on 5 September 2013
I had mislaid this book and only recently discovered it in the back of a wardrobe and decided to read it on the basis of "better late than never". For such a short novel Nadine Gordimer's July's People raises many questions and covers a lot of ground. It is set during a fictional civil war in which Black South Africans have violently overthrown the Apartheid system and the story centres on the Smales family who have been forced to flee Johannesburg and have been given shelter by their black servant, July, in his native village. Bam and Maureen Smales are liberal white South Africans who together with their three children now find themselves dependent on July whose family is not too happy with their presence in the village.
The story opens on the morning following an exhausting three-day journey from Johannesburg to the village. While the Smales' three children adapt quickly and well to life in the village, it is much more difficult for Bam and Maureen. In an effort to be useful Bam builds a water tank and also shoots a wild pig but Maureen feels a huge sense of loss and is unable to read the novel she brought with her as she realises "no fiction could compete with what she was finding she did not know". She remembers a scene from her childhood in South Africa in which a black schoolfriend carried Maureen's books on her head and wonders why. There is a subtle shift in power between the former white employers and their erstwhile black servant and it soon becomes apparent that July feels he is entitled to the Smales' car in recognition of the risks he has taken in providing them with shelter.
I consider Maureen to be the pivotal character in this novel as we are privy to her constant thoughts, doubts and interpretation of events and situations both recent and long past. She had always considered herself and Bam to be completely liberal and fair-minded but when she discovers some items in July's house that she used to have in her home in Johannesburg, and even though she had always trusted July, she eventually confronts him. He responds angrily in his own tongue and Maureen has a sudden flash of insight (in what is probably my favourite passage in the book)-
"She understood although she knew no word. Understood everything; what he had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him. But for himself to be, intelligent, honest, dignified for her was nothing; his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others. She was not his mother his wife, his sister, his friend, his people."
Gordimer's writing style is probably not the easiest read with its slightly odd structure and lack of quotation marks for the dialogue but I did not find this a problem once I settled into the book. While this was very much a novel of its time, particularly with all that has come to pass in South Africa since it was written, I still feel that this is a hugely rewarding story with almost the perfect ambiguous ending and will surely resonate for some time with others as it did with me.
on 20 February 2008
In July's People Nadine Gordimer presents a scenario laden with fears. Written in 1981, the book presents a South Africa afflicted by near-worst case Cold War disintegration. With rumoured external support, the urban black population has instigated a revolution of sorts, transforming the cities into war zones. No longer "nice" places to be, they are no longer home for decent white liberals like Bam and Maureen and their youngsters.
Twenty-five years on, it is this aspect o July's people that grates. The scenario now seems horribly and, perhaps, naively, simplistic, improbable. At the time, people saw things differently, from a perspective that is difficult to communicate to anyone who did not live in through the Cold War.
But then this is an unimportant point. We do not criticize Orwell for the passing of 1984 without Big Brother. Neither do we regard Huxley's current lack of either Bravery or Novelty as a restriction on the relevance of his book to our world. Similarly, the scenario of Margaret Attwood's Handmaid's Tale makes the novel both possible and successful, but its likelihood is no more probable as a result of this well-conceived fiction.
So Nadine Gordimer's scenario, once accommodated, can be taken as a given, an imagined premise upon which the free-standing substance of the story both develops and succeeds, and then this becomes a strength of the book, not a weakness.
Bam and Maureen, long-time employers of a "houseboy" called July, decide on flight. They pack what little they can in the bakkie - a go-anywhere, basic truck of local manufacture, and set off, mother, father, their two boys, and July, their "boy" to seek safety. Bam bought the truck for bush trips, weekends when they might commune with nature in a limited, controlled way, protected from the harsher demands of Mother Nature by the maintained proximity of a retreat to urban protection.
But now the laden truck is driving into new territory. The city is uninhabitable and the journey to July's rural home area is potentially one way. And so the white-black, black-white relationships of employment, protection, patronage, reliance and condescension are reversed - or at least questioned. And so the liberal white family must come to terms with the precarious necessity of rural poverty. They discover things in themselves that a sophisticated city gloss has hidden or suppressed. They realize how dependent they have been upon status, a commodity not valued in a fundamentally more cooperative way of living.
July's People is presented from Maureen's perspective. She is thirty-nine, a fundamentally confident, though constantly doubting, forceful mother and wife. As the book progresses, she tries to preserve the memory of the family's former life as a way of protecting herself and her brood from the threats of new unknowns. Their "boy", July, is generous, kind, but also pragmatic, and realizes he must make sacrifices on their behalf.
July's People is ultimately enigmatic. It remains undermined to a degree by the hindsight-rendered unlikeliness of its scenario. Its most powerful statement is the way in which the sensibilities of the urban sophisticates are questioned by mere natural necessity. It is a short book, but feels much bigger, much more of a statement as a result of Nadine Gordimer's pithy, abrasive style.
Just as the rural poor find a use for everything, Nadine Gordimer wastes not a single phrase or even word, and neither does she consume more than she needs. The book's prose is economical in the extreme, the language sometimes pricking like the thorn bush described. It remains a moving book about culture and social identity, despite the unlikeliness of its setting.
on 18 July 2012
This.novel is set in an imaginary South Africa in 1980 or so. A white family has been taken by their black servant July to his village for safety following urban rioting. They all have a hard time adjusting. What's good and what's bad in their past is alike destroyed.
This is delicately writes and plotted. The pain caused by apartheid on a human level comes through very clearly.
on 23 August 2001
Maureen Smales, the White bourgois wife and mother of three children in Johannesburg, finds herself in the middle of the South African wilderness, a guest of her own servant. The Smales have safely gone through the 1976 and the 1980s riots, but now the situation has gone beyond control. Black people are ravaging the country, raising hell for White people and chasing them out of their own houses. The Smales are 'lucky to be alive', that's why they have to put up with all the inconveniences of settlement in a hut in the middle of nowhere. the narrator meticulously depicts the White family's lapse into a black life of filth, physical discomfort and humiliating dependency upon their host, July. A spoilt servant from 'back there', July continues to maintain the previous relationship of black servant to white master, but the circumstances appear to be grossly inadequate to either that habitual relationship or the simple interplay of hosting accomodation. The narrative shows the gradual breakdown of white power, white urban ethics and etiquette and white racial superiority. The loss of the car and the gun are symbolic acts of castration of white civilisation, while no attempts to bridge the gap between the white family and the community of blacks that accomodates them are signalled. As the gap remains unbridgeable, the awesome aura of whiteness is gradually dispelled around the Smales as they lapse into physical degradation and repulsiveness. July's People is a piece of fiction that is beyond the grasp of its own characters, where the fictional confounds its own creation with the disproportionate sense of nightmare. Maureen Smales feels she is the inhabitant of a book and she dreamily moves through its thorny space. Gordimer's character is a trapped woman wondering at the magic of her captivity, whence no logic could ever liberate her.
Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. As is customary, the Nobel committee makes the award to the author, and does not normally specify a particular work. This novel and The Conservationist would be leading contenders for the basis of the award. The book was first published 30 years ago, a decade before the generally peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa. White colonial rule in Angola and Mozambique had ended only six years earlier, through guerrilla wars of liberation, and it was only two decades since the end of French rule in Algeria, after an eight year revolutionary war of independence. Algeria remained a terrible model for what could occur in South Africa. Both countries were ruled by whites, who were a substantial minority of the overall population, and whose ancestral presence in the respective countries extended back well over a century, if not two or three. And it was the "Algerian model" that Gordimer postulated in this novel.
Gordimer provides some chilling details of the revolution against white rule, including the shooting down of a civilian airliner leaving Jans Smuts airport in Johannesburg, and the apparent disintegration of white resistance to the black revolutionaries. But this is kept in the deep background. The social upheaval is told through the interactions of one white liberal family, the Smales, who must flee their home due to the violence, with the very minimum of possessions, and seek refuge in the village of their servant, July. The village is located over 600 kilometers away, most likely in Mozambique, although Gordimer does not specify. They flee in a "bakkie," which is a small truck.
A bit of a "suspension of disbelief" is required to accept the author's framework in which the roles of "master" and "servant" are being reversed. More than likely, as in many other sudden violent shifts in power relations, the Smales would have continued to flee to the coast, in the hopes of being evacuated. Gordimer never mentions this option, but instead has the Smales accepting their fate, and a reversal of living standards, by adapting to life in July's native village. This fascinating scenerio is the true beauty of the novel. The author is such a keen observer of the subtle aspects of power relationships, and how small slights can fester, and surface, even after 15 years of a seeming generally amicable relationship. And there are the skills that must be learned now that one is far closer to nature than the cocoon of suburban Jo'burg: "While her daughter-in-law tried to satisfy the questions of this white woman who had had to be taught the difference between a plant that even a cow knew better than to chew..."
Gordimer is African, born and raised, of the "white tribe." The natural world of Africa is also deeply embedded in the background, and lovingly described, even its less pleasant aspects. Pointedly, her Africa is NOT: "the village coincides with the generic moment of the photographer's village, seen from afar; its circles encircled by the landscape, held in the pantheistic hand, the single community of man-and-nature-in-Africa reproduced by skilled photogravure processes in Holland or Switzerland."
Ancient history? A possible historical scenario in a far-away land that did not transpire? Yes, fortunately so, thanks to the work of Gordimer, and a few dedicated others, blacks and whites, who managed to avoid the bloodbath. But the novel retains its validity, with universal themes: power relationships in society, fears of economic loss, and our dependency on the natural world. When I visited South Africa on three different occasions, at the same time Gordimer wrote this book, their tourist agency had a slogan: "South Africa, the whole world in one country." In ways the agency did not intend, it's true: the "rich" mainly white "First World," still consuming more of its share of the economic pie, and the many others, of various colors, demanding new power relationships. 5-stars plus.
on 1 July 2015
I gave up two thirds of the way through. I wasn't enjoying it at all, but struggled on because we were to discuss it at my reading group... I found the characters repellant (even their names are ghastly), the timescale confusing and much of the imagery and references about Maureen and Bam's bodies unnecessary to the plot. Those of us who made it to the end weren't sure what they'd just read and felt a sense of anticlimax. Frankly grim - one of those 'worthy' books one feels one should read, but doesn't really want to.
on 26 January 2009
This short, ambiguous and intensely claustrophobic novel, written at the height of apartheid, imagines a revolution where Black people throughout South Africa are rising up, reclaiming their country and murdering any white people they find. The white liberal middle-class couple Maureen and Bam have been relatively respectful and supportive of their black Servant, July, over many years, and so he agrees to shelter them in his rural village while the worst of the violence ensues outside. The novel centres on how this white family barely acclimatises to this relatively primitive life, how they interact with the black community around them, and their ongoing relationship with July, who now is in effect the master of their domain. The style, mainly told through the eyes of Maureen and Bam, is stilted, with half-sentences, unexpected changes of subject, at times almost hallucinatory physical detail, yet only a sparse smattering of inner thoughts. The world and everyone in it seems to be subjected to a conceptual fog. As the novel progresses, Maureen and Bam increasingly, unwittingly, lose their former civilised possessions and symbols of power, as step by step they are reduced to the black people they are living with, and July's attitude towards them shifts towards defiance and indifference. They stumble through basic survival as if in dementia - they have no idea who steals their prized white possessions or how, they only hear transitory snippets of the state of the world and the revolution outside, and even their memories of their past relations with July at times seems hopelessly flawed. The only clarity for the reader to emerge occurs during the dialogue, which is blisteringly accurate, particularly between Maureen and Bam, but even here most chats are littered with failures to understood each other's thoughts. Sometimes this is simply because of the problems with language, but one suspects it also reflects that no one understands themselves or their motives, let alone anyone else's . So these spoken sentences are meagre oases in a novel which gains considerable power from its vagueness, ambiguity and seeming lack of direction. It is almost impossible for us to place on a firm footing any of the relationships between the major characters, particularly of that between July and Maureen, which at times could be defined as Master and Slave, at others is the reverse of this, and still at other moments feels like two lovers or even an old married couple. It is equally difficult to understand why July looks after this white family. Such profound ambiguities of relationships run through this central artery of the novel and pervade every inch of its flesh. They also make it an absolutely fascinating and rich read, and one that probably demands a second reading immediately after the first.
on 16 August 2005
A challenging work on race relationship in Apartheid South Africa from the colour-blind angle that allowed light to settle on the sweet energy of a progressive South Africa . The dream of a rainbow nation must have cannot be dissociated from this book. Gordimer joined the ranks of Achebe, Tisi and Patton in contributing to the jolting nature of Africa' s jolting literature. In different ways, JULY'S PEOPLE also reminded me of DISCIPLES OF FORTUNE, A BLADE OF GRASS, which are African novels with wake up call story lines
on 5 March 2010
I think its best for me to be straight with you all and say I went into reading `July's People' with certain expectations. I thought `this will be a gory and horrific tale of the tumultuous events in South Africa, its going to be emotional shocking and something bad will happen to the main characters' and that interestingly isn't the case at all with this book. The actual story follows the flight from the city of white couple Bam and Maureen Smales have been living in luxury for years. Their saviour is their servant of fifteen years July who drives them to the safety of his village, a poverty stricken village where food must be caught and money has no real value. From here on in through the eyes of all the characters involved we look at how life changes for all the parties involved as they wait for whatever fate has in store for them and as they struggle to gain a new order of power in their new situations.
Despite being written through many characters eyes, in a slightly disorientating style which I will come to in a moment, the tale really gravitates around Maureen. A woman who clearly believes she was the best mistress a servant could have has her eyes shockingly opened and yet fights it. She feels gratitude for being rescued and then as the power shifts her true colours slowly emerge. She also never really fits in, though does she actually try to or is she a woman trapped? I found the idea of the story really interesting; it looks at how some whites had treated blacks and how things could be when roles are reversed. I say could be because I later found out this book was written by Gordimer as a possible future prediction for South Africa and was what she thought could happen not what actually happened, once I knew that afterwards the book in a strange way made much more sense.
The other thing that threw me at first apart from trying to place this historically was Gordimer's writing style. I actually had to read the opening chapter three times to gain any gist of it because very like a certain Miss Woolf there is a stream of consciousness to it. You hop skip and jump between characters and their thoughts not only between paragraphs but also on occasion in between sentences. Interestingly I adapted to it and ended up, about 30 pages in, forgetting how it was written because I was very much in the story will the people. An author I would like to try again in the future for sure.
on 28 January 2015
a thought provoking book - Nadine Gorimer takes you with her - you can feel and sense the tention