What happens to a novelist who becomes the conscience of a nation? Nadine Gordimer, who is now 89 and whose writing career began in the 1940s, has represented the progressive white intelligentsia of South Africa through a large corpus of fiction and essays, exploring personal and political morality with passionate lucidity through the apartheid years and beyond. She has long been internationally admired, winning the Booker Prize with The Conservationist in 1974 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
This latest book, a study of the troubled state of her nation after apartheid, is outspoken and unflinching. Her courage and her moral stature are unquestionable; but as this novel demonstrates on every page, her distinction now appears to be more to do with content than style, and the message has come to count for more than literary skill.
Even so, this is an important and highly topical book about how hard it is to sustain hope and idealism in the wake of a revolution. It revolves around one couple: Jabu, a black woman from a Christian Zulu family and Steve, a white South African whose mother was Jewish, have been together since meeting as students in the bush in Swaziland, on the run from the apartheid regime and dedicated heart and soul to the Struggle. He is an industrial chemist turned academic, who in the past made explosives for sabotage; she is a rising lawyer. Once lovers obliged to marry in secret, when the novel begins they are at last living openly in a rented flat with their baby daughter and starting to build a normal happy life together. Predictably, this is not so easy; there are awkward choices ahead.
Before long they surrender to bourgeois capitalism, buy a house and move to the Suburb, where they are surrounded by old comrades, black and white, with shared values and similar hopes. They make friends with a gay household with a shared swimming pool; their careers prosper, especially hers; they have a son, Gary Elias. Jabu makes regular visits to her admired father, a respected Methodist minister and community leader, and brings Wethu, a cousin, back from the country to help with the children. Steve is taken aback when one of his brothers takes up Judaism in earnest, but the families appear to get along fine, though Gordimer is beady-eyed about the way sister-in-law Brenda proves her lack of prejudice by hugging Jabu whenever possible.
Gradually, the bright dreams of a fairer society are threatened by continuing inequality and increasing violence. One of the comrades is badly injured in a carjacking; Steve’s university grapples with falling educational standards. While poverty increases, former heroes of the Struggle, now leading politicians, feather their own nests. The story of Jabu and Steve’s increasing disillusionment unfolds against the background of the rise of Jacob Zuma and the erosion of the ANC’s moral authority as sexual and corruption charges swirl around him.
For both of them, the national dilemma is as much personal as political. Steve finds himself secretly investigating emigration to Australia, while Jabu is profoundly shocked when her father’s allegiance to Zuma, a fellow Zulu, is unaffected by a rape case. Neither of them, in the end, is prepared to bring up their children in the new South Africa, the society they had fought so hard for but whose leaders they cannot respect.
Gordimer has written an angry, melancholy, brave book. But the reader is obliged to struggle with prose written in convoluted, ungrammatical sentences, part stream-of-consciousness, part interior monologue. What can the following possibly mean? ‘Black is being black that’s all, has been; in some circumstances, still is.’ Or: ‘When he made love he had within the ecstatic ineffable there was perhaps something he was not, could not be aware of’? It must be far from easy to edit a Nobel prizewinner of nearly 90; but it is a great pity that the publishers failed to do so.