Six Feet of the Country

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

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Even if South Africa were not in the news, these seven stories would make excellent reading: Nadine Gordimer is simply one of the finest short story writers in the English-speaking world. SIX FEET OF THE COUNTRY is a collection of her best short stories from previously published books, and here one receives a generous sampling of her narrative style, a mixture of the best to be found in writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, and O. Henry. She is in constant control of her medium; every word seems measured and precise.

Each of these stories turns--somewhat ironically--on a bizarre encounter between a black and white resident of South Africa, separated as they are by laws, culture, language, and traditions. In the title story, “Six Feet of the Country,” a young black boy is taken to the morgue after he dies from exposure. When his relatives claim the body, they discover that the wrong body is in the casket. They appeal to their white employer, who happens along at the awkward moment of the burial. He, in turn, petitions government officials and acts as a sort of liaison between the poor blacks and officialdom in Johannesburg. In the end, the body is never recovered, but the whiteman finds himself in an odd and ambiguous position, an unwilling representative of a government bureaucracy which neither he nor his employees understand.

Sexual relations are always complicated, but interracial affairs in South Africa are especially dangerous and cumbersome. In “Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,” a white widow becomes unwittingly involved with a seedy white criminal, and in her confusion adopts a black man as her confidant. Ultimately, the black man saves them all by deftly sending the white suitor on his way--he understands the implications of the affair far better than the shallow white woman. “City Lovers” and “Country Lovers,” a pair of stories obviously intended as companion pieces, clearly demonstrate the tragic consequences for lovers who dare to cross the color-line. Both stories depict an affair between a white man and a black woman; both culminate in an ugly trial. The whites are exonerated, while the black women are abandoned to their confusion and bitterness. In each affair, good intentions become lethal once the couple is discovered.

All these stories are sustained by a wondrous sense of place, by intensely vivid descriptions of the South African land itself. Gordimer is a memorable storyteller because she never descends to the level of cheap satire or easy irony; she writes wisely and compassionately about the tragic and perplexing contradictions of her own native land. As with all great writers, her subject, finally, is the human condition itself.