Test Case

Robert Taubman

  • July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
    Cape, 160 pp, £5.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 224 01932 5
  • The Company of Women by Mary Gordon
    Cape, 291 pp, £6.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 224 01955 4
  • Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth
    Cape, 225 pp, £5.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 224 01974 0

With ‘nothing else to do but the impossible’, when revolution breaks out in South Africa, Bam and Maureen Smales accept their house servant’s offer of refuge in his tribal village 600 kilometres from Johannesburg. They are all decent people – the two white liberals, their young children, the trusted servant, the peaceable villagers. All human instinct argues that this is not, after all, an impossible situation. Nadine Gordimer, in her unsparing new novel, suggests otherwise. Her recent Burger’s Daughter, though bleak in its conclusions, was more diffuse and humane; it dealt with an earlier stage in South African history. Set only a little later in time, and in a much smaller compass, the round mud hut roofed in thatch in a village of round huts, ‘its circles encircled by the landscape’, as in a photographer’s view of ‘the single community of man-and-nature-in-Africa’, July’s People reaches conclusions that are not just bleak but hopeless. Community of man and nature is only an irony in a book about the absolute failure of community between men.

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