Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773
When published first in The New Yorker (on October 13, 1975), this story was entitled “City Lovers”; the second part was added for publication in A Soldier’s Embrace (1980). The two parts are quite discrete stories, connected only by the central theme.
Part 1 gives a detailed account of the professional and cultural background of Dr. Franz-Josef von Leinsdorf, who has worked in Peru, New Zealand, and the United States in a senior, though not executive capacity, for companies interested in mineral research; his special interest is underground watercourses; his cultural interests are skiing, music appreciation, and reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Though he is thought “not unattractive” by the female employees of the mining company, none has been invited to go out with him; he lives alone in a two-room apartment.
When Leinsdorf cannot find his preferred brand of razor blades, a mulatto cashier offers to see that the stock is replenished before his next visit to the supermarket. On returning home one evening after a trip away, he is told by the cashier that the blades have arrived; because he is burdened with bags and cases, she offers to get them and take them to his apartment. Quite uncomfortably, Leinsdorf offers her a tip, which she declines. He then asks her to come in for a cup of coffee.
Soon, she brings his groceries two or three times a week; he gives her chocolates. She sews a button on his trousers, and he touches her, commenting, “You’re a good girl.” Leinsdorf is impressed by her small and finely made body, her smooth skin, “the subdued satiny colour of certain yellow wood,” and her crepey hair. The two become lovers—first during the afternoons, then overnight; she tells the caretaker that she is Leinsdorf’s servant, and her mother believes the same.
Near Christmas, three police officers arrive and announce that they have been observing Leinsdorf’s apartment over a three-month period and know that he has been living with the mulatto girl. They search the apartment and find her in a bedroom closet. The couple is taken to the police station for a medical examination “for signs of his seed.” Leinsdorf’s lawyer bails them out, and the girl returns to her mother’s house in the colored township nearby. Though she confesses that they have had intercourse, the magistrate acquits both because the authorities failed to prove that carnal intercourse had occurred in violation of the Immorality Act.
Part 2 opens with an account of the childhood association of white, black, and colored children on the farm. This association ends when the white children reach school age, and strict racial segregation is imposed. “The trouble was Paulus Eysendych did not seem to realize that Thebedi was now simply one of the crowd of farm children down at the kraal (village).” The two make love at the riverbed during the summer holidays—sometimes at twilight, sometimes at dawn. When Paulus’s parents are away, he and Thebedi “stayed together whole nights—almost; she had to get away before the house servants, who knew her, came in at dawn.”
When Thebedi is eighteen and Paulus nineteen and preparing to enter veterinary college, a young black man, Njabulo, a bricklayer and laborer, asks Thebedi’s father for permission to marry her. Two months after her marriage, Thebedi gives birth to a daughter. “There was no disgrace in that; among her people it is customary for a young man to make sure, before marriage, that the chosen girl is not barren.” The child, however, is very light skinned and has “straight, fine floss,” whereas both Thebedi and Njabulo were matt black. Two weeks later, Paulus returned from college and, hearing about Thebedi’s baby, visited the kraal to see it, with its “spidery pink hands.”
Paulus, ascertaining that Thebedi has not taken the baby to the main farmhouse, suggests that she give it away; then, saying, “I feel like killing myself,” he walks out. Two days later, the child is ill with diarrhea, and during the night it dies.
Njabulo buries the baby, but because someone had reported that the baby was almost white and healthy, the police arrive and disinter the corpse. Paulus is charged with murder; Thebedi, at the preliminary investigation, says that she saw him pour liquid into the child’s mouth (though she had remained outside the hut when Paulus entered to see the baby). At the court trial, Thebedi recants and the court—finding absence of proof that the child was in fact Paulus’s and noting the perjury of Thebedi at one of the trials—declares Paulus not guilty.
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