Love and activism in a South African 'coloured' family

November 04, 1990|By ANNE WHITEHOUSE

My Son's Story.

Nadine Gordimer.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

277 pages. $19.95. Nadine Gordimer's 10th novel, the story of a "coloured" political activist's family in South Africa, deals with her hallmark themes of love and politics and displays her penchant for writing through characters very different from herself. Sonny, a self-educated schoolteacher with a love of Shakespeare and Kafka, and his dutiful, lovely wife, Aila, are soberly dedicated to responsibility and self-improvement. They have two children, a vivacious daughter known by her childhood nickname of Baby (just as her father is known by his) and a quieter, more studious son, Will.

Will, not Sonny, is the "son" of the title. The novel alternatebetween Will's first-person observations and omniscient, third-person narrative. When Will was a child, Sonny declared that his son one day would be a writer. At the end of the novel, Will reveals that what he has been telling us is not only written but intended as a book, "my first book -- that I can never publish."

However, "My Son's Story" (which, of course, is published) imore than Will's book, and luckily it transcends this conceit. The novel opens with 15-year-old Will's shocking discovery that his father has a white mistress -- a young, blond human rights activist named Hannah Plowman who monitored Sonny's trial on political charges and maintained contact with him when he was serving a two-year prison sentence. Out of love and concern for his mother, Will keeps his father's secret; he reacts to the affair with a furious resentment that sets the tone for his account.

The novel moves both forward from Will's recognition an backward, revealing Sonny's evolution from a schoolteacher in the township of Benoni to a leader in the liberation movement. Sonny defies the laws of apartheid by moving his family to a white Johannesburg suburb and becomes a sought-after orator at political meetings and demonstrations.

If "My Son's Story" resembles a pendulum, Ms. Gordimer alsconveys a sense of circling in ever closer to her characters' complex motivations and the perplexing, contradictory truths of their lives. The adolescent son's "sulky defensiveness, disdain -- and jealousy," while often insightful, provides a counterpart to her empathetic, believable portrayal of Sonny and Hannah's love affair. The secrecy required by his political activities and the isolation of prison make Sonny feel he has developed beyond Aila and their marriage based on the "simple reverence for living useful lives." He experiences his love for Hannah as a deep need: "sexual happiness and political commitment were one."

Gradually Will realizes that his mother and sister are equallaware of his father's infidelity. Just as Ms. Gordimer traced the effects of Sonny's political activism on his family, so, too, does she chart the effects of this love affair. What gives her novel its drama and its grandeur is her ability, once she has established the truth of her situation, to call it entirely into question. As Sonny leads his double life, Baby, Will and especially Aila transform beyond him in ways that force him to reassess all that he has taken for granted.

In sudden reversals and recognitions, Ms. Gordimer achieves sense of balance and justice, as her characters "obey the other law of life [besides love]: moving on." Sonny, who had been so certain that the center of his emotional life lay with Hannah, is led to wonder if he has been deceiving himself all along.

Although the writing seems uneven at times, ranging from the beautifully to the awkwardly phrased, Ms. Gordimer's depictions Sonny, Aila and Hannah in particular have depth, power and poignancy. She renders their ambiguous situations and the astonishing silence and self-possession of this family with persuasive verisimilitude.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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