As the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in twenty-five years, Nadine Gordimer rocketed to universal fame. Such is the power of the prize that in the weeks immediately following its announcement, her books were nearly unattainable, even wholesalers being sold out. In awarding the prize at a time when South Africa was losing its status as international pariah (purportedly Gordimer had been on the “short list” for several years), the Nobel committee may have been hoping to spare South Africa the embarrassment of seeing one of its previously banned authors honored by the world’s most prestigious prize. If that is so, the decision may backfire, for Gordimer has lost none of her moral indignation, and the South Africa depicted in these stories is no different from the one anatomized in her last collection, Something Out There (1984; See Magill’s Literary Annual, 1985).
In interviews given before and after the Nobel Prize was awarded, Gordimer claims that the political dimensions of her work arise because apartheid is an inescapable fact of the life around her, not because she is by nature politically inclined. The stories in this collection support this claim about herself, for politics is more often the leaven of the loaf than the bread itself; politics informs and shapes her plots and characters, and only occasionally does it seem an end in itself. The underlying themes of Gordimer’s short fiction remain what they have been: fear, betrayal, and the distortions of personal relations caused by racial tension and misunderstanding.
The title story, “Jump,” is one of the most overtly political in the collection. Its unnamed protagonist lives alone in a dreary hotel under protective custody. The son of colonial parents, he was arrested by his country’s black government for unwittingly taking photographs of a military installation. Thus radicalized, he joined the disloyal white opposition as a white-collar soldier, a purveyor of arms and intelligence, a pampered bureaucrat coolly supplying the means by which atrocities were perpetrated. He does not himself understand why one day he walked out of the whites’ headquarters and into the enemy’s office, bringing with him a headful of important information. Perhaps it was learning that the planeloads of children brought over the border were not refugees but prisoners supplied to satisfy the lusts of weary soldiers. Whatever the cause, this jump has landed him in cushioned isolation, estranged from his parents, too fearful of reprisals to leave, comforted only by the young girl he found in his room when he arrived. Even in this story, however, the random horror of revolution and counterrevolution is depicted not as a deficiency of ideology but as a failure of morality. One is reminded of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or of Graham Greene’s sordid and soiled moral atmosphere. The only way out for this victim seems to be one final jump—from the top story of his decaying hotel.
As the short story is related to the fable, it is not surprising that Gordimer relies occasionally on this form, as she does in “Once Upon a Time.” A writer, badgered by her publisher for a children’s story, composes a lurid cautionary tale one sleepless night: A family living “happily ever after” slowly but inevitably increases its security system against blacks until finally it is living behind a brick wall topped with razor wire. To this point, the tale has moved with almost dull predictability, but the ending is horrible in its swift and matter-of-fact description of the boy’s mutilation by the very wire that was to protect him. Like most fables, the moral is too overt and the events are too contrived, but the story illustrates if nothing else the effectiveness of the surprise ending.
While “Jump” and “Once Upon a Time” emphasize the punishment oppression inflicts on the oppressors, “The Ultimate Safari” shows graphically its effects on those forced to flee in order to survive. Through the eyes of the eleven-year- old girl who narrates, the reader sees the sufferings of one refugee family. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this story is its lack of melodrama. When troops burn the family’s home and kill the mother, when the grandparents and grandchildren trudge through a game preserve eating less than the protected animals, when the grandfather must be left behind to die if the others are to survive, there is no straining after effect, no piling on of horrific description. The bare facts and stark contrasts are allowed to speak for themselves, as is the narrator’s touchingly desperate optimism that someday all will be restored.
A similar effect is achieved in “Amnesty,” only here the subject is the courtship and marriage of a young black couple. Theirs would be ordinary lives were it not for his increasingly active role in a labor union. Inevitably, he is jailed, leaving his pregnant girlfriend to struggle on her own. Perhaps the most horrific part of the story is the simple bureaucratic callousness that prevents the man’s family members from visiting, even though they have traveled far and spent all their available money, because they neglected to obtain a permit. After five years in prison, he is released, but there can be no “normal” life for them now, as his first commitment is to politics. Her solace, apart from the child, is to contemplate the land that once was hers and to wait for that day when she can “come back home.”
“Home” examines a different level of society, the white professional class, but politics affect it in much the same way, transforming a loving couple into strangers, a trusting husband into a suspicious one, because his wife becomes absorbed in the problems of releasing her jailed mother, brother, and sister-in-law.
Gordimer’s skill at narrative construction shines in “My Father Leaves Home,” a quasiautobiographical story of universal and disturbing implications. The narrator (presumably female) is part of a pheasant-hunting expedition in Eastern Europe, in the unnamed country of her father’s birth. While waiting at a train station, her mind drifts back to the time when her thirteen-year-old father left his village for South Africa, carrying little...
(The entire section is 2571 words.)