Nothing Terrible Happened

Sophie Harrison

  • The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer
    Bloomsbury, 270 pp, £16.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 7475 5427 7

In an unidentified South African city that is probably Johannesburg, in a time that is probably now, a group of people meet in a bohemian café. For 28-year-old Julie it’s not just a café, it’s a substitute for home, a shelter to her surrogate family of hippies and poets, a gathering just like those of the old revolutionary days. But apartheid, the system that dominated every aspect of South African life, is over. The worst problem that Julie and her friends have to deal with now – a new problem in the country they live in – is their lives’ sudden inconsequentiality. The characters in Nadine Gordimer’s previous novels have generally had some kind of social purpose – they are lawyers, or doctors, or ‘politicals’ of one kind or another. But Julie and her friends have no purpose, no particular place in the world. She’s the daughter of a rich white businessman with a hyphenated surname. She’s estranged from her family, but by choice rather than circumstance. She comes from that universally recognisable place known in this novel only as the Suburbs, and she’s at something of a loose end.

Julie’s troubles are those of any wealthy, disaffected Western youth: a feeling of rootlessness, the kind of restlessness and malaise brought on by wanting something Significant to happen without knowing what it could be. Her naivety is familiar, as is her puppyish enthusiasm for big subjects: social injustice, world poverty. Her predicament is ironised by Gordimer’s bland presentation, but her lack of focus or faith is a real problem, one the heroine shares with the novel she’s in. In the new South Africa, politics – the serious, life-threatening politics of old – have all but disappeared, taking danger with them. The only remaining threats are the high incidence of violent crime and the spread of Aids, and neither has much impact on the more cushioned members of the new society.

The Pickup is Gordimer’s first novel to be set so firmly in this newly ‘riskless’ world, a world reminiscent, in its relative dullness and safety, of that of Gordimer’s own childhood. She was born in 1923 in the small gold-mining town of Springs, thirty miles from Johannesburg, to a Lithuanian-Jewish father and an English mother. Springs was a place where ‘the whole existential aspect of life was never discussed . . . it was as secret as it would have been to discuss my parents’ sex life.’ Existential discussion was further limited when she was thought to have developed a ‘bad heart’ (she hadn’t). She was taken out of school at the age of 11 and tutored at home, a solitary time occupied largely in reading. In 1945 she re-entered the education system, spending a year at the University of Witwatersrand. It was a political rather than a literary education – she was a writer before she arrived at university, having published her first story at the age of 15. Her subsequent writing career has spanned more than fifty years and featured countless awards (including the Nobel Prize in 1991), yet it’s hard to think of Gordimer as a literary grande dame. She’s too serious, too passionate and too interested in those elements missing from her Springs childhood – sex and ideas – to merit such a staid title.

Gordimer’s 1998 novel, The House Gun, is also set in post-apartheid South Africa, but it doesn’t stray very far from the familiar, dangerous world of her earlier books. Even the plot of The House Gun echoes that of one of its predecessors. Harald and Claudia Lindgard, a wealthy white couple, are plucked from their comfortable context and plunged into an unfamiliar world where they are entirely dependent on their black lawyer, Motsumai, who is defending their son on a murder charge. The scenario mirrors that of Gordimer’s 1981 novel July’s People, in which Maureen and Bamford Smales, a wealthy white couple, are plucked from their comfortable context and plunged into an unfamiliar world where they are entirely dependent on their black servant July, who shelters them in his village when South Africa is engulfed by civil war. Harald Lindgard is explicit about the danger he and his wife are experiencing:

Motsumai was all there was between them and the Death Penalty. Not only had he come from the Other Side; everything had come to them from the Other Side, the nakedness to the final disaster: powerlessness, helplessness, before the law.

Danger, a sense of looming disaster, is present in most of Gordimer’s novels before The Pickup. Her characters eat and drink and talk and argue in the climate of heightened intensity and fear endemic in apartheid South Africa and expressed in the violent events surrounding the first free elections in 1994. In Burger’s Daughter (1979) both of Rosa’s parents are put in prison and her father eventually dies there; in July’s People the Smales family is forced into hiding to escape the revolution; in None to Accompany Me (1994) the main character, Vera Stark, is injured and her colleague murdered in a drive-by shooting. The House Gun, the story of a murder’s effect on the family of the accused, opens with a line that sums up the atmosphere characteristic of many of Gordimer’s books: ‘Something terrible happened.’

But Julie is living in a time and a place where nothing terrible has happened. Unlike the novelist’s earlier characters, she is threatened above all by the prospect of boredom. Trouble has its uses in fiction; it electrifies events, substituting risk for boredom, adventure for banality. It helps to confer weight and seriousness on plots, and gives fiction the glamorous sheen of an association with actual disaster.

Julie’s cure for her boredom – and Gordimer’s cure for what might become ours, once we recognise that this new world is devoid of the danger and intrigue of the old one – is a twist on one of her familiar themes. Julie is lifted out of her usual life and marooned in the unfamiliar homeland of the man she falls in love with, an unidentified Arab state which the author has suggested may be Saudi Arabia. In The Pickup the sense of something terrible being about to happen is deflected onto ‘Abdu’, an illegal immigrant in South Africa who daren’t even use his proper name – Ibrahim – as he clings to his place in a country that wants to expel him. The threat is no longer directed at those inside society: it has shifted onto perceived outsiders. Halfway through the novel Ibrahim is duly found out and deported. In a grand gesture, Julie decides to go with him to his desert village, to live the life of a traditional Muslim wife.

Julie is bored with freedom: Ibrahim’s country provides restriction. She is tired of ease: Ibrahim’s country gratifies her yearning for meaningful difficulty; no more power showers or servants or washing machines. The central, straightforward irony of The Pickup is powerful. Just as Julie, pampered daughter of liberal success, longs for inhibition, so Ibrahim desires exactly the opposite. For Julie the now free and democratic country of South Africa provides nothing to satisfy her desire to lead a meaningful life. For Ibrahim, such free and democratic countries are the only possible solution to the need for a meaningful life.

The unlikely pair come together in the pick-up of the title (although who actually ‘picks up’ whom is in the end ambiguous). Julie’s car breaks down and she takes it to a garage. A man wriggles out from under the car he’s fixing, ‘young, in his greasy work-clothes . . . glossy dark-haired with black eyes bluish-shadowed’. This is Abdu/ Ibrahim, and when she returns to the garage to collect her car, Julie persuades him to join her for coffee:

To be open to encounters – that was what she and her friends believed, anyway, as part of making the worth of their lives. Why don’t we have coffee – if you’re free?

I’m on lunch. He pulled down the corners of his mouth undecidedly, then smiled for the first time. It was the glimpse of something attractive withheld in the man, escaped now in the image of good teeth set off by clearly delineated lips under a moustache black as his eyes.

There are no ‘he says, she says’ or even ‘he coughed, she muttered’ in Gordimer’s novels. Julie’s thoughts about the question she’s about to ask merge seamlessly into the question itself. The most expressive feature of their first serious conversation is Abdu/Ibrahim’s smile (as the story develops, his smile becomes as fascinating as the Cheshire Cat’s, its presence or absence an infallible barometer of his moods).

The omission of speech indicators can make Gordimer’s novels difficult to read. Not just because it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s talking: it can also be hard to tell whether someone’s talking or thinking. As speech is never dressed as speech you’re not always sure you’re supposed to be listening. Sometimes it’s indicated by a dash, but sometimes, disconcertingly, it’s not even indicated by that old school rule, ‘new paragraph’. The result is that when people speak their words can lose their drama. Speech sometimes no longer feels spoken. The effect, as well as muffling characters’ voices, is often puzzling.

‘Personally, as a reader, I don’t mind being puzzled,’ Gordimer told a Paris Review interviewer in 1980. ‘To me, it’s an important part of the exciting business of reading a book, of being stirred, and of having a mind of your own.’ Some people, she went on, complain that the absence of speech attributions ‘makes my novels difficult to read. But I don’t care. I simply cannot stand he said/she said anymore. And if I can’t make readers know who’s speaking from the tone of voice, the turns of phrase, well, then I’ve failed. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.’

Gordimer’s refusal to make things easier for her readers played a small part in last year’s controversy over July’s People. Gauteng Province (formerly Transvaal, which includes Gordimer’s home city of Johannesburg) suddenly decided that the novel was unsuitable for study in the region’s schools, describing it as ‘deeply racist, superior and patronising’. The media seized on this judgment, finding good copy in the notion of the writer whose opposition to apartheid was known all over the world, being condemned as a racist – though not for long, as the decision was rapidly reversed. What received less publicity was the Gauteng committee’s judgment that the language used in July’s People ‘is not acceptable, as it does not encourage good grammatical practices’. In other words, the book is too difficult. Perhaps they felt that its obliqueness was inappropriate in the newly democratic South Africa, where transparency – after years of being avoided – must suddenly become a virtue.

Apartheid created many difficulties for both written and spoken language, and for books (and not just in the obvious way implied by the notorious Index of Questionable Literature, the state’s register of banned reading matter). Some of these difficulties are explored in July’s People. This is Maureen Smales struggling to communicate with July:

They could assume comprehension between them only if she kept away from even the most commonplace of abstractions; his was the English learned in kitchens, factories and mines. It was based on orders and responses, not on the exchange of ideas and feelings.

Even in Gordimer’s later novels, the difficulty with language as a medium for ‘the exchange of ideas and feelings’ is pronounced. Her books enact language’s corruption. The master-servant relations of apartheid have made words untrustworthy; politics and the need for political action have forced them into inflexible registers – whether legal speak, or the sloganeering of the struggle. July’s People is not the only one of Gordimer’s novels in which language has been rendered virtually useless. Our difficulty in reading it – or, indeed, other books of hers – is perhaps meant to contribute to our understanding of a world in which words couldn’t do their job properly.

Maureen and July talk, but neither can understand what the other is trying to say. Bamford, meanwhile, keeps fiddling with his radio, hoping to find out what’s happening in the war, but there are only garbled snatches of foreign languages, or great bales of static. Worse comes when he tries to speak to the inhabitants of the village:

He struggled hopelessly for words that were not phrases from back there, words that would make the truth that must be forming here, out of the blacks, out of themselves . . . but the words would not come. They were blocked by an old vocabulary, ‘rural backwardness’, ‘counter-revolutionary pockets’.

There are always at least two levels of communication in Gordimer’s novels: the nonsense people talk, and the real information that’s exchanged in other ways. She is very good at making the non-verbal count. Perhaps that’s why she is so assertive about her decision to omit speech marks; maybe it’s part of a deliberate plan to demote speech by taking off its fancy-dress. How we mutter and bumble, while the real stuff is going on underneath. Her work is full of physical gestures: arresting moments in which some movement by a character tells us more about them than anything they have or haven’t said. There’s a nice illustration of this in The House Gun when Harald falls asleep and his hand on his wife’s body ‘twitches in submerged distress, like the legs of a dog when it dreamt it was fleeing’. July gets ‘stiffly to his hunkers’. In the course of a formal discussion in her office with a man she doesn’t yet know, Vera Stark is able only to notice that

one of his gestures brushed against a wire letter basket and loosened a scab from a scratch; he ignored it while she was aware of a trickle of blood below his rolled-up sleeve tracing a hieroglyph down his forearm – a warm message to her.

In a world where gesture and touch are such important forms of communication, sex must naturally have a special place. And The Pickup, ostensibly a novel about the problem of illegal immigration, the difficulties of disaffected youth, even the ‘clash of civilisations’, is also very much concerned with the power of sex. (Just as None to Accompany Me, ostensibly about South Africa’s struggle to come to terms with the turmoil of liberation in 1994, is at the same time a story about learning to live without sex.)

For Julie and Ibrahim, foreigners to each other and explicitly held apart by language, sex is the only means by which they can properly understand each other. When they make love, it is ‘the kind of love-making that is another country, a country of its own, not yours or mine’. Sex creates a communal space where language is no longer required and discussion unnecessary. Gordimer’s depiction of this is the first unusual thing one notices about her treatment of relationships. In the contemporary novel, sex is not often a cheerful, mutely self-sufficient act but rather a prelude to lots of difficult emotion, complicated misunderstandings and dark and brooding thoughts. In Gordimer’s novels, when sex arrives, and more particularly when men arrive, everything suddenly becomes simple (there may be trouble ahead, but the present is pure delight). She has a Lawrentian awareness of men’s sexuality – in fact there’s a line in None to Accompany Me that could have come straight from Lawrence (substitute ‘loins’ for ‘thighs’):

he still had beautiful, strong legs, the ankles and knees perfectly articulated, the thighs – so important if a man is to be a good lover – frontally curved with muscle under smooth black hair.

None to Accompany Me is in some ways a prelude to The Pickup. Vera’s husband Ben – like Julie’s lover Ibrahim – is throughout the object of intense physical scrutiny and desire. When Vera watches him sleep, she observes ‘the red bevelled scroll of his closed lips, the delicate hollow scooped beside the high bridge of his beautiful curved nose, the clear black shape his hairline cut against his white brow and temples’.

This worshipful attention to men’s physical appearance is rare outside gay fiction. We still tend to learn more about the size of a woman’s breasts than about the ‘red bevelled scroll’ of a man’s lips, regardless of whether a man or a woman is writing. Women’s bodies still loll around the bedrooms of Western fiction in a way that men’s bodies don’t, or haven’t since they wrestled on Lawrence’s hearthrugs. And Gordimer is explicit about these objects of desire. Vera’s thoughts are extraordinarily frank, almost grossly alert to the physical presence of men. That the following thought comes from a novel full of political ideas is as remarkable as the enthusiasm with which it’s expressed:

Why was it no one, least of all women, would admit the tender pleasure of handling like this a man’s slippery soft tube, pressing it a little, playfully, to make it grow, palpating, rounding out the shape of the two eggs, often uneven in size, in the pouch that keeps warm and alive the seed of the young.

Julie is a heroine who owes a great deal to Vera, and passionate physical love is the engine that drives The Pickup. The figure of Abdu, ‘flushed with sleep under his dark-honey-coloured skin, black shining eyes shadowed in blue hollows’, dominates her consciousness and that of the novel, to the extent that the politics of immigration become something of a subplot. The Pickup is a love story; but rarely – and delightfully – it’s a love story addressed to a man.