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.