A valuable resource

2011-03-09 00:00

FEW will be inclined to read, from cover to cover, a 549-page compilation of Nadine Gordimer’s short stories, all of which — bar two — have been published before. Nevertheless, for students, aficionados and enthusiasts of Gordimer’s work, this publication will undoubtedly prove a valuable resource.

Many of the stories, dating from 1952 to contemporary times, record Gordimer’s observations of, and insights into, political and social conditions in an evolving South Africa. The early stories highlight the inequalities and iniquities of apartheid and feature a range of liberals, activists, saboteurs, freedom fighters, exiles and victims. Notable are the two well-known stories, under the title Town and Country Lovers, which feature relationships in contravention of the Immorality Act. Some of the later stories focus on the disillusionment that comes with the triumph of liberation movements — a successful terrorist leader, unchallenged by his peacetime portfolio, becomes indulgent and corrupt; a liberal white lawyer finds he is redundant in the new dispensation and emigrates.

In a changed South Africa, Gordimer asserts in the teasing title story of her recent collection, Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black (2007), that whites search for evidence of black ancestry just as once the converse was the case.

One of Gordimer’s most successful stories, with its shocking and bloody climax, is Once Upon a Time. As pertinent currently as it was at the time of publication (1991), the story highlights the escalating security precautions residents of suburbia are driven to take.

A number of the selected stories focus on relationships. None more tenderly than The Diamond Mine; none more wittily than The Find; none more cynically than The Generation Gap.

Gordimer’s imaginative range is seen in stories as diverse as the humorous Tape Measure, narrated by an indignant tapeworm whose comfortable residence in someone’s innards is terminated when the host takes purgative measures, and The Soft Voice of the Serpent, in which an amputee observes a fellow sufferer in the form of a locust with a missing limb. In Dreaming of the Dead, she recalls a dream sequence in which she meets the recently departed intellectuals, Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Anthony Sampson, in a New York restaurant, while awaiting the elusive “you”, also deceased. And in the clever Letter from His Father, she writes the imagined riposte of Hermann Kafka to Letter to Father, Franz Kafka’s 1919 exposé of the tensions in the father-son relationship.

Covering some 55 years, the stories in this collection celebrate the achievement of veteran writer and Nobel laureate, Gordimer, who indefatigably continues to observe, analyse and interpret the world around her. Bleakly, the final story, Second Coming, depicts a Christ figure, bearing identifiable scars, arriving in a world unrecognisable in its condition of ruin and putrescence.

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