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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A denouement avoided..., 14 Oct 2011
This review is from: July's People (Paperback)
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.
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