In new story collection, Gordimer pursues her exploration of love, politics

October 13, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse

JUMP AND OTHER STORIES. Nadine Gordimer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 257 pages. $20. Nadine Gordimer's ninth collection of short stories deals with her hallmark themes of love and politics and displays her ability to portray characters very different from herself. The 16 stories are set in Africa, many of them in her native South Africa. Ms. Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature Oct. 3, describes a climate of fear, where well-to-do whites barricade themselves fortresslike in their homes, protected by elaborate security systems, and where blacks are uprooted and displaced from their homes. In these stories, the meanings of "home" and "homeland" are explored in all their plangent resonance and ironic connotations.

"Amnesty" is narrated by a young black woman living on a farm. For years, she has had to postpone marriage and family life. The father of her children is an activist in the Movement -- the organized struggle against apartheid. After he is released from prison, he returns briefly to her before leaving to resume his political work. Sharing his sacrifice, she speaks with simple, enduring faith of a time when not only he, but she, too, will "come back home."

In "Safe Houses," Harry (a pseudonym), a white political exile, has returned to South Africa under the promise of indemnity only to find himself once more under arrest and on the run. Ms. Gordimer describes the state of constant vigilance Harry must maintain in order to elude his pursuers: "Philosophizing is another danger, in his situation, undermining the concept of freedom for which he has risked discovery and imprisonment yet again."

On a bus he meets a rich, sheltered, elegant woman, another "misplaced person," whose car has broken down. She is lovely, with her husband abroad on business and her sons away at boarding school. The man and woman become lovers, while concealing their lives from each other, and Harry finds a temporary and unlikely refuge in the luxurious home of Sylvie (another pseudonym). Despite the lies and limits that characterize their affair, they share an authentic tenderness. This is a complex, moving story with an ironic ending.

"Home" describes the effect on a white South African woman when her activist brother and non-political mother and sister are arrested as political prisoners and held incommunicado. Although Teresa and her mother have never gotten along, Teresa becomes a changed woman overnight, single-mindedly devoting herself to helping her family. Observed by her husband, Nils, a Swedish ichthyologist, these transformations in Teresa are so complete that he fears she has taken a lover. "The terrible ivy, daily life. How to pull it away and see -- what?" he muses. She becomes a stranger, remote and unreachable, as his suspicions mount. "Home" is an acute and delicately rendered account of a man who believes he has lost his wife and then finds her restored to him.

Ms. Gordimer imagines the emigration to South Africa of her father, an East European Jew, in "My Father Leaves Home." Trained as a watchmaker, the young immigrant gets his start selling watches to black miners -- "the manacles of their new slavery: to shift work." Ms. Gordimer describes how, in his desire to fit in, he grows away from his religion, marries an English wife, and acquires the racial prejudices of his adopted country.

Ms. Gordimer portrays how even well- meaning contacts between the races are distorted and damaged by the poisonous legacy of apartheid. In "Comrades," a white, upper-middle-class

woman, a political activist, invites a black Youth Congress delegation to her home for lunch. Although she shares the delegation's goals, she cannot bridge the gap between herself and these young people. "What Were You Dreaming?" describes the strict etiquette governing encounters between the races, when a white South African woman and her male English companion give a lift to a black hitchhiker. The two South Africans play their prescribed roles, as the foreigner gropes for .. understanding.

Many of these stories are written in the fluent, loose style of Ms. Gordimer's most recent novel, "My Son's Story." Occasionally she adopts a technique of shifting voices, which she also used in the novel. "The Moment Before the Gun Went Off" and "Some Are Born to Sweet Delight" depend on endings that are calculated to shock, and I found them less affecting than "Home" or "Safe House." Still, even they contain vivid images and cogent insights. This new collection confirms her stature as a major writer.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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