Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 175
This long short story is double-plotted; that is, it is actually two stories that enhance and comment on each other. While the story of the events at the Kleynhans place receives the most attention, it is frequently interrupted by abrupt and often darkly comic sections devoted to the ape attacks. Only gradually does it become clear that the two plots are related in that they both illuminate, albeit in very different ways, the cancerous intolerance at the core of South African society.
The characters of Charles, Eddie, Vusi, and especially Joy are fully rounded, replete with complex motivations and very human shortcomings. The white suburbanites of the ape sections, on the other hand, are frequently stereotypes, monsters of egotism and self-absorption whose personalities are exposed rather than developed. Through her manipulation of these interlocking plots, Gordimer manages to mimic in her fiction what she sees the South African government doing in fact: treating one segment of society as a community of responsible, dignified individuals, the other segment as a simpleminded, inflammatory, and potentially dangerous rabble.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2188
With strikes and riots against apartheid once again making headlines all over the world, Nadine Gordimer’s newest collection of stories, Something Out There, takes on a special urgency and relevance. Unlike sociopolitical extremists, however, Gordimer refuses to be led into the simplistic thinking that lies behind political slogans. In this respect, her ninth collection of stories resembles her previous eight, although if one compares Something Out There with her prize-winning collection, Friday’s Footprint (1960), an intensifying of political concern becomes evident. In Friday’s Footprint, nearly all the characters were white, and the tensions of the stories were those between man and wife, or between individual white characters and white society. Something Out There looks more directly at blacks within white South Africa. Nevertheless, Gordimer never deals in abstract political problems and still less in abstract or ideal solutions; rather, she sees all such issues and all those affected by them as complex. This is not to say that she waffles on the moral issues—apartheid is clearly repugnant to her—but she is an artist first and a propagandist not at all. She refuses to identify supporters of the present system with evil or its opponents with good. In Gordimer’s fiction, the human dimension is more important than the political.
The lead story, for example, “A City of the Dead, a City of the Living,” appears for most of its length to be a casual, even aimless description of life in Number 1907, Block C—a government-housing development for blacks. Into the lives of Nanike Moreke and her husband, Sampson, comes Nanike’s cousin Shishonka, a black revolutionary hiding from the authorities because of his participation in the bombing of a police station. Nanike cooperates fully in Shishonka’s precautions against discovery and, then suddenly, on the pretext of going out to buy milk for her baby, reports him to the police. The story is stunning in the casual, meandering way that it leads to this devastating ending, a conclusion that rings true because it is so quintessentially, irrationally human. No motives for Nanike’s actions are offered, though each reader may supply plausible explanations of his own. Such behavior is illogical yet completely understandable. Gordimer risks incurring the reader’s irritation in thus pursuing her truth; she gambles on the ability of her art to transcend racial issues and political propaganda.
In sharp contrast to the naturalistic style of the preceding story is “At the Rendezvous of Victory,” written in the manner of a political fable. The story could be subtitled “A Myth for Our Time,” because the characters and situations are twentieth century archetypes. The protagonist is Sinclair “General Giant” Zwedu, a resourceful bush fighter who succeeds in driving the white colonial government from his African homeland. Like so many revolutionary figures, however, he lacks the political sophistication of lesser men, and after the revolution he is outmaneuvered and relegated to a minor role in the new government, reduced in the process from a man of dignity and bravery to a petty dissolute. His story is emblematic on several levels, reminding the reader that the simple hero—direct, honest, outspoken, slightly naïve—has no role in a world run by wily bureaucrats and political expediency. Whether the citizens of a nation are black or white, their leaders turn out to be gray. This story, incidentally, bears comparison with Gordimer’s novel, A Guest of Honour (1970).
The human effects of the systematically oppressive governments headed by these gray men are explored in “Crimes of Conscience,” reminiscent of John le Carré’s novels in its atmosphere of moral nullity. Alison Ross is a correspondence-school teacher, an occupation that suggests isolation, but her profession is misleading, for Alison is active in a South African civil rights group, not violently revolutionary but motivated by a respect for human dignity and a passion for justice. At a political trial she meets Derek Felterman, recently returned from five years abroad, where he had been recruited by the secret police. Their relationship grows from friendship to intimacy, though he is spying on her. In spite of himself, he becomes sympathetic to her point of view, and one night after making love to her he confesses his treachery. Gordimer’s description of the moment is intensely moving:Her face drew into a moment of concentration akin to the animal world, where a threatened creature can turn into a ball of spikes or take on a fearsome aspect of blown-up muscle and defensive garishness. The moment left her face instantly as it had taken her. He had turned away before it as a man does with a gun in his back. She shuffled across the bed on her haunches and took his head in her hands, holding him.
This passage is especially moving because it is the one moment of emotional heat in a story otherwise detached, cool, and matter-of-fact. Her commitment, his spying, their love life are all presented as parts of the coldly manipulative world in which secret police recruit spies to report on citizens whose only crime is an acute conscience. Though obviously set in South Africa, the story could occur anywhere in the modern world, wherever men and women of principle are assumed to be threats to the existing order. Regrettably, a certain impersonality weakens the impact, for the characters are shown from the outside only, as emblematic rather than individual figures. Shadowy as they are, they make a potent statement, though as more complex characters they might have made a powerful one.
“Blinder” looks at oppression from the black point of view, not by directly attacking government policies but by describing quietly and sympathetically the plight of Rose, a black servant whose lover, Ephraim, is killed in a bus accident. Rose is an alcoholic and lucky, therefore, that her mistress is compassionate and enlightened, concerned enough for her welfare to have tolerated Ephraim and encouraged Rose to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. The lady of the house, as Gordimer calls her, is sensitive and understanding during Rose’s mourning, and in fact the whole family could be called exemplary. Rose is loved and respected by them all—in the same sense that black mammies were in the United States. The evils of this paternalism are not visible through most of the story because the main problem seems to be Rose’s alcoholism, and that appears only tangentially related to race or politics. The reader eventually learns, however, that Ephraim was killed because he had to return to his native village to oversee his family’s interests in a dispute over ancestral lands that the white government suddenly claimed. Thus, the story of Rose and Ephraim turns out to be one of a million incidental tragedies of the white man’s presence in Africa. No one is to blame for the fact that Ephraim had to leave his wife and children, his tribe and traditional homeland, in order to find work in the city, just as no one is to blame for Rose’s alcoholism or the situation which led to her illicit but tacitly approved relationship with a married man. Nevertheless, it is appropriately ironic that in the end, Rose decides to leave her white “family” and join Ephraim’s wife in Umzimkulu.
Some commentators on Gordimer’s fiction have noted the recurrence of betrayal in her works, and indeed it is a unifying link in all the political stories of Something Out There. Behind this theme, however, lies another which seems closer to the heart of these stories—the evils of “the system.” Gordimer does not use this term, but she dramatizes it, making it so much a part of the moral landscape that no character can escape its influence. Apartheid in her fiction resembles atmosphere in Joseph Conrad’s, an indefinable but palpable presence affecting everyone. Gordimer does not naïvely reject all organization, but she subtly exposes the impersonal and mindless way human relationships are damaged by the inevitable conflicts between an unjust social order and its citizens, whether they are among the oppressed or the oppressors. Readers are thus moved to anger or fear in a story such as “A Correspondence Course.” Here again, Gordimer moves indirectly, in this instance examining the lives of Pat Haberman and her daughter Harriet. They are quiet and conscientious, liberal in their sympathies. Harriet’s innocuous article on “Literacy and the Media” draws the attention of Roland Carter, a political prisoner with whom she subsequently corresponds for more than a year. Then, Carter escapes, and suddenly Harriet’s innocent letters link her in police minds and files with a dangerous escapee. The two women secretly cheer his liberation and hope that he has found safety in a bordering country. The police do not even visit the house. Then one morning, Pat, looking for the newspaper, finds a bundle of clothes carefully hidden in the bushes: “In just this way [Harriet] had put out milk for the fairies (or stray cats?) when she was a little girl.” A few evenings later, Roland Carter appears at their door. Recognizing him from a newspaper photograph, Pat retreats into her bedroom, to grieve “for what she had done, done to her darling girl, done for.” In one swift and quiet stroke, Gordimer evokes the terror that accompanies any resistance of the state and its omniscient secret police.
The same nameless fear inhabits the longest and best of these tales, “Something Out There.” Two plots are juxtaposed in this sometimes humorous but ultimately serious study of South African life. In one, a white couple exploits the racial stereotypes and assumptions of the ruling minority to rent a house in the country as cover for two black guerrillas intent on blowing up a power station. In the other, some animal (baboon? escaped chimpanzee?) terrorizes an affluent suburban neighborhood, killing pets, stealing food, scaring the inhabitants and their servants. The monkey is an effective symbol for the unspoken fears that give rise to the laws of apartheid, laws which the revolutionaries are attempting to destroy. The most chilling part of the story occurs after the power station has been damaged and the security police begin their investigation. While city police were unable to deal with the rampaging monkey, the security forces prove alarmingly thorough and effective in tracing the revolutionaries. Once again, much of Gordimer’s effect derives from her ability to depict frightening events with the utmost in stylistic aplomb. The apparent indifference of her tone mirrors a world in which both terrorism and Draconian police have become part of everyday life.
Not all the stories in this collection touch on race and politics. “Letter from His Father” is a brilliant satire cast as a letter from Franz Kafka’s father in response to Kafka’s “Letter to His Father.” Here, the ultimate Jewish father both spurns and takes credit for the accomplishments of his son. “Sins of the Third Age” resembles Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen” in depicting a marriage that appears to succeed by intelligence and common sense but in the end falls victim to the irrational. Other stories in the volume suggest that people have little control over their lives, personal or political, and that to expect human beings to be other than what they always have been is foolish. This idea is extended in a poignant way by “Terminal.” An elderly man and his wife have always promised each other that in case of an incurable illness one would help the other to die quietly and painlessly. The wife, having survived an operation for bowel cancer, cannot tolerate the prospect of living with an unsightly bag at her side. She takes an overdose of sleeping pills, secure in the knowledge that her husband will honor their pact. He does not. Irrational love has overcome reasoned choice, just as in “Sins of the Third Age” it spoiled the retirement plans of Peter and Mania. Betrayal thus takes on a new dimension, becoming in this instance a higher form of loyalty.
Something Out There demonstrates once again that Gordimer is an intelligent, sympathetic, and alert interpreter of her times. How many of these stories will outlast their contemporary relevance? That will depend less on thematic concerns than on style and form, and here matters are not quite so clear. Gordimer has long since mastered short-story technique; her sense of form, rhythm, and timing is superb. In this collection, however, her style seems to have lost its edge a bit. She writes with grace and clarity, and her accustomed lyricism shines through in moments of emotional stress, but for some readers at least these qualities will not compensate for a certain thinness of texture. Explicit statement would sometimes profit from increased suggestiveness and subtlety, just as her admirably sketched characters would engage readers at deeper levels if they were developed in more detail. Perhaps for this reason, the characters in the title story are the most alive and convincing as individuals. Nevertheless, Something Out There demonstrates the vitality of the short-story form and the continuing growth of a significant voice in modern fiction.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63
Sources for Further Study
Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, August 9, 1984, p. 24.
Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1346.
Los Angeles Times. July 31, 1984, V, p. 5.
Ms. XIII, July, 1984, p. 33.
The New York Review of Books. XXXI, August 16, 1984, p. 3.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, July 29, 1984, p. 7.
Newsweek. CIV, July 9, 1984, p. 71.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, April 20, 1984, p. 82.
Time. CXXIV, July 23, 1984, p. 95.
The Wall Street Journal. CCIV, July 9, 1984, p. 22.