Ironic what-ifs and narrative legerdemain are featured in the 1991 Nobel laureate’s 11th story collection.
Several of its 11 pieces are fragmentary, and one suspects they’re embryos of fuller stories left unwritten. For example, “A Frivolous Woman” depicts the trouble caused by a German Jewish woman (“A grandmother who’d never grown up”) who escapes death at the hands of the Nazis despite refusing to scale back her hyperactive social life, and “Safety Procedures” describes a turbulent airplane flight which nevertheless offers the spectacle of a woman passenger possessed of a preternatural inner calm. In the inchoate title story, Gordimer envisions a future in which whites proudly claim, rather than attempt to conceal, evidence of African descent. She seems to enjoy herself in a nondescript tale (“History”) of people whose secrets are revealed by a parrot with a “relentless memory,” and a rather better one (“Gregor”) that riffs amusingly on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. There’s little more than affectionate tribute in “Dreaming of the Dead,” which imagines a conversation on “policies and ideologies” conducted in a Chinese restaurant by the late Susan Sontag and Edward Said, joined by South African newspaper editor Anthony Sampson. Gordimer surprises us with “Tape Measure,” in which a tapeworm narrator discusses with compressed allegorical ingenuity the strategies of surviving in an unfriendly host (country?), and the perfectly titled “Allesverloren,” about a widow who recaptures an ampler understanding of her late husband’s life by meeting with his former gay lover. At first appearance a stunt, this beautifully articulated story becomes increasingly dramatic, tense and achingly sad: It’s a near-perfect miniature. The volume concludes with “Alternative Endings,” which gathers three thematically similar stories whose developments are shaped by the physical senses of sound, sight and smell. It’s labored and uninvolving.
Mostly finger exercises (think Mozart’s shorter works), but the best of them are executed with finesse and power.