Nadine Gordimer isn’t in the running for the best contemporary political novelist just because she routinely transforms politics into dynamic, breathing stories. Amazingly, she’s also been able to make the political dramatic and sensuous since 1949. Few writers are so able to provide the smells, sights and domestication of the political, let alone sustain these skills and interests across more than six decades without becoming preachy or tin-eared. Gordimer’s insistence on writing stories, not manifestos, continues to find engaging conundrums in chaotic South Africa. No Time Like the Present shows no diminishment in her even-handed attention to narrative and justice.
No Time Like the Present concerns the political, social and emotional questions raised by the South Africa of today, not the unquestionable immorality of South African apartheid in decades past. This complex, probing novel is emboldened by its attachment of South African political development to the deepening years of one formerly illegal “mixed-race” marriage.
A product of expatriate Brits and the Jewish Diaspora, chemist Steven Reed has restlessness in the genes. Jabulile Gramede crosses borders all her life, first by resisting the sexism of her rural South Africa and crossing into Swaziland for an education, then languishing in prison before living with Steve in the city.
They meet as young “comrades” in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed guerrillas determined to overthrow apartheid. Eventually, each wonders how to cope with the post-apartheid society where former freedom fighters become corrupt politicians and fellow comrades-in-arms are violently robbed by the people they once risked torture or murder to free. Privately, they also wonder if the marriage forged in the Struggle can survive its volatile aftermath.
In her long, varied career of 14 novels, more than 10 volumes of stories and three non-fiction collections, Gordimer writes politically without trafficking in morally jejune Victim Lit. She never stoops to gross moral simplifications like “slavery is bad.”
The political aspects of Gordimer’s fiction are prismatic: Her multilayered stories are sensuously vivid yet also reveal hidden properties. Even career choice is a luxury for her social activists: “Wasn’t a time, then, to think about what you really might want to do with your life. … Climb Mount Everest or get rich, all cop-outs from reality, indecent sign of being on the side of no change.” They emerge from a time when “She was black, he was white. That was all that mattered. All that was identity then.”
Crucially, however, the nearly nonagenarian Gordimer doesn’t let her star-crossed lovers stay young, idealistic and so clearly on the right side. Their lives mature, even if their country doesn’t.
As they change careers and income brackets, the usual adult guilts of home ownership and private schooling are augmented when fellow nationals everywhere live “under tin and cardboard.” In this time when “everything is after,” Jabu cannot reconcile herself to her educator-father remaining loyal to Jacob Zuma, a former guerrilla who becomes president despite near-constant allegations of crime and corruption.
Unlike many political novels, No Time Like the Present generally avoids feeling like a gallery of landscape paintings without any portraits. This multifaceted rendering of the great postcolonial question about the “transferability of home” finds Jabu and Steve wondering how much longer they can stay in a country where presidents spend millions of dollars on their election celebrations and family birthday parties while millions of people are homeless. (Gordimer has criticized compatriot J.M. Coetzee’s emigration to Australia.)
Compellingly, the couple’s racial integration and seeming frictionlessness over their rural and urban family roots appear more fragile when contemplating emigration than when hiding in the bush making or planting bombs. Despite these active ingredients, the novel does occasionally lack momentum.
Nadine Gordimer continues to write some of the – if not the – most nuanced, attentive and vibrant political novels in English. She forcefully, yet never didactically, reminds Canadian readers of the freedoms and privileges so many of us take for granted.
Darryl Whetter has just released Origins, a book of poems concerned with evolution, energy and extinction. He teaches English and creative writing at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia.