REVIEW: Karin Schimke
Sweeping, cohesive, almost epic – and I use the word advisedly – in its scope, No Time Like The Present is the literary thermostat under the tongue of democratic South Africa. But to get the reading you first have to break an almost impossible code.
Nadine Gordimer remains the nation’s one true instrument for taking the political and sociological temperature, but in this, her fifteenth novel, she makes no concessions to the reader; appears to have no truck with stylistic niceties; considers – it seems – no-one and nothing in a fever to get down what must be gotten down.
The reader must simply learn to read over, through and under the convoluted stream-of-consciousness writing. The prose is inconsistently and oddly punctuated. Truncated sentences contain subordinate clauses which contain their own subordinate clauses. Points of view flit and alight not just from chapter to chapter, but sometimes within paragraphs.
It’s rough going. It is very, very rough going.
And yet, here it is: the one novel that sums it all up, that combs through the knots and lice of democracy’s tangled hair and seems to smooth it all out for our stunned observation. Minutia swept together – sparkles and shards and the dust of a thousand post-freedom political storms and intimate tussles of conscience in a book which balks at nothing.
Steve and Jabu are the poster post-apartheid couple – he, white, middle-classed, born to a Christian father and a Jewish mother; she, the educated Zulu daughter of a church elder and school principal from KwaZulu-Natal. Their children are coloured, their friends, ex-Umkhonto We Sizwe cadres, their values and ideals in line with the struggle they fought for freedom in South Africa.
Now they are in “the present time”, finding a way to live “(a) normal life. (At last?) What is that. In what time and place?”. (This irregular punctuation is Gordimer’s).
They move from a flat to a suburb, she from teaching to law, he from working in a paint factory after making bombs in the underground, to being a science lecturer at university. Each grapples earnestly with the challenges of a split country, doing extra work – for free – in their attempts to help knit together a badly fractured society.
In a very general way, post-apartheid writing has followed two main, decidedly uncheerful themes: in non-fiction the tomes that record the rotten arms deal; in fiction crime, that burgeoning genre garnering our authors international book deals.
Gordimer manages a far wider range, her riff more perplexed, more doleful and more poignant than her cerebral, biltong-tough writing makes apparent. There are zero simple answers – there is no black and white in freedom, though black and white underpins it all – that will account for the dismaying turn the country’s fortunes has taken.
“For this we fought?” asks a character.
She is thorough, punctilious and meticulous as she lays out the map of free South Africa, pointing bluntly at that which sickens and appals. And she does this – convincingly – through the eyes of former freedom fighters, loyal supporters of the ANC.
There is no public event or concern she avoids: capitalism, poverty, degradation of the environment, HIV/Aids, crime, corruption, immigrants and xenophobia, emigration, school bullying (and the underlying reef of violence that nudges sickeningly above ground at various times), education, electricity, service delivery protests, affirmative action.
There is no personal emotion that she doesn’t lift out of the mess to examine: responsibility, duty, betrayal, patriotism, the desire for a “a normal life” (which, questions Steve, might also include for him and his privileged family the Epicurean “right to happiness” – and the guilt this produces in one who, like all freedom fighters, put the greater good before personal satisfaction), the shame of racism, the horror of watching principled men and women fall to greed and genuflect to the requirements the ascension to power lays before them.
Gordimer speaks eloquently to the development of the self – “The synthesis of the self” – portraying the country too as a self that must grow. The country is an adolescent, she has one of her characters think, offering it not as an excuse for bad behaviour, but an almost exasperated, perhaps even hopeful, observation of the obvious.
She also reflects on the dismay when the thing that is being grown (a person, a self, a country) grows skew, gnarls in unexpected ways, showing selfishness, and dangerous concessions to cult of the individual.
Marriage, making whole, growing up – these are leitmotifs trailed by both the characters and the milieu.
In public Gordimer has spoken clearly and consistently against the government’s Protection of Information Bill, colloquially known as the secrecy bill. In the privacy of her disciplined dedication to daily writing, she has laid out why in this novel. Just like apartheid South Africa needed her and her courageous ilk then, so we continue to need our vociferous, critical writers and artists now.
There is no time like the present. The past is – in all ways but the most critical, in its legacy – a different country. What happens now – what has happened in the past 18 years – is where Gordimer has pointed her merciless beam.
In doing so she again will make herself a tolerated – not welcomed individual – amongst the touchy, over-sensitive rulers, just like she was in apartheid SA. Good. She’s our golden thorn in the government’s flesh.
Like loyalty to a country in the face of extreme disregard for its citizens, this book is hard work. But its rewards are far more certain and immediate. It must be read. – Schimke is the Cape Times books editor.