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.’

Gordimer’s relationship to her own Jewish background is complex. In her first, semi-autobiographical novel, The Lying Days (1953), Helen Shaw has her key relationship with, but is not herself, a Jew. In the 1950s, she condemned the ‘incipient Hitlerism’ of South Africa, describing apartheid as an ‘avatar of Nazism’; later, in ‘Something Out There’, one of the militants forges a clarinet out of jam tins and the ring pulls from beer cans, reminding another of ‘the ingenuity of objects displayed in the concentration camps of Europe’. In post-apartheid South Africa, Nazism, she seems to suggest, is taking the guise of the International Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan. Gordimer, we could say, never shies from an analogy. In 2000, she commented – to some anger – that Israel had taken over from Britain ‘the colonial position of an occupying power’. (A year later, she urged Susan Sontag not to accept the Jerusalem Prize.)

Bannerman is, in his own words, a ‘conservationist’. This makes him, in part, a throwback to Gordimer’s 1974 novel of that title, a negative pastoral focused on Mehring, a dissociated, nihilistic, white South African who spends his weekends on a farm over which he slowly loses all control: the novel opens with the unearthing of an unidentified black body on his farm and ends with an apocalyptic flood that turns it into a swamp. He is also a child molester. Reread this novel today, and it is hard not to see Mehring as the forerunner of Coetzee’s dysfunctional and/or sexually abusive male characters (although he is not an Afrikaner); hard, too, not to be impressed by Gordimer’s literary transvestism. ‘Do I really want to be a man?’ she wrote to Katharine White, the fiction editor of the New Yorker, in 1958. ‘I can’t believe I do.’ But this allusion to the earlier work, with its heavily ironic title, acts as a caution against the more romantic aspects of Bannerman’s quest, which only occasionally threaten to overwhelm the new novel. It is one of the productive tensions of Get a Life that Gordimer looks to the earth, the political control of which has never ceased to be her topic, for redemption against the evils wrought on it by politics. In The Lying Days, Helen Shaw describes the illusion of being happy in South Africa as ‘like having a picnic in a beautiful graveyard where the people are buried alive under your feet’. The earth cries out; or, worse, as in The Conservationist, it throws up its dead silently, as a prelude to the end of the world. Gordimer once said that the idea of being attached to the land was meaningless: ‘The only attachment that makes claims valid in human terms is some sort of vital attachment to the people; you cannot be “attached” to soil and thorn trees, because these do not respond; you can kiss the earth in bliss or be hanged from one of the trees in terror – the landscape is totally unaffected by either.’ The great mistake of Afrikaner ideology was to take attachment to the land as proof of title, ‘some kind of right that is entirely separable from behaviour, social behaviour’.

There is, then, no land to speak of outside the social relations embedded within it. This is no less true in today’s South Africa than it was under apartheid, as the struggle over mining, dams and reactors at the core of Get a Life makes clear. Gordimer does not ignore the ethical and political complexities of these developments. An Australia-based company, Mineral Commodities, offers the mining option to a black empowerment company that represents, in Bannerman’s words, ‘the very community, the traditional leaders we counted on, the people we’ve been lobbying to protest misuse of their land’. ‘So? We don’t want rural blacks to have a share in the growth of economic power?’ Gordimer can, however, go only so far down this path. She cannot, unlike Zakes Mda in his brilliant novel The Heart of Redness (2000), trace the dilemma back into the land of the forefathers. In his rendering of the same clash between development and tradition, Mda has the amXhosa of Qolhora reliving the conflict that tore apart their community at the time of the great mid-19th-century cattle slaughter. (Would killing the animals free the people from the whites, as prophesied, or was it a colonial plot?) Gordimer sympathises: Bannerman can see the problem. But you cannot conjure ancestors out of the dust.

If Gordimer can be described as apartheid’s ‘lyrical analyst’, in Suresh Roberts’s phrase, she is also the writer who offered the most trenchant, unforgiving analysis of why under apartheid lyricism had no place. In My Son’s Story (1990), a black man, Sonny, rails against the white man’s domain of ‘quiet and beauty, screened by green from screams of fear and chants of rage, from the filth of scrap-heap settlements and the smashed symmetry of shot bodies; he had no part in it. He did not know what he was doing there.’ Here, surely, there is also a critique of the sensuousness of Gordimer’s own prose, of her inability or unwillingness to let apartheid thwart her writing’s love affair with itself (in The Conservationist, the lushness of the prose often jars against the novel’s overall message of distaste). Sensuousness in writing, inadvertently or not, places its hush upon the world. At times, Gordimer’s writing can feel too tolerant of its own literary weight. Today, the scrap-heap settlements have not disappeared. Although 1.8 million houses have been built for the poor since 1994, according to official figures up to a quarter of the population – 12 million people – live in shacks, a rise of 50 per cent in the last ten years.

And yet in Get a Life, land, without or despite human intervention, oblivious to the social behaviour of its inhabitants, renews itself. The Okavango, an inland delta in Botswana, ‘could never have been planned on a drawing board by the human brain. Its transformations, spontaneous, self-generated, could not have been conceived.’ This is not, the narrator insists, ‘evidence to be claimed by religious or other creational mysticism’, but is greater than any collective mind or faith. Perhaps, ‘whatever civilisation does to destroy nature, nature will find its solution in a measure of time we don’t have.’ In The Conservationist, Mr and Mrs Loftus Coetzee drown when their car is carried by the flood to a pit between disused mine dumps ‘that had long been a graveyard for wrecked cars and other obstinate imperishable objects that will rust, break and buckle, but cannot be received back into the earth and organically transformed.’ Gordimer’s concern with renewal – and with mines (she was brought up in the mining town of Springs) – has a long history. Nonetheless, Get a Life involves a cosmic shift in perspective. Afrikaans writer Antje Krog, at the end of Country of My Skull, her agonised story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes: ‘How vast, how desperately beautiful this country is … My eyes lick the horizon clean.’ Gordimer travels further. Faced with the continuing failures and corruptions of the world after apartheid, we should, it seems, be looking at earth from outer space.

Adorno wrote that ‘the illusory importance and autonomy of private life conceals the fact that private life drags on only as an appendage of the social process.’ Gordimer apparently underlined this phrase in the 1970s, and – one might argue – has carried it with her as an inspiration and a burden throughout her writing life. The belief in a domain of privacy that can somehow remain separate from historical process is at once a prayer and a form of decadence under a system where the spoils of privacy, or even the chances of privacy, are so unevenly and unjustly spread. In one of the most powerful moments in July’s People (1981), set in an imagined post-revolutionary South Africa, a white woman, Maureen Smales, now at the mercy of her black servant, who has rescued her family from the insurrection and taken them to his village, realises that her sense of self has relied on the physical dimensions of a room. The recognition tears into the white liberalism in which she had taken such misjudged pride: ‘The absolute nature she and her kind were scrupulously just in granting to everybody was no more than the price of the master bedroom.’ (It is a racialised version of Virginia Woolf’s plea on behalf of women in A Room of One’s Own.)

And yet Gordimer also believes that there is an unreachable core of selfhood which moves, like the mutations of Okavango, in the depths. ‘It is not the conscious changes made in their lives by men and women which really shape them,’ Helen Shaw thinks in The Lying Days, ‘but a long, slow mutation of emotion, hidden, all-penetrative … This gives a shifting quality to the whole surface of life.’ This slowly mutating world is, for Gordimer, the privileged domain of the writer, the domain of ‘unconscious reality’ as she put it in a letter to Stephen Clingman, to which the writer, unlike the intellectual, has unique, almost mystical access. ‘Even if he writes about a great public event, or war or revolution,’ she said in her acceptance speech for the 1961 W.H. Smith Prize for Friday’s Footprint, the writer’s ‘view is as private as when he writes of an incestuous love affair’. This is the realm of inner ‘commitment’ which struggles on the page with ‘relevance’, the writer’s unavoidable political task: ‘Relevance has to do with outside events; and commitment comes from within.’ This is a fairly traditional view of the role of the artist. But in the context of South Africa, the claim on behalf of privacy acquires a new urgency, becoming at moments – pace Adorno – a type of retreat (‘unget-at-able at’ to use Gordimer’s phrase). As if, in such politically destitute times, there is nowhere else to hide. Aesthetic privilege then becomes the only form of privilege Gordimer feels licensed to grant herself with impunity.

It would be wrong to suggest, therefore, that the pull of the earth against the worst of history in Get a Life is entirely unexpected. Rather, it inherits in new guise one of the central political and aesthetic tensions of Gordimer’s writing and her life. She has always been eloquent on the ethical dilemma of privilege. ‘I should be a liar,’ she wrote to Katharine White in 1965, when the number of South Africans detained without trial reached 950, ‘if I said we were unhappy.’ Her critique of liberalism as ‘hopelessly inadequate’ to the realities of apartheid – she once called it the ‘great-aunt of empire-building’ – is also a form of self-indictment. ‘Please do not call me a liberal,’ she insisted in an interview with the Times in 1974, ‘Liberal is a dirty word.’ The test is the universal franchise: ‘I want it; the liberals don’t’ (the South African Liberal Party she described as a ‘Noah’s Ark for whites’). Liberals make promises they have no power to keep. They pay but they won’t fight – although paying helps. Gordimer was scathing about the flurry of fund-raising for Israel in 1967 among South African Jews who had made no contribution to the Anti-Apartheid Defence Fund: ‘Where were all the fur coats and family silver then?’ In fact, as Glenn Frankel shows in Rivonia’s Children, Jews were central to the struggle against apartheid; nonetheless, Gordimer was dismayed at the number wooed by the National Party, which had been rabidly anti-semitic until its narrow election victory of 1948.

As the situation of the blacks steadily worsened throughout the 1970s and 1980s, this critique intensified. It was also given added charge by the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s, which rejected the contribution of whites like Gordimer and, with it, a multiracial vision of a new South Africa. But as early as the 1940s, Gordimer had been implicating herself in ‘the failure of the liberal attitude’. The only difference, she observed in 1944, between the civic guards who want to imprison ‘kaffir’ servants for brewing illegal beer, and the employers who want to protect them, is that the latter do not want to have to go to the trouble of finding new servants. ‘Even to live here,’ she wrote in her 1959 essay ‘What Is Apartheid?’, ‘is to acquiesce in some measure to apartheid – to a sealing off of responses, the cauterisation of the human heart, as well as to withholding the vote from those who outnumber us, eight to one.’

‘We whites,’ she wrote in 1982, ‘have still to thrust the spade under the roots of our lives.’ In this context, the radioactivity of Bannerman, the campaigner against nuclear power, at the start of Get a Life, is not only an allusion to the fall-out of apartheid, but a way of reiterating a fundamental political point. You may, as one of the advantaged, choose to side with the wretched of the earth, but you will always be the bearer of the ill you are trying to cure.

There were, of course, whites who went much further than Gordimer did. Compared with Ruth First and Bettie du Toit, she always felt that she had not been brave enough. ‘She was so fearless,’ Gordimer wrote of Ruth First, ‘that she made one feel ashamed.’ ‘In comparison,’ she wrote in her preface to du Toit’s autobiography, ‘how the rest of us have writhed and squirmed through the years, seeking accommodations contorted between conscience and self.’ That ‘self’ is expressive; Gordimer still believes somehow that the self can, or should, float free of the assaults it weathers from the outside world. ‘Our lives have been totally invaded by the effects of politics,’ she wrote to Katharine White in 1965. In 1989, she talked of her increasing involvement with ‘not politics, but the things that politics do to people’. There is always the danger, for the white liberal imagination, that politics simply spoils matters. Helen Shaw’s first love affair is destroyed by the ‘restless depression’ that descends on her lover as he increasingly feels the contradiction between his part in the struggle for black emancipation and his daily work trying to ameliorate black lives. ‘Well,’ she insists plaintively and to no avail, ‘I don’t see why one can’t do both.’

Gordimer’s writing is at its best when she transmutes this core anxiety into the substance of her fiction. At the opening of The House Gun (1998), the Lingards, progressive liberal whites struggling to do their bit in the new South Africa, are informed that their son has been arrested for murder. Violence from which they had wrongly considered themselves immune erupts into their private space. Claudia Lingard is a doctor: ‘She stands on the other side of the divide from those who cause’ pain. On occasion, Gordimer succeeds in pressing the dilemma into the syntax of a single sentence. The Lingards have just discovered that a black lawyer will be defending their son: ‘She’s not one of those doctors who touch black skin indiscriminately along with white, in their work, but retain liberal prejudices against the intellectual capacities of blacks.’ Stop at the first comma, and Claudia Lingard is not a doctor who touches black skin; read on, and she is not one of those whites who refuse to accept blacks as real equals even though they are happy to touch black bodies, in a purely professional capacity of course. It is a split second of self-incrimination. How much has really changed? White liberalism – white prejudice – dies hard.

For the past few years, Gordimer has given active support to the South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an HIV/Aids advocacy group that works to promote knowledge about Aids and to increase access to antiretroviral drugs (at least five million South Africans are currently estimated to be living with Aids, more than in any other country). The organisation was founded in 1998 after the death of the anti-apartheid gay rights activist Simon Nkoli, who died from Aids at a time when antiretroviral therapy was available to wealthy South Africans. Today, Aids is one of the most contested issues in South Africa (the inability of the poor to gain access to drugs is inequality’s deadly new face). Thabo Mbeki is famous for having questioned the link between HIV and Aids and for playing down the pandemic; at a conference in 2004 organised by the South African High Commission in London to celebrate ten years of democracy, Aids was barely mentioned. Such reticence, to which TAC has come as the dramatically effective response, is not wholly surprising. Aids is a gift for those who relish the prospect of a failing black-ruled South Africa (or worse, see black Africa as the primordial, world-contaminating source of the disease).

In 2001, TAC successfully sued the government for not ensuring that drugs enabling the prevention of mother-to-child transmission were available (35,000 HIV-positive babies are born each year). More recently, TAC has proceeded with litigation against the minister of health for allowing a German vitamin-maker, Matthias Rath, to distribute unregistered medicines and advertise unproven remedies for Aids. At the end of his biography, Suresh Roberts turns on Gordimer for supporting TAC – he appears to brook no criticism of Mbeki – as well as attacking Edwin Cameron, the High Court judge whose public admission of his own positive status has been crucial in reducing the stigma of the disease (Mandela wrote the preface to his book, Witness to Aids, which came out last year). Gordimer has also edited an anthology of short stories by international writers, Telling Tales, the profits from which go to Aids education and treatment. ‘Have we perhaps not abused our contingent freedoms,’ she asked in a 1996 essay, ‘moving about the world, taking as our right a disregard for the social and sexual mores of other people, seeing concourse across borders and classes not as an exchange of cultures but as a sweeping aside of them’ (Roberts reads this as indicting the impoverished as much as the privileged, whereas the ‘we’ surely makes it clear who is the target of blame). In Telling Tales, Gordimer reminds us of such brutal crossings by choosing as her contribution ‘The Ultimate Safari’, which describes the flight of a Mozambican family through the Kruger Park to South Africa (the only story she has written from inside the mind of a black child).

In Get a Life, Aids makes the uneasy passage into Gordimer’s fiction. Paul Bannerman’s mother, Lyndsay, adopts a three-year-old HIV-positive orphan and rape victim as the novel comes to an end (with the reactor halted, and the birth of a new baby to Paul and his wife on the last page, the final note is upbeat). This unexpected turn-around follows another: her husband, Adrian, at the end of the archaeological trip to Mexico they had long promised themselves on his retirement, announces he is leaving her for their 35-year-old Norwegian tour guide. The reader shares the double shock, not least because it was the son, not the self-sacrificing parents – the grey background to his sick radiance – that this novel, or so it seemed, was meant to be about. In a much earlier short story, ‘Sins of the Third Age’, a husband similarly tells his wife, just as they are about to move to the house in Italy they have been preparing for their retirement, that he has ‘met someone’. Gordimer was writing about the third age long before she got there: its appearance here is not autobiographical. Rather, it retrieves the ‘slow mutation of emotion, hidden, all-penetrative’ evoked by Helen Shaw in The Lying Days (retirement would then be the great myth of stability, rarely addressed in fiction not because of its tedium but because of its threat). But the unanticipated, extravagant nature of the gesture – its staginess – also serves to make an ethical and political point. To be surprised, or even shocked, by Lyndsay’s adopting of the orphan might be a way of registering the distance: between continuing white privilege and the world, say, of Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town whose population has been devastated by Aids. ‘Those living in affluence,’ Cameron writes, ‘often do not see, still less have any contact with, people suffering from preventable illness, avoidable hunger and remediable destitution.’

White woman saves black Aids orphan: the trope hovers perilously close to patronage (abandoned wife finds new cause). An act of atonement for apartheid, with disquieting echoes of Coetzee’s Disgrace, in which a white woman who is raped by blacks and becomes pregnant resolves to keep the child. As if to forestall objections, Gordimer allows the character to admit: ‘Her own motives were suspect to her.’ Who is saving whom? And yet Gordimer knows from TAC that individual acts of redemption, as opposed to state intervention, will not save South Africa from Aids. ‘I was taking the drugs,’ Cameron writes, ‘only because I could afford them.’ In Get a Life, the battle with the pharmaceutical companies over drugs is invisible: ‘There was a good chance, said the paediatrician Lyndsay took the child to, that her HIV-positive status would correct itself shortly.’ HIV redeems itself. This is surely where the critique of corporations – the son’s struggle – is most needed. One half of the novel has lost the other’s political spirit. Aids belongs to the heart. Once again the saving, private domain carries the burden of political fear. Having the child be a rape victim also sidesteps the key issue of mother-to-child transmission (while, again like Disgrace, evoking the spectre of black rape, and, at the same time, considerably raising the black-child-as-helpless-victim stakes). ‘If I were to sum up in a word what is the most striking feature of South African society,’ Gordimer wrote to Harry Levin in 1976, ‘I would say without hesitation “ambiguity”.’ In this context, however, ambiguity is of limited value. Charlene, the Aids worker who first took Lyndsay to the orphanage, talks of her work among HIV and Aids sufferers:

– What happens to the babies? Many die? And if they survive, with treatment. They do get treatment?

– Many die. What can you do. They’ve been left in public toilets. Some in the street, the police find them and bring them in.

– The mothers?

– Nobody knows the mothers, who’re the fathers.

The child – Lyndsay calls her Klara – is one of thousands of abandoned Aids orphans ‘found without a name’, ‘a child of unknown parentage, abandoned no one knows by whom’. Is the mother or the rape the source of the disease?

In one of Gordimer’s stories from the 1950s, ‘Which New Era Would That Be?’, a liberal young white woman visits a Johannesburg printing shop. At the climax of the story, one of the black men who works there describes how he was made to have his lunch out on the stoep during a visit to a trade-union boss with a white colleague, after they had all had a drink together. ‘I feel I must tell you,’ she says as she is leaving, ‘about that other story – your first one, about the lunch. I don’t believe it. I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t.’ It was, the narrator comments, ‘the final self-immolation by honest understanding … She would go to the length of calling him a liar to show by frankness how much she respected him.’ After she has left, one of the men kicks the chair he had cleared for her to sit on and sends it flying. The story is an allegory of white writing. Its genius is the way it portrays the complete breakdown of understanding between blacks and whites – ‘These were the white women who, Jake knew, persisted in regarding themselves as your equal. That was even worse, he thought, than the parsons who persisted in regarding you as their equal’ – even as Gordimer goes inside the thoughts of the black characters to make her point. ‘There is no representation of our social reality,’ Gordimer replied to a hostile questioner at a conference, ‘without that strange area of our lives in which we have knowledge of each other.’ The implied symmetry is, however, misleading, as the early story makes clear. For while it may be true that the oppressed knows the oppressor (she/he has to), how can the oppressor – without repeating the basic offence – ever claim knowledge of the oppressed?

In South Africa, it’s Gordimer’s portrayal of her black characters which causes the most objections. It is one of the reasons she has never enjoyed there the status she has outside Africa. Her portrayal of Thapelo in Get a Life sways between empathy and condescension, the combination she made her target in ‘Which New Era Would That Be?’ In his use of mother-tongue slang, Thapelo is still living the street life of blacks: ‘It’s not what he’s emancipated from, it’s what he hasn’t, won’t leave behind.’ In a stroke, Gordimer frames, or even corners, the progressive bilingualism of her own text (there is a glossary for Thapelo at the end). The ‘won’t’ carries the ambivalence. Although I do not think this is what Gordimer intends, it allows the sentence to be read: why won’t the blacks grow up, give up the past, enter the colonial tongue? Bannerman ‘teases him; in appreciation’. There is still the sense in Gordimer that empathy or – today – appreciation should be enough, even while she charts the reasons that empathy must fail, will never on its own be sufficient. But if she had been true to the insight of the earlier story, it is not clear that she would have been able to write about South Africa at all.

If, finally, we put back together the two halves of Get a Life – the mother’s regressive benevolence, the son’s struggle against nuclear development – we can recognise the central dichotomy of Gordimer’s work: one half appeals to a liberal solution of ills which the other shows to be way beyond liberalism’s reach. Over the past half century, no writer has done more to explore this dilemma. Gordimer is of course not the only writer who cannot quite accept what she knows. In her latest novel, she communicates once again how much she both wishes, and doesn’t wish, that she could have been something else.

[*] 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).