In The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer abandons the conventional narrative style in an effort to unravel the personality of her protagonist, Mehring. The story is a character study of a successful South African industrial executive and, by extension, a critique of South Africa. Gordimer uses searching monologues to probe deeply into Mehring’s character, permitting Mehring to reveal himself by invoking flashbacks, memories, and the stream of consciousness.
Geographically, the point of reference is Mehring’s four-hundred-acre farm, where most of the action takes place. There Mehring is observed by the reader in relation to the human and physical landscape. Psychologically, the reference point is Mehring himself. His varied relationships with lovers, friends, and family establish the basis and define the scope of the story.
The novel begins with the discovery by black workers of a dead man on the farm. He is anonymous; no one knows anything of the details of his death, and no one disturbs the body. There he lies, abandoned, yet never entirely forgotten. Gordimer then uses the narrative to expose the shallowness and, what is more, the rootlessness of Mehring’s life. There is little sustained action. What holds the story together is the life of the farm, where the reader slowly comes to know Mehring. Mehring’s black laborers go about their work whether he is there or not. His Boer neighbors remain aloof, suspicious of a rich, amateur “city” farmer, and his lover provokes him with her idealistic, liberal views. The Conservationist, therefore, is a psychological novel, and, as such, it is an expression of the consciousness of Mehring.
Meanwhile, the recurring image of the dead man in a remote corner of the farm remains a symbol, a portent of Mehring’s future and, possibly, that of South Africa.