I find reading Gordimer a combination of pure pleasure and hard work. Her images are captivating and unique, her narration unusual, her subject matter courageous. Her novels are so thorough in their project (political, psychological, literary) that reading them is often painstakingly intense – these are novels I want to savor slowly, with necessary appreciative pauses and time spent considering the labor which went into their creation.
The Conservationist (1972), her sixth novel, is a character portrait. A detailed rendering of a dying man – not dying in a physical sense, but a metaphysical one. Mehring is a wealthy white South African businessman who commutes between town with its glittering, oblivious socialite world and his small farm in the countryside. He is a perfect cog in the Apartheid wheel, making his money on the near slave labor of his black farm workers or his mining investments (which amounts to essentially the same thing) and accepting the separation of South Africa’s cultures as right and natural. He is everything Nadine Gordimer disapproves of. And yet her representation of him doesn’t once make him the reader’s enemy. Except in an abstract, ideological way. My sympathy for Mehring lies in his full awareness of his own demise. He recognizes the futility (and in his more lucid moments, the injustice) of the system which enables his privilege.
Mehring is also a womanizer. A natural character trait for a man who has always had everything he’s wanted by simply taking it. But that part of him is dying a painful death as well. His last mistress, who was working to fight against the Apartheid system, eventually had to flee the country. He has trouble admitting it but he is in mourning for her. Most of the novel unfolds as an imaginary conversation between her and him – he wants very clearly to understand why she would choose to support a philosophy which would eventually alter the comfortable life they’ve enjoyed until now. He’s enraged and frustrated and confused. And he misses her.
I found the structure of that imaginary back and forth (which includes similar imagined conversations with his hippie son) both fascinating and touching. Mehring is a wounded creature, and he’s desperately trying to understand what’s wrong with his life. According to the morals of the culture he was raised in, he hasn’t done anything wrong. Yet in the eyes of the people closest to him (his ex-wife, his son, his former mistress), he’s an abuser of the highest degree. Mehring’s baffled attempt to reconcile these two views created a space where he and I could co-exist. Where I wanted to get to know and understand him.
In The Conservationist, Gordimer endeavors for the first time to take on the perspective of a black African, exploring the thoughts and experiences of some of the workers on the farm, and especially Mehring’s foreman Jacobus, as well as the Indian shopkeepers just off the property. With this careful work, I was able to experience South African society of the early 1970s when the rigid distinctions between each culture are beginning to fray. Both from within and as the next generation courageously crosses the line. It’s a tense scenario and risky for everyone involved. Gordimer’s pinpointing and depiction of these both dangerous and hopeful moments increase the novel’s consequence.
As the story progresses, the narration becomes more jarring and disconnected. Mehring, more and more emotionally marooned, rejects the overtures of his former friends and settles further into his imagined conversations and daydreams. He hides out at his farm, trying to establish some sort of connection with the land he wants desperately to believe is rightfully his. His sorrow, indignation and uncertainty are palpable, and he keeps denying the fact that he’s nothing but an interloper while at the same time coming to the unsettling realization that the people who originally belonged to the land now work for him.
As usual, Gordimer’s writing accomplishes this impressive project with grace, power and matchless coherence.