What his father gets up to

Patrick Parrinder

  • My Son’s Story by Nadine Gordimer
    Bloomsbury, 277 pp, £13.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0764 3
  • Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee
    Secker, 181 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 436 20012 0

A novelist’s freedom, Nadine Gordimer wrote in 1975, is ‘his right to maintain and publish to the world a deep, intense, private view of the situation in which he finds his society’. In her new novel, Will, the son named by his book-loving father after William Shakespeare, describes the secret lives led by his parents. He cannot publish what he has written, partly because every other member of his Coloured family is deeply involved in revolutionary politics, and partly because – where prying and direct observation did not suffice – he has filled the multiple gaps in his story with his own words and inventions. ‘I wish I didn’t have imagination. I wish that other people’s lives were closed to me,’ Will writes.

Through the male narrator of My Son’s Story, Nadine Gordimer highlights the extent to which her kind of novel aspires to a sharing – if not an invasion – of other people’s privacy. More than any other major contemporary writer, she remains loyal to the social mission that a 19th-century realist such as George Eliot professed. But both she and J.M. Coetzee confront the situation of present-day South Africa in which, under the National Party and its possible successors, the right to privacy is everywhere denied. Everything is political, and all politics is the politics of conflict: in My Son’s Story and Age of Iron we can find confirmation of these slogans in all their brutal banality. Gordimer has elsewhere written that art is ‘on the side of the oppressed’, but she has also described the white liberal’s characteristic function as that of a conciliator between oppressor and oppressed. By this token the white South African novel seems to thrive on its own impossibility – a discourse that continues to demand attention even where the space for that discourse is denied. At one point in Coetzee’s novel, the white narrator finds herself surrounded by an angry crowd demanding that she make some statement about the burning of a shantytown which she has just witnessed. Insisting that, whatever she thinks, she should say it in her own words, she finds she can say nothing. Later she demands the return of her books and private papers from a detective who has come to her house: ‘Nothing is private any more,’ he tells her.

These novels affirm the continuing existence of a private realm by writing about it and making it public. At one level, Gordimer’s work over the last three decades may be read as the representative political chronicle of the society in which she lives. The chronicle is deepened and made personal not only by the portrayal of individuals and the entering of other people’s minds, but by a recurrent concern with inheritance, with what will come after the bitterness and tumult of public confrontations. In the words of Coetzee’s protagonist: ‘For peace of mind, for peace of soul, we need to know who comes after us.’ In fact, we cannot know this, but novels and stories provide us with imaginary outcomes, often of a violent and apocalyptic nature. White South Africans presumably need to make their peace with the end of white South Africa, which has been predicted countless times in the fiction of that country. Anxiety about inheritance is manifested in the very titles of Gordimer’s later novels, from The Late Bourgeois World through The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter and July’s People to the recent A Sport of Nature. My Son’s Story is a distinguished addition to this line of her writings.

Who is it, however, who claims Will as a son? The novel’s epigraph is taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 13 – ‘You had a Father, let your son say so’ – and epigraphs and mottoes play a subtle and significant part in much of Gordimer’s work. Confusingly, the father is himself called Sonny, and the novel begins when Will sees him coming out of a suburban cinema accompanied by a white woman who is the South African representative of an international human rights organisation. Sonny, a former schoolteacher, is a leader of the liberation movement and a renowned public speaker. A two-year prison sentence has led to his estrangement from Aila, his quiet and submissive wife, and to his involvement with Hannah, who visited him in gaol. Sonny’s determination to keep up the façade of a respectable marriage produces a family atmosphere loaded with tension, full of unnatural silences and the strain of things not said.

Will is in most respects not his father’s boy. Lacking any political interest or commitment, he stays at home studying and comforting his mother while Baby, his flamboyant younger sister, experiments with drugs, makes a suicide attempt, and then flees the country to join the armed struggle and train as a guerrilla. When Aila, now a grandmother, begins taking trips to Lusaka to visit Baby and her child, neither Will nor his father pays much attention. Sonny is obsessed by political work and by his need for Hannah, while Will is sunk in embittered and morbid imaginings about what his father gets up to in Hannah’s secluded cottage in the white man’s domain. Eventually, the Security Police turn up at his parents’ house, and Will is startled to find that it is Aila, not Sonny, they have come to arrest.

Many years ago, in her essay The Black Interpreters, Nadine Gordimer contrasted the handling of mother-son relationships in European and African fiction. Where for a writer such as D.H. Lawrence the maternal relationship is destructive and needs to be fought against, in African fiction, Gordimer claimed, the mother’s kiss, ‘rather like a loving smack on the behind’, is a blessing that releases the son into the world. Be that as it may, My Son’s Story offers a different paradigm in which it is the mother who grows away from the son, not vice versa. The sequence of actions which leads Aila to become a courier for the Zambian-based guerrillas and, eventually, a political exile is barely understood by Will, who records what he knows discreetly and passively, and blames his mother’s departure on his father’s neglect. Will’s slightly chilling narrative manner is one of this novel’s triumphs, though it is also his way of disowning his part in the break-up of his family. At the end he is the one who remains while the others, whose life he wants to write, have all left.

As for Sonny and Hannah, their liaison would probably not have taken place before the repeal of the racial purity laws; Sonny’s respect for party discipline would have seen to that. The story of a political campaigner whose life is torn apart by a relationship with a white woman has some apparent topicality in contemporary South Africa. The writing of My Son’s Story must also be a sign of changing times, since the novel portrays members of the radical élite as fallible human beings subject to personal distractions and to political dissension and in-fighting. As always, however, Gordimer’s view of radical politics concentrates on the leaders rather than the led. Sonny is a briefcase-carrying member of the party executive, living (illegally) in a white suburb. We are given only very sparing glimpses of Benoni, the township where he was once a schoolteacher (the name means ‘son of sorrow’). In Burger’s Daughter Gordimer quoted the 19th-century Russian revolutionary Vera Figner, who said that ‘a trial is the crowning point of a revolutionary’s activity.’ It is not the everyday oppression of the shantytowns, but such full-dress institutional occasions as the state trial, the graveside oration and the prison visit which constitute Gordimer’s overt representation of political struggle.

Between one political occasion and the next, My Son’s Story tends to show us private, secluded moments of individual experience. Will watches his parents and broods over his word processor, Aila’s reserves of silence are respected but not entered, and Sonny’s absorption in his love affair can be seen as an attempt to define an inviolable personal space, like the narrative space of a novel. When he is at Hannah’s cottage, his political comrades think he is with his family, and his family are supposed to think he is absent on political work. Not surprisingly, he sometimes wonders what he is doing there. Nor are Hannah’s home or her bed as inviolable as they seem. An underground political contact of hers moves in for a few days; Will, his imagination constantly preoccupied with what goes on in his father’s sanctuary, turns up there one furious night, intent on murder. In addition, since Will cannot know what went on between Sonny and Hannah, he claims to have invented it.

For much of the novel, Will operates as an omniscient narrator, to whom other people’s lives are not closed; and the choice of omniscient narration is hardly an innocent one. In novel after novel, Nadine Gordimer has created characters for whom, in a society like hers, police surveillance is the norm. The narrator who pries on people’s intimacies and who knows their secrets is sometimes reminiscent of the Security Police. (This, it may be, was why the earlier novel was entitled Burger’s Daughter – as in a police dossier – not Rosa Burger.) Early in My Son’s Story, Will’s father reflects that, like the Security Police, Will is in on the mystery of his relationship with Hannah. Will cannot evade being drawn further in, but his own beautifully crafted narrative turns the tables on Sonny, if not on his mother. This is an intricate spider’s web of a novel in which the reader, too, is irresistibly caught.

In J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron, Elizabeth Curren, a retired Classics lecturer, is dying of cancer in Cape Town. When, in her bedridden state, she thinks of her house as a ‘late bourgeois tomb’, she is doubtless signalling that she has read or heard of Nadine Gordimer’s work. Though it is less a realist novel than an allegorical fable about contemporary South Africa, Age of Iron suggests the extent to which Gordimer’s writings have set an agenda for her younger compatriots. The imminent death of white society and the problem of inheritance overshadow a novel which, once again, centres on what may be called illicit relationships.

Elizabeth’s story is a monologue, supposedly designed to be read after her death by her only child, a daughter who has emigrated to the United States. The daughter has a new life in which it is no longer possible for her to care for a dying parent, though her mother never reproaches her for her absence. Instead, Elizabeth finds herself sharing her house with a trio of uninvited guests: Mr Vercueil, a white down-and-out, and Bheki and John, two teenagers on the run from the Police. Bheki is the son of Florence, Elizabeth’s black housemaid (Florence also has two baby daughters significantly named Hope and Beauty). But Florence has come to realise that, in a country where children have learnt to burn down their schools and to take on the Security Forces, ‘there are no more mothers and fathers.’ Through Florence and Bheki, Elizabeth is led into the world of terrified shanty-dwellers and riot-torn townships – a world which in My Son’s Story is kept at arm’s length. At the same time, the white lady who becomes involved in black politics through her concern for her domestic, and who finds herself giving sanctuary to an armed fugitive, is almost a stock character in South African fiction. The truly unconventional relationship in this novel is that between Elizabeth and Mr Verceuil.

To her stuffy neighbours, it is almost unimaginable that she should tolerate a vagrant living on her property in a house of plastic sheeting and cardboard boxes. Verceuil, however, becomes a reliable companion as well as the only audience for the moral homilies to which, as a former teacher, Elizabeth remains addicted. Their partnership gives the novel an air of inspired eccentricity, yet (like Elizabeth’s fondness for mythological allusions and Classical parallels) it also has a transparently allegorical intent. When the drunken old man eventually lies down with the cancer-ridden heroine there can, of course, be no chance of issue, no hope of inheritance. Verceuil’s semen would be ‘dry and brown, like pollen or like the dust of this country’, Elizabeth reflects. His dog, and for that matter his smelly feet, are also found to embody the state of contemporary South Africa. Verceuil is an angel of death who becomes progressively more attentive to Elizabeth as her decline continues; and it is the dying narrator herself who, inevitably, stands as the novel’s principal emblem for the once beloved country.

She takes a long time dying, and since she is the author of her narrative, she is, of course, not dead when it ends. Coetzee’s piling-up of images of South Africa’s national destiny can seem over-insistent, so that Age of Iron is more a cry of agony and disgust than, like My Son’s Story, a machine to think with. Nevertheless, the novel has its share of lyrical moments and acute insights. Elizabeth, who is nothing if not a liberal, is shamed but not completely silenced by the atrocities committed by a collapsing social system which claims to represent her colour and her class. Once she finds her voice, she has stern admonitions for the black revolutionaries, the people of the future. It is hard not to agree with her own assessment that she is a good person, even if she is also a back number. ‘What the times call for is quite different from goodness,’ she concedes. ‘The times call for heroism.’ In an iron age, there is no longer any time for the private virtues.