A massive collection of nonfiction by the South African Nobel Prize winner and longtime critic of apartheid.
This omnibus of essays by Gordimer (Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, 2007, etc.) runs chronologically. Though it’s only intermittently autobiographical, it begins with her early years: In “A South African Childhood,” she describes growing up in comfort but never far from the mining industry that introduced her to her homeland’s institutionalized racism. Gordimer addresses apartheid from several angles: as a literary critic, considering the works of black authors who were routinely banned by the state; as a dissident, protesting the racist policies that prompted jailings, violence and uprootings of communities; and as a keen social observer who took note of the intimate bonds that connected blacks and whites when they could meet away from the authorities’ eyes. Her tone on the subject is stern, chastising, mournful, mocking and, once apartheid began to collapse in 1990, jubilant. But what consistently defines her prose is a fierce commitment to addressing the subject openly and in plain speech. Even after the end of apartheid she wrote thoughtfully on the steps that both blacks and whites needed to take to achieve social parity. Telling Times also includes Gordimer’s essays on other topics, mainly literature and philosophy. She had a youthful affinity for French existentialists, and there are numerous close readings of fiction writers from South Africa (J.M. Coetzee, William Plomer), the Middle East and the United States. Away from political or literary concerns, though, the author has a more difficult time finding her footing. Her travel pieces on the Congo, Botswana and Madagascar are meandering and surprisingly unevocative for a writer who has imagined Africa so powerfully in her fiction. Though her political commitment persists, there’s less force in her later work, mostly briefer articles of the op-ed and keynote-speech variety.
Nonetheless, a much-deserved tribute to Gordimer and a firm reminder of her country’s difficult path to liberation.