I thought I might start something new here at Logophilia and see if I can’t make it into a bit of a tradition, or at least a regularly recurring piece. What I’d like to instate is a weekly short fiction review. I read a considerable number of short pieces per month but never force myself to think too much about them afterward. But I’m keen to change that and spend some more time exploring short fiction.
I have mentioned before that Nadine Gordimer is one of my all-time favorite authors and she will do quite nicely for this first installment. Gordimer is a South African writer and remains true to her roots, examining the intricacies of her culture and its painful past. She creates unique situations, fraught with dilemma and hampered by personal weakness. I come away from her fiction feeling that I’ve just faced up to some terribly difficult decision or confronted a human failing. Her characters surprise and astound me but never leave me behind, something that a lot of other ‘difficult’ fiction does. In that sense, I consider her a writer concerned with humanity in a larger sense even if her fiction centers almost completely on South Africa.
A few months back I found a collection of Gordimer’s stories in my local 2nd hand bookshop called Six Feet of the Country. Having only read her novels until now, I snatched it up quickly. The title story concerns a single event in the lives of a recently transplanted urban couple on their farm just outside Johannesburg. One night, the husband (also the narrator) is called to their servants’ quarters under the ruse that one of the servant children are sick. What he finds is the dead body of a young man. It turns out the young man is the brother of one of the workers but an illegal immigrant from Pretoria who took sick along the perilous journey to find his way to what he hoped would be a better life. While the actual story couldn’t be simpler, Gordimer cleverly infuses its barebones plot with historical/cultural significance and the mournful notes of marital discord:
When Johannesburg people speak of ‘tension’, they don’t mean hurrying people in crowded streets, the struggle for money, or the general competitive character of city life. They mean the guns under the white men’s pillows and the burglar bars on the white men’s windows. They mean those strange moments on city pavements when a black man won’t stand aside for a white man.
I got up awkwardly as she watched me – how is it I always feel a fool when I have deserted her bed? After all, I know from the way she looks at me when she talks to me at breakfast next day that she is hurt and humiliated at my not wanting her – and I went out, clumsy with sleep.
As the story continues, the reader begins to realize just what this narrator is really about. We read on – wary, appalled, and transfixed – as he deals with the death as well as his wife’s reaction to it and then struggles with his responsibility to act on behalf of his workers when they must confront the South African bureaucracy to arrange a proper burial for the young man. Amazingly, Gordimer gets right inside this white man’s persona and manages, in just a few short pages, to slice apartheid South Africa open and expose its lopsided workings.