Near the end of The Conservationist, Mehring is sitting outside on his farm on New Year’s Eve. As he watches the fireworks of the DeBeers and hears the raucous celebrations of his own farmworkers, he also perches precariously on the edge of a tremendous storm—both literally and figuratively. He reflects that it’s possible, just once, on a night like this, to sit at the point where its [the night’s] element ends and the absolutely calm, full-moon-lit element begins. It is really two nights at once; just as midnight will bisect two years.
This moment in the novel perfectly captures the Bakhtinian dialogic quality that many critics see in Nadine Gordimer’s fiction. It is the fault line that anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss sees as simultaneously bifurcating and bringing together past and present and time and space, illuminating and making sense of the real and psychological landscapes. For this work, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, and for The Conservationist, she earned a Booker Prize in Fiction in 1974.
Momentarily teetering on the fulcrum of history, Mehring becomes representative of the pragmatic, coldhearted South African who can see the coming change but has no need or desire to end the injustice of apartheid. Indeed, he becomes the colonizer, the capitalist, and the possessor, a relatively bloodless twentieth century Kurtz. Like novelist Joseph Conrad’s demonic character, Mehring (whose name is German in origin) sees everything as his, though the progress of the novel chronicles the loss of each of these possessions: his wife, mistress, son, and land. Also like Kurtz, Mehring has a complete lack of sexual restraint, seen most vividly in his molestation of the Portuguese girl on the flight from...
(The entire section is 728 words.)