A study of two families in a changing S. Africa

September 18, 1994|By Anne Whitehouse

In her profound new novel, South African writer Nadine Gordimer examines South African society in the early 1990s, after the freeing of Nelson Mandela, as the country prepares itself for the transition to democracy. She juxtaposes the dramas of two families, the Starks and the Magomas, who have been friends across the color bar for many years. With keen insight, she takes a long look at her characters' lives. In their most intimate connections, she lays bare the essential solitariness of the self.

Ms. Gordimer's writing is dexterous, intelligent and ironic. The winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in literature, she has perfected the pared-down style of her recent works of fiction -- her novel "My Son's Story" (1990) and story collection "Jump" (1991) -- characterized by swift transitions of voice, unembellished dialogue, lucid meditations and a punctuation of --es as individual as that of Emily Dickinson.

At the heart of this new novel, so discreet that at first it almost seems camouflaged, is the love affair between Vera Stark, the self-possessed deputy director of the Legal Foundation, an organization fighting removals of black people from their homelands, and Zeph Rapulana, the equally self-possessed squatter leader with whom she collaborates.

Between the urban, white, middle-class grandmother in her 60s and the middle-aged black leader from the countryside exists a tranquil, intuitive intimacy: "Vera had never before felt -- it was more than drawn to -- involved in the being of a man to whom she knew no sexual pull. . . . It was as if . . . they belonged together as a single sex, a reconciliation of all each had experienced, he as a man, she as a woman."

One of Ms. Gordimer's great talents as a writer is her ability, once having established the truth of a situation, to call it into question. The day Vera and Zeph meet, as they confront a landowner who is trying to forcibly evict a squatter settlement from his land, Vera hears the squatter leader say: "Meneer Odendaal, don't be afraid. We won't harm you. Not you or your wife and children." Vera thinks, "The gift of the squatter leader's tolerance, forgiveness -- whichever it was -- was something the farmer didn't deserve."

Yet later, as Zeph's assurance continues to reverberate in her mind, she realizes that his words "were not tolerance and forgiveness but a threat" to the farmer, a reminder of what the settlers might do to him if they wished.

Vera does not truly desire a home and security. What she ultimately finds intolerable about Bennet, her husband of 45 years, is his need of her and his dependency on loving her. "I cannot live with someone who can't live without me," Vera explains to their daughter Annick. "When someone gives you so much power over himself he makes you a tyrant."

Vera's first marriage, contracted as a teen-ager, had ended in divorce after Bennet became her lover in the waning days of the second World War. Bennet, who had hoped to be a sculptor, became an English professor instead, and then a businessman marketing a line of luxury luggage. When his business fails in the recession of the early 1990s, he is diminished, for he has allowed himself no purpose beyond providing for his wife.

To their son Ivan, Vera confesses, "Ben made a great mistake. . . . He gave up everything he needed, in exchange for what he wanted. The sculpture. Even an academic career . . . He put it all on me. . . . The whole weight of his life."

Like Bennet Stark, Didymus Magoma is in eclipse. An important leader in the Movement -- the organized struggle against apartheid -- Didymus finds himself passed over for positions of authority. As the Movement is transformed from a clandestine to a legitimate organization, Didymus has become a liability. Once judged a hero, he now runs the risk of being considered a criminal because of his role as interrogator and jailer in a camp where spies who infiltrated the Movement were imprisoned.

It is Sibongile, rather, who is sought after for her diplomatic skills and her ability to forge alliances. Kept ignorant of her husband's activities in the past, she resists learning any more about them now, for fear of jeopardizing her political career. Ms. Gordimer sensitively charts the changes and tensions in the Magomas' marriage, as husband and wife trade positions: Sibongile is sent abroad on missions, while Didymus waits for her at home.

Elevated to positions of increasing responsibility and importance, Sibongile finds herself on a hit list, a status that paradoxically confirms the impeccability of her political credentials. Once again the marriage readjusts, as Didymus regains his purpose in protecting his wife. Having endured such dangers in the past, he can serve as her guide as she negotiates this fearful new existence.

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