With strikes and riots against apartheid once again making headlines all over the world, Nadine Gordimer’s newest collection of stories, Something Out There, takes on a special urgency and relevance. Unlike sociopolitical extremists, however, Gordimer refuses to be led into the simplistic thinking that lies behind political slogans. In this respect, her ninth collection of stories resembles her previous eight, although if one compares Something Out There with her prize-winning collection, Friday’s Footprint (1960), an intensifying of political concern becomes evident. In Friday’s Footprint, nearly all the characters were white, and the tensions of the stories were those between man and wife, or between individual white characters and white society. Something Out There looks more directly at blacks within white South Africa. Nevertheless, Gordimer never deals in abstract political problems and still less in abstract or ideal solutions; rather, she sees all such issues and all those affected by them as complex. This is not to say that she waffles on the moral issues—apartheid is clearly repugnant to her—but she is an artist first and a propagandist not at all. She refuses to identify supporters of the present system with evil or its opponents with good. In Gordimer’s fiction, the human dimension is more important than the political.
The lead story, for example, “A City of the Dead, a City of the Living,” appears for most of its length to be a casual, even aimless description of life in Number 1907, Block C—a government-housing development for blacks. Into the lives of Nanike Moreke and her husband, Sampson, comes Nanike’s cousin Shishonka, a black revolutionary hiding from the authorities because of his participation in the bombing of a police station. Nanike cooperates fully in Shishonka’s precautions against discovery and, then suddenly, on the pretext of going out to buy milk for her baby, reports him to the police. The story is stunning in the casual, meandering way that it leads to this devastating ending, a conclusion that rings true because it is so quintessentially, irrationally human. No motives for Nanike’s actions are offered, though each reader may supply plausible explanations of his own. Such behavior is illogical yet completely understandable. Gordimer risks incurring the reader’s irritation in thus pursuing her truth; she gambles on the ability of her art to transcend racial issues and political propaganda.
In sharp contrast to the naturalistic style of the preceding story is “At the Rendezvous of Victory,” written in the manner of a political fable. The story could be subtitled “A Myth for Our Time,” because the characters and situations are twentieth century archetypes. The protagonist is Sinclair “General Giant” Zwedu, a resourceful bush fighter who succeeds in driving the white colonial government from his African homeland. Like so many revolutionary figures, however, he lacks the political sophistication of lesser men, and after the revolution he is outmaneuvered and relegated to a minor role in the new government, reduced in the process from a man of dignity and bravery to a petty dissolute. His story is emblematic on several levels, reminding the reader that the simple hero—direct, honest, outspoken, slightly naïve—has no role in a world run by wily bureaucrats and political expediency. Whether the citizens of a nation are black or white, their leaders turn out to be gray. This story, incidentally, bears comparison with Gordimer’s novel, A Guest of Honour (1970).
The human effects of the systematically oppressive governments headed by these gray men are explored in “Crimes of Conscience,” reminiscent of John le Carré’s novels in its atmosphere of moral nullity. Alison Ross is a correspondence-school teacher, an occupation that suggests isolation, but her profession is misleading, for Alison is active in a South African civil rights group, not violently revolutionary but motivated by a respect for human dignity and a passion for justice. At a political trial she meets Derek Felterman, recently returned from five years abroad, where he had been recruited by the secret police. Their relationship grows from friendship to intimacy, though he is spying on her. In spite of himself, he becomes sympathetic to her point of view, and one night after making love to her he confesses his treachery. Gordimer’s description of the moment is intensely moving:Her face drew into a moment of concentration akin to the animal world, where a threatened creature can turn into a ball of spikes or take on a fearsome aspect of blown-up muscle and defensive garishness. The moment left her face instantly as it had taken her. He had turned away before it as a man does with a gun in his back. She shuffled across the bed on her haunches and took his head in her hands, holding him.
This passage is especially moving because it is the one moment of emotional heat in a story otherwise detached, cool, and matter-of-fact. Her commitment, his spying, their love life are all presented as parts of the coldly manipulative world in which secret police recruit spies to report on citizens whose only crime is an acute conscience. Though obviously set in South Africa, the story could occur anywhere in the modern world, wherever...