by Nadine Gordimer ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 5, 1981
As in the title story of A Soldier's Embrace (1980), Gordimer takes the South African dilemma that one step further here: it's the very near future, the black revolution has come at last--and what happens then to good white liberal Johannes-burgers like Barn and Maureen Smales? ""There was nothing else to do but the impossible, now they had stayed too long."" So architect Barn, wife Maureen, and their three small children must flee, must hide from the burning and killing in the streets and at the airports: in their ""bakkie"" (a small truck, a sporting vehicle), they escape deep into the country--to the mud-hut home village of their ""saviour,"" their longtime house servant July. And, with a Dostoevskyan instinct for nosing up intolerable situations, Gordimer teases out the tensions and nuances of the Smales' life as fugitive-guests--""July's people""--now completely dependent on a black man's generosity. There's the expected irony of soft middle-class folk forced to live a bottom-line existence: one hard bed shared by the family (much sleeping on car-seats); the children learning to use stones instead of toilet paper; the heightened awareness of smells and exposed bodies (""He would never have believed that pale hot neck under long hair when she was young could become her father's neck that he remembered in a Sunday morning bowling shirt""). But even more finely dramatic is the interplay between former masters and former servant--as roles reverse, new awarenesses emerge, and comforting premises become untenable. Maureen discovers that July--the most scrupulously well-treated of servants--has stolen useless little gadgets over the years. Barn writhes with stifled anger when July quite reasonably retains possession of the keys to the bakkie. The couple learns what it's like to be dependent on someone else--no matter how kindly that someone may be--for the basics of life. Maureen has a series of oblique confrontations with July--over seemingly petty matters--that culminate in the baring of his anger and the rising of her fear: ""How was she to have known, until she came here, that the special consideration she had shown for his dignity as a man, while he was by definition a servant, would become his humiliation itself. . . ."" And with the politics, too, Gordimer catches the light from unexpected, convincing angles: the fearful white visitors are taken to see July's tribal chief--who, rather than ordering them to leave, asks them to help him repel the revolution (""When those Soweto and Russias, what-you-call-it come, you shoot with us""). True, the ending here seems a bit too abrupt; and the prose, often searingly exact, occasionally becomes artily self-conscious. But never before has Gordimer so perfectly balanced the political and the personal. With the help of a few symbolic-but-wholly-real totems--a set of keys, a gun, a bed--she has taken one of today's largest stories and has swirled it, as in a centrifuge, into one small, grippingly life-sized tale that's almost unbearably dense with feeling and import.
Pub Date: June 5, 1981
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1981
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