I finished Nadine Gordimer’s novel A Sport of Nature last night and believe this will be the most difficult of her novels to write about thus far. It was complicated – but not in a way I was expecting. This is a novel I will have to read at least twice, and slowly, to come to any firm conclusions about what Gordimer was trying to do.
In the simplest sense A Sport of Nature is a personality profile, telling the story, from childhood to adulthood, of Hillela, a white South African woman who “becomes” a revolutionary in the struggle against Apartheid. Hillela’s political and psychological trajectory is unusual, mainly because Gordimer reveals her transformation from unconcerned to concerned (about her country’s social injustices) through a distillation of the idea of human contact. It makes sense that falling in love with another human being is one of the best ways to smash up racial boundaries and I think this is often the story that gets told – how better to understand our shared humanity than to really and truly fall in love. But Hillela’s story is more than this familiar one – her character, her self, struck me as Gordimer’s personification of the idea that love is blind.
Her early life is marked by a series of transgressions, all of them having to do with sex. She develops a relationship with a man from a township, whom she doesn’t even realize is black (a first allusion to exactly how colorblind her experience of falling in love will become) and is kicked out of her private school, she woos her cousin and is eventually caught in his bed and has to leave home, she follows a lover illegalIy into Ghana, escaping South Africa not for political ideals but romantic ones.
Through all this Hillela seems to possess some incredible luck. She is taken in again and again by the right people and kept back from the edge of poverty. She becomes friends with the wife of the French Ambassador to Ghana, moves in with this family as a sort of nanny and eventually has an affair with the Ambassador. It’s during this period that she meets Whaila, the black man who will become her husband.
This is the moment when Hillela changes, when she becomes engaged in the fight to overthrow Apartheid. This is Whaila’s passion and Hillela has fallen in love with him so it becomes her fight too. On the one hand, I saw Hillela’s “transformation” as quite shallow – to love this man, she will also love his politics. A subject she had no use for previously. But on the other hand, this is the moment she becomes aware of her disregard for skin color. She isn’t in love with Whaila as an exotic other, but with him – his mind, his person, his whole self. She was raised under Apartheid, and although rationally she rejected it as many of her generation did, she had never confronted its reality emotionally. So then to finally experience, emotionally, the absolute meaninglessness of that system is nothing short of revelation.
What happens to Hillela after this is also really interesting but I’ll give the story away if I say any more. So I’ll just say a bit more about Hillela as a character – after this transformation she continues to create a personal, rebellious world where Apartheid has absolutely no power over her. But the power she uses to fight the world beyond her personal circle isn’t physical, it isn’t intellectual, and it isn’t even emotional – her power is purely sexual. Gordimer is exploring a really interesting idea here, even if I found it somewhat uncomfortable. Her portrait of Hillela is intriguing and provocative. She is essentially a nobody who manages to rise to considerable political power…through love but mostly through refusing to choose a specific ideology except her own colorblindness.
As I mentioned above, there is definitely more to this novel than can be picked up in one reading. So in the meantime, before I tackle a re-read or any of the critical work about Nadine Gordimer I’ve been delighted to discover over the last 8 months, I have three more of her novels to read by the end of the year. Next up: My Son’s Story, published in 1990.