Black woman, white man: Jabu and Steve, the mixed-race couple Nadine Gordimer has built “No Time Like the Present” around, are trying to lead a normal life in the new South Africa. Insofar as anybody can.
Once they were armed revolutionaries in what they’ll forever refer to as the Struggle.
Now they’re raising two kids in a Johannesburg suburb alongside a few of their old comrades and a gay household in a deconsecrated church.
It’s a left-leaning Eden: “a place, a home where color, sexual partnership, have nothing to do with the qualities of living in freedom.”
As even that tiny extract suggests, Gordimer’s syntax has grown more challenging over the years. It combines interior monologue, which looks back to Joyce and Woolf, with what you could call exterior monologue, delivered by an impersonal social observer in possession of a political precision that brings Orwell to mind.
With property, private-school bills and good careers, Jabu and Steve are a little uneasy about having joined “the bourgeoisie of the comrades.”
But Gordimer’s treatment of them is irony-free; gentle mockery doesn’t seem to be in her arsenal. Her two heroes are almost too decent to be credible. Or interesting.
As a result, the conflict in the novel has to come from the outside. And at 88, with more than 30 books (and the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature) behind her, Gordimer has the tools to capture a society atomizing into chaos.
Crime and Hunger
The color-blind country Jabu and Steve fought for has become “the most economically unequal in the world.” Hunger is rampant; so is violent crime. (A neighbor is shot in a carjacking.) Desperate refugees streaming in from other parts of Africa are attacked by desperate South Africans who see them as job stealers.
Jabu and Steve are even more horrified by the rapacity of leaders who once commanded the Struggle and have now turned into “reborn clones of apartheid bosses.” There’s a lot of talk about Jacob Zuma (today the president of South Africa), who was charged with 72 counts of fraud and corruption, as well as with rape.
“This is what the years in prison, exile, deaths in the bush battles were for,” the former comrades seethe. Under its serene prose, “No Time Like the Present” is burning.
But should we be surprised? Gordimer’s rage made me think of what Jamaica Kincaid once wrote about the liberation of slaves: “Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.”
For an outsider like me, it’s perhaps too easy to point out that the fight against apartheid hasn’t yielded a Robespierre, a Stalin or a Mugabe. If revolution has to have a second act, disillusion beats terror.
Jabu and Steve are so disgusted that they spend the second half of the novel preparing to move to Australia. Not for a minute did I believe these saintly ex-revolutionaries would really forsake their homeland.
The more they talked about it, the more impatient I got. At some point I realized that what had been an intelligent pleasure had turned into a slog.
Who can imagine Nadine Gordimer leaving South Africa? Eighty-eight is too late to start despairing, and it doesn’t seem to be in her nature anyway. The question she puts in Steve’s head sounds much more like her: “What are you doing about it.”
It’s a sign of her idiosyncratic style that the question mark is nowhere to be seen. But then she isn’t really asking a question. She’s providing an answer -- declaring that the need for doing something never ends -- and it pretty well encapsulates her career.
“No Time Like the Present” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. and Bloomsbury in the U.K. (421 pages, $27, 18.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)