Have I made it clear how much I respect Nadine Gordimer? In case anyone missed it, let me mention yet again how often I pick up one of her books, read for a while and settle in to the comfortable bliss of admiration. Her talent and insight are immense. I particularly appreciate that she dedicates that talent to the creation of a discussion about the injustice and moral poverty of any situation of apartheid or discrimination.
However, it isn’t the political agenda of her work that establishes its excellence. It is much more than that. It is her profound understanding of the human creature, with all our whims and contradictions, our emotional complexity and frightened empathy. Somehow, she manages to get right to the essence of a character, an essence which, I think, is quite simply a reflection of the reader. Her characters are not just people she’s invented and sent off to wander the landscape of her imagination. They are us.
Which is why the title of her second novel, A World of Strangers, is really more of a challenge thrown at the reader. Yes, the book is set in South Africa during the early years of apartheid and many of us don’t have first hand experience with that system. But yet the division she considers, the ignorance and racism she puts on display, is chillingly familiar.
A World of Strangers is thematically quite similar to her first novel, The Lying Days – the story of an individual coming to grips with South African culture in the initial years after the Nationalist Party came to power and established the legal institution of cultural segregation. However, whereas The Lying Days is about coming to terms with one’s own culture and defining oneself within that culture, A World of Strangers approaches the same questions through the eyes of an outsider looking in.
Our narrator Toby is a young Englishman sent to South Africa to work for the family business. He comes from the upper middle class but also from a family with open-minded political beliefs. Toby doesn’t negate those beliefs but he doesn’t embrace them in the same eager way as his family. At best, he agrees but is uninterested in wasting his time on the debate. As he gets established in Johannesburg, he begins to move between two worlds – the contented and extremely wealthy white suburbs and the animated but poor black townships. These two worlds are embodied in two of his relationships – a love affair with Cecil, a white divorcée, and a close friendship with Steven, an educated and dashing young black man.
Toby considers himself immune from the rules of apartheid and travels freely, even carelessly, between his white friends and the townships. He knows enough to keep his worlds separated, not allowing the two to meet. One of the things I found so honest about Toby was his understanding that neither of those two lives was really for him. He disdained many aspects of his wealthy friends’ undemanding and counterfeit lives but at the same time understood he would never have the courage to face the poverty and violence of the townships.
Toby slides back and forth between the two worlds, and in a way, he becomes a smug voyeur. Sampling the best of both worlds, keeping himself apart when it suits him and never feeling guilty about his own double standard. Of course this kind of social schizophrenia cannot really last. Eventually, a tragedy requires Toby to confront his emotional sightseeing. He’s forced to face up to the disaster of apartheid and what it means to him personally. No longer a system that has nothing to do with him but one that is him, is in him, that he cannot just walk away from.
A World of Strangers was published in 1958. It was banned in South African for twelve years.