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.

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