Livingstone's Companions Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Livingstone’s Companions” is a somewhat indeterminate story, for it combines two tangential but still related plot interests: Carl Church and his fascination with the lake near the hotel where he is staying, and Dick Palmer’s attempt to break the bonds of his domineering mother. Both these stories are undergirded by Church’s reading the journals of the famous Scottish missionary/explorer of Africa, David Livingstone. Moreover, providing a social background (typical of Nadine Gordimer’s fiction) is the story of the complex relationship between white colonials and indigenous Africans.

The story begins with Church’s bored response to the petty political posturing of the minister of foreign affairs in an anonymous African country, a country, like most in modern Africa, which is newly independent. Church’s story begins with an assignment from his British editor to do a piece on the one hundredth anniversary of the Royal Geographic Society’s sending of a party to search for Livingstone during the 1870’s. Church is told to retrace the steps of Livingstone’s last journey. With this assignment, the central metaphor of the story is established, for although Church—less than delighted with what he considers to be the triviality of such a task—does not retrace Livingstone’s steps literally, he does so psychologically and symbolically.

Church’s journey begins in the airport with a chance meeting with a blond woman who runs a hotel in a neighboring country near the graves of Livingstone’s companions, graves that the woman proprietorially calls “my graves.” The central theme of the story, and that which connects the story of Church with the story of Mrs. Palmer (the hotel proprietor) and her son, is indicated when Church reads from Livingstone’s journal about how a community of interests and perils makes everyone friends. Church says, as though referring to “Livingstone’s Companions,” that such an idea could be the lead for his own story. Indeed, it is the community of interests and perils that connects Church with Dick Palmer and thus with the story of Africa itself.

Church’s involvement with the Palmers begins when he gets lost looking for Livingstone’s trail, stumbles on Mrs. Palmer’s hotel, and meets Dick and Zelide—he wearing diving fins and she dressed in a bikini, as if they were the inhabitants of an ocean world right in the middle of the African bush. Although it is...

(The entire section is 1002 words.)