The demise of an artist is always a universal loss. With the passing away of Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer at the age of 90, the world has lost one of its most fearless advocates of equality. Although an immensely influential activist in the South African struggle against the repression of apartheid, she was first and foremost a writer par excellence.
Born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1923 in the South African province now named Gauteng, Gordimer began her writing career at the young age of 15 when her first short story, Come Again Tomorrow was published by The New York Times. As part of the privileged ‘white’ community of South Africa, she first witnessed the limits imposed by the ‘colour bar’ at school when her black classmates were denied access to the library.
Incidents such as these led her on her life-long journey to realistically portray the far-reaching consequences of apartheid on South African society through her fiction. As a writer who held the firm belief that “Political conflict is…human conflict”, Gordimer deliberately restricted herself to telling the unfolding story of the turbulent times in South African history. She was of the opinion that “Your whole life you are really writing one book, which is an attempt to grasp the consciousness of your time and place-a single book written from different stages of your ability.”
Over a span of 60 years, and through 11 novels and countless short stories, Nadine Gordimer brought the world’s attention to the denigrating attitudes upheld by institutionalised discrimination on the basis of colour and creed. From the liberal white South African’s subconscious brush with these social demarcations in The Conservationist, for which she won the Booker Prize in 1974, to the post-apartheid world of her 1995 novel None to Accompany Me, Gordimer captured her every step of her nation’s political upheavals. Considered mostly a political activist, she repeatedly rejected the label of being a political writer, saying “Nothing is as true as my fiction.”
The truth of this confident assertion is borne by the myriad details of South African life in her extensive collection of writings. Whether she was describing the condition of the socially oppressed blacks, or the unfairly privileged whites, Gordimer had the ability to get into the skin of each of her characters.
However, her attention to descriptive detail remained untainted by personal and political affiliations. Jacobus, the black farm manager in The Conservationist, is dealt with the same detached observation as his white master, Mehring.
In her novels, there is no glossing over of facts and neither is there any romanticisation of struggle and suffering. Always aware of the artist’s responsibility to provide a true record of the world around him, Gordimer was fastidious about providing an honest account of South Africa’s tumultuous socio-political reality. And it was not a pretty picture to portray. But her focus was always on the soul of her country — the humaneness of the struggle against inequality that her countrymen were embroiled in. A realist, she differed from Keats by saying that “The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.”
Vera Stark, the white protagonist of None to Accompany Me, is on such a quest to find the true meaning of her existence in a politicised culture. For most of Gordimer’s protagonists, role reversal, which she calls ‘explosion of roles’ in July’s People, is the path they must tread in order to make sense of their reality. For her characters, colour and creed are the ultimate markers in their public and personal lives. There is no area of their existence where private ideologies are allowed space to flourish without encountering the roadblocks determined by apartheid.
Thus, it is only fitting that Gordimer repeatedly overturns the world of the fictional people inhabiting her writings. Even the title of one of her best known novels, July’s People, alludes to the story of how the fortunes of a liberal white middle-class family become dependent upon “the decently-paid and contended male servant…turned out to be the chosen one in whose hands their lives were to be held; frog prince, saviour, July.”
While the change in authoritative standing is dictated by necessity, the adaptability of Gordimer’s characters is purely based on human nature. Abiding by the universal truth of human beings as inherently free of biases, the children in the Smales family are the quickest to accept the change in their circumstances. But Maureen, their mother, is unable to adjust to the fact that “July, their servant (is now), their host.”
Perception and its subjectivity is a constant theme in Gordimer’s work. Mehring, the rich white protagonist of The Conservationist, slowly unlearns that he is not “always right”. In these works of fiction based in Africa, reality is ever-changing. Through the shedding of ideologies and established roles, Gordimer sets her white privileged characters on their journey of self-realisation. Some, like Maureen, fear that they will discover what they have always feared — that they are “born white pariah dogs in a black continent.” For Rosa, the central character in another famous novel, Burger’s Daughter, the dilemma lies in reconciling her Communist father’s conviction that “the real definition of loneliness…is to live without social responsibility” with her desire to carve out an individual identity. The novel follows the trajectory of her journey as she escapes to France in search of a self free from the domineering influence of her father’s political ideologies-only to return to her native country because she was after all, Burger’s Daughter.
It is rarely possible for a writer to remain divorced from the social millieau of which he is a part. For Gordimer, “The actual writing (came) from the tension of being involved and yet standing apart.” In spite of being a white liberal, Gordimer was a vocal opponent to the injustices perpetuated against the blacks through the scrooge of apartheid and an inspiration not just for contemporary artistes but for the champion of human rights, Nelson Mandela. The cadences and nuances that Gordimer brought to her detailed description of the African reality was a labour of love that continues to shine through the beauty of her prose.