In her latest story collection, Nadine Gordimer carries the reader to her familiar landscape: South Africa after apartheid, a country with 11 official languages and more shades of skin color. She also asks a familiar post-colonial question: Can a white liberal, émigré or native, find a place in this country where the "standard of privilege" changes with each regime? While it's an important question, Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature, looks far beyond it in these stories.
Each story, in some way, reminds readers that wherever we live, we are similarly exiled in a shifting regime, one liable to go topsy turvy at any time. We can never be sure where we fit in because our past actions no longer matter and our personal histories are always subject to revision.
Nonetheless, issues of race are always central for Gordimer. In the title story, the 52-year-old narrator, an academic biologist and former activist, is deeply troubled by his apparent invisibility to the black student dissidents at his university. They do not see him because he is not black. "'Once there were blacks . . . wanting to claim white. Now there's a white . . . wanting to claim black." With no chance of claiming even fractional blackness for himself, the narrator studies a portrait of his great-grandfather, who quit the family's London delicatessen to prospect for diamonds in the mining town of Kimberley.
Might this virile-looking ancestor have had children with a beautiful native servant, the scientist wonders; could this connection somehow assure his own standing at least in his own eyes? He decides to spend his holiday in the northern Cape City, searching for lost cousins. This skewed genetic logic is a sad picture of white liberal dislocation in today's South Africa.
New immigrants, attempting to hurdle the country's border fence of language, are also at risk of remaining dislocated in their adopted country, especially if they cannot speak any of those official languages, most particularly English. In "Mother Tongue," a young German wife moves with her South African husband to his native city. She is determined to speak only English, but is stymied by the "personal lingo" of her husband's friends. This "clique's" private language, combining cockney rhyming slang with African phrases, is an incomprehensible jargon to the German wife. She smiles gamely at the crowd's jokes, missing their references to her husband's previous love affairs.
In "The Second Sense," a young Hungarian professor cannot find a teaching job in South Africa because his only languages are Magyar and German. Changing his name from Ferenc to Fred is no help, and he ends up working in a relative's supermarket. His wife, an uneducated dressmaker, learns to speak charmingly accented English. She pleases her rich clients by creating clothes with "a certain touch of European flair." And these women can easily pronounce her name, Zsuzsi, since it sounds like Susie. The wife transitions from dressmaking to real estate sales and finally abandons her husband to marry up the social ladder.
Sounds without meaning and words without context also resonate. In "History," a parrot mimics the long-ago voices of a restaurant's customers. He has heard "what he shouldn't have heard," and now repeats sounds his hearers might recognize if they were around to hear them. The parrot mimics a missing girl, a drunk, a pair of whispering lovers, a child wailing for his papa. Can the parrot know what it is saying? Probably not, and there is a horror in the notion that our very own voice will come back to us from "that feathered throat and blunt grey tongue behind the probing beak."
An American reader will learn much about today's South Africa by reading Gordimer's stories, but she offers us much more than that. Her descriptions of race, assimilation, and isolation have parallels in American society, perhaps because this country is also, in a sense, post-colonial. In the end, Gordimer at age 84 remains such a compelling writer because her vision of South Africa is also a vision of the human condition, where we attempt to find a place in a world that shifts constantly around us.
Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.