A sharply observed new novel about post-apartheid South Africa from the Nobel Prize winner
Nadine Gordimer is one of our most telling contemporary writers. With each new work, she attacks—with a clear-eyed fierceness, a lack of sentimentality, and a deep understanding of the darkest depths of the human soul—her eternal themes: the inextricable link between personal and communal history; the inescapable moral ambiguities of daily life; the political and racial tensions that persist in her homeland, South Africa. And in each new work is fresh evidence of her literary genius: in the sharpness of her psychological insights, the stark beauty of her language, the complexity of her characters, and the difficult choices with which they are faced.
In No Time Like the Present, Gordimer trains her keen eye on Steve and Jabulile, an interracial couple living in a newly, tentatively, free South Africa. They have a daughter, Sindiswa; they move to the suburbs; Steve becomes a lecturer at a university; Jabulile trains to become a lawyer; there is another child, a boy this time. There is nothing so extraordinary about their lives, and yet, in telling their story and the stories of their friends and families, Gordimer manages to capture the tortured, fragmented essence of a nation struggling to define itself post-apartheid.
The subject is contemporary, but Gordimer’s treatment is, as ever, timeless. In No Time Like the Present, she shows herself once again a master novelist, at the height of her prodigious powers.
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Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is the author of fourteen novels, more than ten volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There was a Pleistocene Age, a Bronze Age, an Iron Age.
It seemed an Age was over. Surely nothing less than a New Age when the law is not promulgated on pigment, anyone may live and move and work anywhere in a country commonly theirs. Something with the conventional title ‘Constitution’ ?ung this open wide. Only a grandiose vocabulary can contain the meaning for the millions who had none recognised of the rights that go by the word freedom.
The consequences are many among the aspects of human relationships that used to be restricted by decree. On the tenants’ mailboxes there are some African names: a doctor, a lecturer at a university and a woman making a career for herself in the opportunity of business. Jabulile and Steve could go to the cinema, eat in restaurants, stay in hotels together. When she gave birth to their daughter this was in a clinic where she would not have been admitted—before. It’s a normal life, not a miracle. It was made by human struggle.
He had been interested in science from an early childhood and studied industrial chemistry at university. His parents saw this as at least some hope of antidote, insurance for his future in contrast to the leftist activities against the regime that led to his disappearing apparently over the border somewhere for periods; he would have a respectable profession. They were never to know how useful his knowledge of chemical elements was to the group who were learning how to make explosives for targets such as power installations. When he graduated, the junior post he found in a large paint factory was indeed a useful cover for a suspect way of life, political and sexual.
Ambition. Wasn’t a time, then, to think about what you really might want to do with your life. The compass within swung the needle ?rmly back to the single pole—until the distortion of human life in common was ended, there was no space for meaning in personal achievement, climb Mount Everest or get rich, all cop-outs from reality, indecent sign of being on the side of no change.
Now there was no reason why he should continue to research advances in the durability of paint for new varieties of construction and decorative purposes, from rooftops to jukeboxes, bedrooms to sports convertibles. He supposed he could have returned to a university to further his knowledge of other branches of chemistry and physics, not con?ned to appearances. But there was a child for whom he and she had to provide a home. He did his work well anyway without much interest, there was no spice left as there had been in knowing that at the same time as (literally) keeping up appearances for white industry he was making explosives to blow up the regime. The ?rm had a number of countrywide branches, he was advanced in this one, the headquarters where he had begun. If he didn’t make a decision, as he kept considering, to reconsider test-tube chemistry and move into the other kind, between humans, non-governmental, non-pro?t making, he worked part-time voluntarily on a commission for land claims of communities dispossessed under the past regime. She studied by correspondence, economics and law, and was volunteer secretary to a women’s action group against woman and child abuse. Their small Sindiswa was in day care; what little time was left they spent with her.
They were sitting on their Glengrove Place balcony just after sunset among the racks of child’s clothes draped to dry. A motorbike ripped the street like a sheet of paper roughly torn.
Both looked up from companionable silence, her mouth slewed, the curve of the brows pencilled on her smooth fore- head ?own up. It was time for the news; the radio lay on the ?oor with his beer. But instead he spoke.
—We should move. What d’you think. Have a house.—
—Wha’d’ you mean—
He’s smiling almost patronisingly. —What I say. House—
—We don’t have money.—
—I’m not talking about buying. Renting a house somewhere.—
She half-circled her head, trying to follow his thought.
—One of the suburbs where whites have switched to town house enclosures. A few comrades have found places to rent.—
—Peter Mkize, I think. Isa and Jake.—
—Have you been there?—
—Of course not. But Jake was saying when we were at the Commission on Thursday, they’re renting near a good school where their boys could go.—
—Sindiswa doesn’t need a school.— She laughed and as if in a derisive agreement the child hiccupped over the biscuit she was eating.
—He says the streets are quiet.—
So it is the motorbike that has ripped open the thought.
—Old trees there.—
You never know when you’ve rid yourself of the trappings of outdated life, come back subconsciously: it’s some privileges of the white suburb where he grew up that come to her man now. He doesn’t know—she does—lying in his mind it’s the Reed home whose segregation from reality he has left behind for ever. How could she not understand: right there in the midst of enacting her freedom independence, when one of her brothers, the elder of course, dismisses her opinion of some
family conduct directed by custom, she ?nds what her studies by correspondence would call an atavistic voice of submission replacing the one in her throat.
He is saying as he lifts Sindiswa ?ying high on the way to bedtime (fathering is something the older generation, white and black, segregated themselves from)—She’ll need a good school nearby soon enough.—
In the dark, withheld hours of quiet, two, three, in the morning, you don’t know what is going on in the mind-rhythm of the one breathing beside you. Maybe there tore through the unconscious an echo of what prompted the idea that sunset a week—some days—ago.
Jake Anderson calls to ask whether he and Isa had been forgotten lately, would their comrades come by on Sunday— whether this was prompted by he who slept against her, she wasn’t told. Anyway, it meant that they bundled Sindiswa and a couple of bottles of wine into the car and took the free- way to an exit unfamiliar. It debouched on streets brooded over by straggly pepper trees drooping their age and what must be jacarandas, but not in bloom, whose roots humped the pavements. The houses all revealed somewhere in their improvements their origin: front stoep, room ranged on either side under rigid tin roof, although some had additions, sliding glass-fronted, somehow achieved in the space of each narrow plot within walls or creeper-covered fences de?ning the limit between neighbours. Apparently following Jake’s directions Steve slowed at what appeared to be a small red-brick church peaking among the houses, but as he drove past to take a left turn, revealed a swimming pool contrived where the church porch must have been, and three or four young men or perhaps determinedly youthful older ones, in G-string swimming briefs were dancing and tackling one another in the water to the sound of loud reggae. In the small gardens of other houses there were the expected bicycles, garden chairs and barbeque jumble. Jake’s was one of them. The standard stoep had been extended by a pergola sheltered by a grape vine. There was a car and a motorbike in the street at the gate, a party evidently. Well, no, just a few comrades remembering to get together, out of the different paths their lives were taking.
They’re all young but it’s as if they are old men living in the past, there everything happened. Their experience of life de?ned: now is everything after. Detention cells, the anecdotes from camp in Angola, the misunderstanding with the Cubans who came—so determinately, idealistically brave— to support this Struggle at the risk of their own lives, the clash of personalities, personal habits in the isolation of cadres, all contained by comradeship of danger, the presence of death eavesdropping always close by in the desert, the bush. Peter Mkize is at this Sunday gathering, taking a hand at expertly turning chops and sausages on the charcoal grill under the grape vine, a beer in the other hand. His brother was one of those who were captured and killed, their dismembered bodies burned at a braaivleis by drunken white South African soldiers and thrown into the Komati River, a frontier between this country and Mozambique. That history, may it not come back to him as he ?ips over the spitting sausages for the comrades.
Now everything is after.
Steve feels a breath of rejection lifting his lungs. What they did then, some of those present much braver and enduring hell beyond anything he risked, anything Jabu, herself black, inevitable victim, took on—it can’t be the sum of life experience? To close away from this he tosses a personal distraction.
—Jake, where’s the house you were telling me about. Like to have a look at it.—
—Sure, plenty time. Have another glass of this great wine you brought, while the sun goes down.—
Jabulile smiles, the patronage of intimacy. —He has a sudden urge to move.—
Move on. Yes, let’s move on. —Is it in this street?—
—No, but we’ll still be neighbours. It’s a couple of houses down from where you turned to our street.—
—Before that weird-looking place that looks as if it was a church? There were some guys dancing in a mini pool there.—
—Was a church, this is an old ware Boer suburb, no Kaf?rs allowed to come to Jesus at the altar of apartheid, blankes alleen.—
Everyone laughing release from the past. Spread hands thrown up and head dropped in mock responsibility for the guilt of the generation of his mother and father, Pierre du Preez is the one who arrived on the caparisoned motorcycle parked outside, as elaborately accoutred as some royal carriage, ?ashing ?anks, sculptured saddle, festooned with ?asks and gauges. He’s an Afrikaner who no more takes offence at the gibes than Mkize does at the outlawed word, Kaf?r.
—Who are the frolicking owners who’ve taken over?—
Pierre answers whomever’s question. —It’s one of our gay families.—
More laughter—this is the ?nal blasphemy, housed.
Jake signals to Steve, leaving Isa to take care of the comrades. Jabu in turn signals she is enjoying herself and doesn’t want to be interrupted but Steve’s arm goes gently decisive around her and the three move unnoticed to follow past the church swimming pool to the next street to look at the house with FOR SALE TO LET board on the wall.
—Shit, it seems it’s not a show day, usually at weekends
. . . where’s the agent got to? I hope it hasn’t been snapped up since I told you.—
—Live behind a spiked wall.— Steve hasn’t counted on that.
Through the pattern of the wrought-iron gate they saw something of what is behind it. There is a modest representation of the setting of the house he grew up in: a rockery with aloes in ?ower, a jacaranda tree, a neat mat of lawn either side of a path to steps and the front door. No clue to the previous inhabitants—oh, except a rusted braaivleis grill and a kennel with half the roof missing.
—There’s a garage at the back, another gate and, believe it or not, an old chicken run.— Jake is standing in for an estate agent’s hard sell, in his purpose of making some kind of community out of dispersed comrades, in this suburb claimed against the past.
Back at Glengrove Place Steve holds a towel ready while Jabu coaxes their small girl out of the bath. In the steam haze his voice is softened as re?ection rather than question, he doesn’t want to press her.
—What do you think of it?—
The gathering, the house, the church as gay commune something to laugh about together; and something not to be avoided, the practical future there was no time to think about from Glengrove asylum, before.
She’s a clear-headed person always capable of occupying her hands in some task while active elsewhere in her mind. —It’s a nice house, far as you can tell from the outside.—
—Of course I’ll get the estate agent to take us, or give us the keys, that’d be better, next week. But the set-up, the place.—
—How can I say. I don’t have any comparison, I mean I’ve never lived in such places, suburbs, whatever, have I.— Smiling, whether at the wriggling child she was patting dry, or for him.
—I rather like the idea.— He doesn’t have to explain, taking over from the Boere, if even Pierre welcomed the displacement of his own clan, although everyone is supposed to live together, no ghettos, luxurious or new black-and-white middle class.
Alone, if you can be said to be while those whose being you share are somewhere close by in kitchen or bedroom; not lonely, he wonders whether he really wants to prolong in some way the intimacy between comrades that was survival in detention or the bush, there’s a resistance to nostalgia. And at the same time self-reproach; what will there ever be like the bonds between cadres, the rest will always be strangers.
Jake gave him the name of the estate agent and offered to accompany them to enter the house, but they wanted to be without anyone else’s observations and went, after work, with Sindiswa; after all, without offering any opinion, she would be subject to any decision made. He found the bedrooms poky, you could knock out the windows and put in something more generous with light. There was a red-brick ?replace thirties- style in the living room and space enough for a good-sized table and chairs along with sofa, television and so on. A rather shaky sliding door, obviously an improvement on the enclosing box that was the original room, opened onto another improvement, a small terrace. They were pleased to walk out and ?nd shrubs beyond that half-hid the wall that was over- hung with shade from a neighbour’s tree —Acacia.— But she was not interested in the identi?cation. As a kid given every advantage he was taken to plant nurseries with his father and learnt to match botanical names to certain trunks, leaves and bark. She had learnt on walks with her grandmother in the forests of Zululand what wild fruits were safe and good to eat.
The kitchen was a surprise. She tried the four plates on the big electric stove—no result. —Just that the current’s cut off, of course.— He reassured, opening cupboards. They moved their feet approvingly on the tiled ?oor; Jabu peered into the shelves to con?rm capacity. The bathroom had a shower stall as well as a large tub, not bad, ay? The paint through- out was in good condition although candy pink in what was supposed to the main bedroom made him groan. —We could put a lick of white over it, I suppose—I don’t know if you’re allowed to make any changes in a house you rent?— They toured the rooms again, hand in hand with Sindiswa. —She’d have her own room, toys and all her gear— Jabu touched her head against his shoulder a moment; at Glengrove Place they shared the single bedroom with the child, strange to make love with even a sentient in the room; who knew how much a young child is aware of, perhaps the cries of pleasure sound fearful to an emerging awareness. They checked the sliding door to the terrace and locked the front door behind them in unspoken accord.
But next morning, the reality of Monday, driving the child to the day-care centre—Jabu took a bus to her school from there while he went on to the city—putting a hand down on the keys in his pocket —I’ll go to the agency and sign for us.—
She drew her lips hidden between her teeth, her familiar gesture of acceptance. When she got out of the car to deliver Sindi, suddenly kissed him. Coming back to the car, her eyes were held narrowed as if she were seeing some inner vision. He read it as, we’ll be happy there.
Decisions always divide into practice. They had to give noti...
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