Burger's Daughter

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Nadine Gordimer weaves a number of themes together in this book to produce a moving narrative which dramatizes the cost of South Africa’s racist social policies. The setting is the segregated society of South Africa in all its complexity. With spies for the white government everywhere, life is a constant struggle within rigid limitations on personal movement, personal relationships, and social and professional opportunities. Against this backdrop we meet Lionel Burger, a doctor turned Communist, who early in the book dies in prison where he is being held for his efforts in behalf of black liberation. His death leaves his daughter alone in the world, her mother having died earlier as a consequence of her own imprisonment on similar charges.

Rosa, faced with all the usual complexities of growing up and finding her own sense of identity, discovers that her personal problems are complicated by her status as the daughter of a hero, since she is the object of constant government surveillance. Trained from youth in the complex need for duplicity and secrecy, Rosa finds that her own life must be surrounded by a web of deceit. As a result, she finds that she cannot attain the kind of self-expression that is her right as a human being. She is not free to be spontaneous; every action must be guarded and self-consciously planned in terms of how it will appear to others. Not sure that she shares her parents’ dedication to the black cause, she finds that others expect this of her. Unable to embrace her past, she learns that she cannot escape it either, since she is forbidden to leave the country.

At the end of a long effort, she finally gains a one-year travel permit to go to Europe, as long as she avoids contact with people whom the government has reason to suspect of antigovernment sympathies. While in Europe, she discovers what it is like to live in a country where one does not have to be ashamed of a white skin. She also discovers new perspectives on her past when she visits a woman who was married to her father before he married her mother. Here, also, she meets and becomes the lover of Bernard, through whom she finds a sense of self, as well as the space and time to feel and think for herself, to experience...

(The entire section is 912 words.)