In the first paragraph of A Sport of Nature, the novel’s protagonist changes her name from Kim to Hillela, thus making the first of many alterations in her identity and character. In the chapters that follow, she grows from schoolgirl to woman, from apolitical observer to activist, from passive mistress to active wife and a considerable behind-the-scenes power in her own right. She is thus at once a particular woman and an embodiment of the liberation movement. As a woman she is an outsider, the more so being half Jewish. Because her mother has run off with another man and her father is a traveling salesman, she is reared by her aunts: Olga, the rich socialite, and Pauline, the political activist. Gordimer has thus made her heroine a stranger in a strange land.
Beautiful, sexually gifted, self-sufficient, Hillela is a modern Moll Flanders, a picara making her way through every level of society without becoming attached to any class. Unlike the typical picaresque heroine, however, she is strangely passive and lacking in energy. She drifts from place to place and man to man, living with equal unconcern in an ambassador’s mansion or a revolutionary’s hovel. She makes her living in every way possible: encyclopedia saleswoman, receptionist, retail clerk, model, nanny, go-go dancer, revolutionary, lecturer, mistress, wife. These occupations and roles seem to happen to her, as if she were the vessel into which they were poured; yet in spite of this apparent passivity, she is neither the author’s marionette nor the captive prey of any of the men she beds or the causes she joins. While she appears to be carried along by the currents of life, she is in fact a solitary swimmer of extraordinary inner strength and a sure sense of who she is, even though she lacks the conventional trappings of identity.
Because this is a novel of South Africa, the current in which Hillela drifts is that of race and politics. Events in her life are dated by reference to politics. On the day of her first driving lesson, a republic is declared; Covenant Day, 1961, finds her in a new job; Nkrumah is toppled as her first child is born. Thus, in spite of her naïveté (through much of the novel she resembles Cunegonde more than Moll Flanders), events and liaisons pull her into politics, first as a radical hanger-on, later as a full-fledged revolutionary. Her commitment, like her love affairs, seems cool and natural rather than passionate or intellectual. Reared in a racist society, she has no traces of racial feeling; surrounded by ideologues, she embraces no ideology. As her first husband observes, “With her, it was already one world; what could be.” Her politics are supremely pragmatic—or so the reader might infer, being seldom privy to her thoughts. At every level, in fact, Hillela remains a mystery.
The novel derives much of its appeal and strength from the enigmas of Hillela’s life and character. The devious twists and turns of her career and the chameleonlike way in which she can adapt to any environment are fascinating. At the same time, her political awareness matures as she finds herself an exile from South Africa and then by degrees an increasingly active and effective member of black nationalist movements. Through her the inner workings of revolution are brought to light: running and hiding, retreating to the jungle, settling factional quarrels, arguing political theory, training in weapons use and traffic, raising money and public consciousness.
What is missing is a sense of passion. Except for a dark period following the assassination of her first husband and the miscarriage of her second baby, Hillela is presented as even-keeled in her emotions. The psychologist for whom she briefly works calls her “too normal.” Whether she is making love or revolutionary speeches, she seems to glow or smolder but not catch fire. When, for example, the apartment she shares with Andrew Rey is ransacked by the South African police, “there was fear to be seen in her shiny, opaque black eyes.” Yet her fear is only thus mentioned—in the passive voice—not described or dramatized. Much of the novel is in this vein.
Gordimer’s narrative stance and delivery are something of a puzzle. The overall pace of the book is swift and...
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