Nadine Gordimer at Eighty-Two

By Naparstek, Ben | Tikkun, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview

Nadine Gordimer at Eighty-Two


Naparstek, Ben, Tikkun


AT EIGHTY-TWO, NADINE Gordimer remains identified with her muscular political novels that chronicle the depredations of apartheid. Yet while her antiapartheid fiction won her the Nobel Prize in 1991, Gordimer insists that there was nothing more liberating for her creative consciousness than apartheid's demise. "Life began, opened up, after the fall of apartheid," she says. "Apartheid was limiting on our experience. Now we're free to think of anything, to enter all different relationships, to explore our feelings about them and our prejudices. We have far more subjects than ever before."

But as Gordimer's fourteenth novel, Get a Life, attests, the personal and the political remain no less entwined in her explorations of racially integrated South Africa. The desecration of the environment-once neglected by activists because of the greater urgency of fighting racial segregation-provides Gordimer's theme. Her protagonist, Paul Bannerman, is a thirty-five-year-old conservationist, campaigning to block the development of a "pebble-based" nuclear reactor. Paul s wife Benni is an ambitious advertising executive on the payroll of the corporations his team of ecologists is battling against. When Paul is struck with thyroid cancer, he undergoes treatment that makes him radioactive-a threat to all who come in contact with him. Gordimer explains, "he becomes the one who is producing the very form of destructive power that he is fighting in the social and political field."

Gordimer, who always resisted propagandizing, acknowledges the nuances of the case for nuclear reactors. "We know that they are dangers. On the other hand, we desperately need more sources of electrical power, and fossil fuel resources are going to run out." Two years after Get a Life was completed, the plans for the pebble-based reactor haven't been abandoned. "The last amount of money needed hasn't yet quite come. One day it's on hold, the next day it starts again, but it's there."

A longtime friend of Nelson Mandela, Gordimer is internationally recognized as one of the most vocal and tireless critics of apartheid. Yet she remains modest about her role in breaking the back of the apartheid regime, insisting that she wasn't a genuine revolutionary. "I had friends who spent long times in prison and who suffered the privations of exile, which I didn't. I didn't go as far as that in the actions that I took against apartheid." Together with her late husband, a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany, Gordimer sheltered persecuted firebrands in her home and helped to bring the liberation struggle to international attention. "We learned to disregard all the good training we had from our parents about telling the truth. One became an accomplished liar. If one was questioned, one said: 'Oh no, one hadn't seen so-and-so for years.'"

Raised in a goldmining town fifty kilometers outside of Johannesburg, Gordimer endured an isolated childhood after her mother removed her from school because Gordimer was thought to have a heart murmur. "I didn't have young companions. I was writing as a child, so I had some interest in privacy, but it was terribly lonely." Gordimer is unwilling to discuss the less benign psychological motives which she's suggested were behind her mother's need to have her only daughter near her. "She's long dead so let her rest in peace."

As a child, Gordimer never imagined that her writing would lead to a career. "It seemed to me that you had to be in Europe to be a writer. Everything that I read came from Europe." She laments that the origins of her career lay in the privilege of her white upbringing. "I had the use of the local public library, which was closed to black people, and the only real training a writer has is reading."

Gordimer first became aware of the gulf which separated her from her parents' attitudes when the family was awoken one night by the sound of police searching their black maid's room for illegally brewed alcohol. …

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