Entering a world created by a Nadine Gordimer novel is nothing short of willing participation in an unraveling – an unraveling of self, of belief system, of political and emotional perspective, of ability and desire.In The House Gun, published in 1998, Gordimer literally unstitches the seams holding together the lives of her main characters, Claudia and Harald, as they cope with the reality that their only child, their son, has committed a murder. Part I begins with the coy words, Something terrible happened but this is not yet Harald and Claudia’s “terrible”, it is only the news, the busy hum of everyday violence the couple are watching on TV one evening. But then within a paragraph, that hum infiltrates their living room. A messenger arrives. Their lives will never be the same.
This dichotomy between the violence “out there” and the violence “within” soon becomes one of the central sources of the novel’s power. Harald and Claudia have lived relatively quiet and happy lives, not so much oblivious to the violence in their society, but discreetly distant from it. They are quick to point out that they didn’t agree with the apartheid system but neither did they risk their life and security fighting against it. Claudia is a doctor and an atheist, while Harald is the director of an insurance company and a contemplative Christian. They are both politically liberal, in theory supportive of equality but yet admittedly still enmeshed in the mores dictated by an earlier cultural system. The unfathomable act committed by their son soon becomes their only point of reference and each aspect of their life must pass through its prism as they try to understand the unthinkable.
By no means is this an easy novel to read, despite its gripping subject matter. Gordimer’s prose, although at its finely honed best, can be difficult to wade through. Each character is allowed the full expression of their innermost thoughts, not to mention the complicated conversations and musings that become necessary as Harald, Claudia and their son, Duncan, examine themselves and the facts involved.
Finally, Gordimer poses an intriguing social question by setting the crime within a ‘new’ social system, one that has rejected racism and its inherent evils, but whose amoral code of conduct generates its own worrying psychological and sexual aggression.
A thorny but ultimately rewarding read.