A Use for the Stones

Jacqueline Rose

  • Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer
    Bloomsbury, 187 pp, £16.99, November 2005, ISBN 0 7475 8175 4

Whether or not it will actually happen, it seems clear that America is planning its next global intervention on behalf of the new century to be in Iran. As with Iraq, the ostensible motive or pretext will be disarmament. Despite the catastrophe of the Iraqi adventure, the United States government has not wavered in its belief that the question of which countries, or rather which rulers, have the right to destroy other countries – and possibly the whole world – is one it alone must decide. ‘The direst of all threats in the world’s collective fear,’ the narrator says halfway through Nadine Gordimer’s latest novel, Get a Life, ‘beyond terrorism, suicide bombings, introduction of deadly viruses, fatal chemical substances in innocent packaging, Mad Cow Disease – is “nuclear capability”.’ This does not mean that the US, as ‘the power with a foot on everyone’s doorstep’, is on the side of non-proliferation, unless this suits its ambitions. Popular protest against nuclear energy is not something the industrialised world as a whole tends to support. What is a danger in Iran may be a welcome opportunity for multinational expansion – to be promoted at all costs – in the new South Africa. Uneven development, one might say. Centring her novel on these contradictions, Gordimer brings her writing firmly into the 21st century.

Gordimer believes we are living in an insane era in which ‘there are wars going on over who possesses weapons that could destroy all trace of it.’ In the course of the novel, this sentence is repeated more or less verbatim three times, on each occasion with reference to archaeological artefacts which, miraculously preserved and unearthed from the ancient past, silently reproach our modern-day recklessness. What of our own era will be available for such loving, fastidious attention? What, if anything, will survive? This may be Gordimer’s question about her own legacy as a writer, or about her role after the end of apartheid, which has given so much of her writing its finest, if desperate, rationale. But by taking up this issue, Gordimer is paradoxically staking a claim to a future none of us can be sure of. In her previous novel, The Pickup, she, or her central characters, left South Africa for an unnamed Arab country. Returning in Get a Life to the country she herself has never been able to leave – ‘I have never felt not at home here,’ she stated in the 1970s – she makes it once again globally central (even while those double negatives evoke a more ambiguous belonging).[*] The forces struggling over the future of the new South Africa are those that will decide the destiny of the planet. For Gordimer, unlike J.M. Coetzee, South Africa is still the centre of the world.

In Get a Life, Aids and globalisation seize their mainly black victims. Gordimer has always been read predominantly by whites, her grandeur – the Nobel Prize she won in 1991 – viewed by black writers in South Africa with suspicion. Her talent, and importance, have been to turn disabling white privilege into fiction. ‘The white artist,’ she wrote in a 1979 article ‘Relevance and Commitment’, ‘is the non-European whose society nevertheless refused to acknowledge and take root with an indigenous culture. He is the non-Black whom blacks see as set apart from indigenous culture. He does not know as yet,’ she continues, in words still resonant in today’s burgeoning and stricken South Africa, ‘whether this is a dead-end or can be made a new beginning.’

Get a Life is not the first of Gordimer’s writings in which power plants are the political focus. In her 1984 novella, ‘Something Out There’, four ANC revolutionaries conduct a successful strike against a power station (the episode is based on a real event). Although Gordimer never engaged in such acts of militancy, the experience of one of the two white characters has strong echoes of her own: ‘She would not have been here if she had not found her own re-education, after the school where she had sung for God to save white South Africa.’ Placing the tale of the terrorists in tandem with that of an escaped baboon from a zoo, she mocks the racist fears of the white population in the same breath as she exposes a government rhetoric against ‘terror’ which bears uncanny resemblance to that of Bush and Blair: the prime minister ‘was able to call upon support from all sections of the community to meet the threat from beyond our borders that was always ready to strike at our country’.

On 15 March this year, Gordimer put her name to a letter to the Guardian, signed by 421 writers, urging the closure of Guantanamo – the letter refers to the ‘so-called’ war on terror. Gordimer has always been suspicious of the public rhetoric of the United States – which she has referred to as a ‘brutal society’ and as ‘the harshest country in the world’ – and more broadly that of the ‘West’. ‘In the ditches of El Salvador, in the prisons of Argentina and South Africa, in the rootless habitations of Beirut,’ she wrote in her 1982 essay ‘Living in the Interregnum’, ‘are the victims of Western standards of humanity.’ Editing the piece for the New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers objected to the unqualified critique of Western capitalism: ‘Won’t you keep in mind the Western reader who might not want to cross the slag heaps with you?’ (She felt he had edited the piece into a ‘mild, unchallenging plea’.) With its focus on the dangers posed to South Africa by the developed world, Get a Life is recycling an abiding preoccupation. Certainly there is no evidence here for the strange conclusion of Gordimer’s new biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, that she has responded to the end of apartheid by resting ‘on her historical oars as if crossing an historical finishing line’.

‘Something Out There’ is one of Gordimer’s most radical stories. Today, its clear, exhilarated support for the militants could place her on the wrong side of the new UK law against the glorification of terrorism (though it was not banned under apartheid). According to Suresh Roberts, Gordimer’s advocacy of armed struggle predated that of Nelson Mandela. She once sued a writer for claiming that she promoted the violent overthrow of the state, but in 1988, she appeared as a witness at the trial of Mosiuoa Lekota, Popo Molefe and Moss Chikane, stating under cross-examination – and to gasps from the gallery – that she supported Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing. Terrorism was, she wrote in a 1960s essay called ‘The Price of a White Man’s Country’, the ‘deadly logical outcome’ of the situation: ‘They felt useless as they were, and so became what they were not.’ This is just one of many striking formulations that can profitably be transferred to conflicts in other parts of the globe. Here is another, taken from her 1940s jottings, which would do well for the children of the Palestinian intifada: ‘The natives: for many years … they asked for bread, and we gave them a stone. Now they have found a use for these stones; we are getting them back – thrown. Thrown at trains, at police, at white men’s cars.’ Note the ‘we’. By her own analysis, Gordimer has always been a legitimate target.

Paul Bannerman, the central character in Get a Life, is a campaigning ecologist who, when the novel opens, is suffering from cancer. His treatment has left him radioactive and only his parents, regardless of the danger to their own health, are capable of the ‘missionary’ grace involved in caring for him. ‘I am,’ he says, ‘my own experimental pebble-bed nuclear reactor.’ Recovered, he picks up, together with a black comrade, Thapelo, his campaigns against such a nuclear reactor, a dam-building venture and a mining project on the sand-dunes of Pondoland. The mines require forced removals reminiscent of apartheid – ‘many are illiterate and some lost their cattle and sheep as a result of being forced to move’ – although this is not the analogy that springs to Gordimer’s pen: ‘There have been different commands for this kind of thing. Juden heraus.’

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[*] Quotations from Gordimer’s correspondence and journals, unless otherwise stated, are taken from No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer by Ronald Suresh Roberts (STE, 733 pp., £20.50, October 2005, 1 919855 58 0).