieved, after decades when the end receded again and again. In April 1994 all South Africans of all colours went to the polls and voted into power their own government, for the first time. There are now no overlords and underlings in the eyes of the law.
What this means to our millions is something beyond price or reckoning that we know we shall have to work to put into practice, just as we worked for liberation. We know we have to perform what Flaubert called ‘the most difficult and least glamorous of all tasks: transition.’ This is the reality of freedom. This is the great matter.
I am a small matter; but for myself there is something immediate, extraordinary, of strong personal meaning. That other world that was the world is no longer the world. My country is the world, whole, a synthesis. I am no longer a colonial. I may now speak of ‘my people’.
After 1994 and her third birth, Gordimer remained true to her vocation. She turned away predominantly from the South Africa of the apartheid days, although it always does lurk in the background, and started writing about the New South Africa. Many of her contemporaries return to the subjects of apartheid’s past, but her fiction records the issues and problems the democracy is facing in the present, thus performing what Elleke Boehmer sees as one of the functions of postcolonial literature: to aid independent countries in “the process of national self-making in story and symbol [, in what] is often called imagining the nation.” Because, as Boehmer writes, “[e]very new instance of independence […] required that the nation be reconstructed in the collective imagination; or that the identity be symbolised anew. […F]ictional narrative, with its potential to compose alternative realities and inscribe new origins and historical trajectories, provided a rich medium for the purpose.”
In 1989, JM Coetzee applied Anna Akhmatova’s phrase about the artist as “a visitor from the future” to Gordimer’s writing of the 1970s and 1980s. I would like to extend this designation to her writing since the 1990s, especially the works written after 1994. The phrase still captures one of Gordimer’s most fascinating literary qualities. She is an acute observer and a sharp analyst. By meticulously recording the life around her, she not only tells and re-tells the past and the present, but often – one suspects unconsciously – points to conditions and concerns, which might become relevant in the future.
In 1975, in retrospect, Gordimer herself recognised this ability in her writing.
Referring to her novel The Conservationist (1974), she wrote to her friend and publisher Ruth Weiss that it was “prophetic”. Thus, it is almost with a sense of foreboding that we witness, already in her Gordimer’s first post-apartheid novel, None to Accompany Me (1994), her observations on the crucial role the lack of personal and political responsibility will play in the evolution of the new democracy, or in her latest novel, Get a Life (2005), her awareness of the crisis South Africa might be facing if it does not confront its environmental issues.
To be continued next week.