The collision of personal and political agendas and ideals is analyzed with radiant precision and wit in the 1991 Nobel laureate’s ninth collection: eight adamantine stories and two ambitious novellas.
Several of the former are commandingly terse, including the parabolic title story, in which an earthquake reveals both a cluttered ocean floor and the consequences in store for “scavengers” who scurry to its depths; a wry tale of inchoate sexual surrender (“The Diamond Mine”); the monologue of an assassin visiting the grave of his widely beloved victim (“Homage”); and a mordant peek at the transitory nature of earthly pleasures seen in the context of a malarial mosquito’s lurking presence (“An Emissary”). Gordimer’s underappreciated comic gift sparkles in “The Generation Gap,” a beautifully handled tale showing how adult children react when their aging father leaves their mother for a much younger woman. It’s a rich revelation of generational and gender incompatibility and miscommunication, which ends with a jolt as Gordimer engineers a sudden shift of viewpoint. She’s a brilliant technician, as evidenced by a masterly style that blends serpentine discursive sentences with crisp, clipped fragments: the effect is of a roving intelligence constantly surprised, and stimulated to further exploration, by its own insights. Her methods work to near-perfection in the novellas “Karma,” in which a deceased insurance executive’s spirit makes successive returns to earth (as, e.g., a male, a female, a stillborn baby) “to continue his experience in another place, time”; and in its counterpart, “Mission Statement,” the story of a middle-aged Englishwoman, Roberta Blayne, who works for an international aid agency in an impoverished African nation, where she has a sexual relationship with a native “Deputy Director of Land Affairs”—but declines the opportunity to become his “second wife.” The tale’s an amazingly compact study of racial and social divisions and their stifling denial of individual freedom.
Gordimer (The Pickup, 2001, etc.) can still deliver a rabbit punch to the solar plexus as efficiently as anybody now writing. Maybe they should give her the Nobel Prize again.