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Nadine Gordimer

South African novelist and short-story writer, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Most of Nadine Gordimer‘s works deal with the moral and psychological tensions of her racially divided home country. She was a founding member of Congress of South African Writers, and even at the height of the apartheid regime, she never considered going into exile…


Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) was born into a well-off family in Springs, Transvaal, an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg. It was the setting for Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days (1953)…

From her early childhood Gordimer witnessed how the white minority increasingly weakened the rights of the black majority. In her first collection of short stories, Face to Face (1949), which is not listed in some of her biographies, Gordimer revealed the psychological consequences of a racially divided society. The novel The Lying Days (1953) was based largely on the author’s own life and depicted a white girl, Helen, and her growing disaffection toward the narrow-mindlessness of a small-town life. Other works in the 1950s and 1960s include A World of Strangers  (1958), Occasion for Loving (1963), and The Late Bourgeois World  (1966). In these novels Gordimer studied the master-servant relations, spiritual and sexual paranoias of colonialism, and the shallow liberalism of her privileged white compatriots…

Gordimer won early international recognition for her short stories and novels. The Conservationist (1974) juxtaposed the world of a wealthy white industrialist with the rituals and mythology of Zulus. Burger’s Daughter (1979) was written during the aftermath of Soweto uprising. In the story a daughter analyzes her relationship to her father, a martyr of the antiapartheid movement. July’s People (1981) was a futuristic novel about a white family feeing from war-torn Johannesburg into the country, where they seek refuge with their African servant in his village.

Gordimer’s early short story collections include Six Feet of the Country (1956), Not for Publication (1965) and Livingstone’s Companions (1971).


◊ ‘ The Ultimate Safari’ → read pdf  ←

The Ultimate Safari’  tells the story of refugees fleeing the civil war in Mozambique. Three children from a poor village  are at home -a house with no roof- their parents do not return at the end of the day. Having heard that the children are alone, their grandparents come take them to their (grandparents’) house. The grandparents take the decision to flee to the South African border, as many others were doing at the time. With very little food and water they make the long journey through the Kruger park and they struggle for survival: with others, they kill game in the park for food but can seldom make fire  to avoid park rangers who would most likely have them sent back to their war ravaged villages. Their grandfather, weary from travel, dies in the Kruger.

They finally arrive at the refugee camp and register to get a sleeping tent, food and medication. The children go to school in this refugee camp and the story ends with a foreign journalist interviewing the grandmother in the tent about returning to Mozambique after the war, she answers “There is nothing. No home.”

•  Listen [from 01’30»] to Nadine reading an abridged version ↓ [remember the narrator is 11 years of age]

THAT night our mother went to the shop and she didn’t come back.  Ever. What happened? I don’t know. My father also had gone away one day and never come back; but he was fighting in the war. We were in the war, too, but we were children, we were like our grandmother and grandfather, we didn’t have guns. The people my father was fighting – the bandits, they are called by our government – ran all over the place and we ran away from them like chickens chased by dogs. Our mother went to the shop because someone said you could get some oil for cooking. We were happy because we hadn’t tasted oil for a long time. Perhaps she met the bandits. Twice they came to our village and we ran and hid in the bush and when they’d gone we came back and found they had taken everything.We were waiting there for my mother that night she never came back.

We stayed there all day. Waiting for her. I don’t know what day it was; there was no school, no church any more in our village, so you didn’t know whether it was a Sunday or a Monday. When the sun was going down, our grandmother and grandfather came.  Our grandmother took us – me, the baby, my first-born brother, our grandfather – back to her house and we were all afraid of meeting the bandits on the way. We waited a long time at our grandmother’s place.  Our mother never came.

So they decided – well, our grandmother did; our grandfather made little noises and rocked from side to side – we would go away. We children were pleased. We wanted to go where there were no bandits and there was food. We were glad to think there must be such a place; away…

To go there, we didn’t know what to do.We met other people who were also going away. We joined them because they seemed to know where that was better than we did. To get there we had to go through the Kruger Park. We knew about the Kruger Park. A kind of whole country of animals – elephants, lions, jackals, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles…

So we started to go away again.  A man led us into the Kruger Park; are we there yet, are we there yet, I kept asking. Not yet, the man said. He told us we had to take a long way to get round the fence, which he explained would kill you, roast off your skin the moment you touched it, like the wires high up on poles that give electric light in our towns.

When I asked the next time, they said we’d been walking in the Kruger Park for an hour. But it looked just like the bush we’d been walking through all day, and we hadn’t seen any animals except the monkeys and birds which live around us at home, and a tortoise that, of course, couldn’t get away from us. My first-born brother and the otherboys brought it to the man so it could be killed and we could cook and eat it. He let it go because he told us we could not make a fire; all the time we were in the Park we must not make a fire because the smoke would show we were there. He said we must move like animals among the animals,  away from the white people’s camps.

The buck ran from us. They jumped so high they seemed to fly. We followed the animals to where they drank. When they had gone, we went to their water-holes. We were never thirsty without finding water, but the animals ate, ate all the time. Whenever you saw them they were eating, grass, trees, roots. And there was nothing for us.

When it was very hot during the day we would find lions lying asleep. They were the colour of the grass and we didn’t see them at first but the man did, and he led us back and a long way round where they slept. I wanted to lie down like the lions.

We were tired, so tired. My first-born brother and the man had to lift our grandfather from stone to stone where we found places to cross the rivers. We had to keep up, the man who led us always kept telling us, we must catch up, but we asked him to wait for our grandfather. So everyone waited for our grandfather to catch up. But he didn’t. It was the middle of the day; insects were singing in our ears and we couldn’t hear him moving through the grass. We couldn’t see him because the grass was so high and he was so small. We all went to look for him; we called him softly but the noise of the insects must have filled the little space left for hearing in his ears. We looked and looked but we couldn’t find him. We stayed in that long grass all night.

In the afternoon the man who led us came to our grandmother and told her the other people must move on. He said, If their children don’t eat soon they will die.
Our grandmother looked at us, me, my first-born brother, and my little brother on her lap. She got up, with her feet apart the way she puts them when she is going to lift firewood, at home in our village, she swung my little brother onto her back, tied him in her cloth. She said, Come.

So we left the place with the long grass. Left behind.

There’s a very big tent, bigger than a church or a school, tied down to the ground. I didn’t understand that was what it would be, when we got there, away. This one is blue and white like that one but it’s not for praying and singing, we live in it with other people who’ve come from our country. Sister from the clinic says we’re two hundred without counting the babies, and we have new babies, some were born on the way through the Kruger Park.

The people in the village have let us join their school. I was surprised to find they speak our language; our grandmother told me, That’s why they allow us to stay on their land. Long ago, in the time of our fathers, there was no fence that kills you, there was no Kruger Park between them and us, we were the same people under our own king, right from our village we left to this place we’ve come to.

Some white people came to take photographs of our people living in the tent – they said they were making a film, I’ve never seen what that is though I know about it. A white woman squeezed into our space and asked our grandmother questions which were told to us in our language by someone who understands the white woman’s.

How long have you been living like this?

She means here? our grandmother said. In this tent, two years and one month.

And what do you hope for the future?

Nothing. I’m here.

But for your children?

I want them to learn so that they can get good jobs and money.

Do you hope to go back to Mozambique – to your own country?

I will not go back.

But when the war is over – you won’t be allowed to stay here? Don’t you want to go home?

I didn’t think our grandmother wanted to speak again. I didn’t think she was going to answer the white woman. The white woman put her head on one side and smiled at us.
Our grandmother looked away from her and spoke – There is nothing. No home.

Why does our grandmother say that? Why? I’ll go back. I’ll go back through that Kruger Park. After the war, when there are no bandits any more, our mother may be waiting for us. And maybe when we left our grandfather, he was only left behind, he found his way somehow, slowly, through the Kruger Park, and he’ll be there. They’ll be home, and I’ll remember them.

◊  ‘Loot’ ↓ [read by the writer] – recorded at Harvard University in April, 2005.

Once upon our time, there was an earthquake: but this one is the most powerful ever recorded since the invention of the Richter scale made possible for us to measure apocalyptic warnings.

It tipped a continental shelf. These tremblings often cause floods; this colossus did the reverse, drew back the ocean as a vast breath taken. The most secret level of our world lay revealed: the sea-bedded – wrecked ships, facades of houses, ballroom candelabra, toilet bowl, pirate chest, TV screen, mail-coach, aircraft fuselage, canon, marble torso, Kalashnikov, metal carapace of a tourist bus-load, baptismal font, automatic dishwasher, computer, swords sheathed in barnacles, coins turned to stone. The astounded gaze raced among these things; the population who had fled from their toppling houses to the martime hills, ran down. Where terrestrial crash and bellow had terrified them, there was naked silence. The saliva of the sea glistened upon these objects; it is given that time does not, never did, exist down there where the materiality of the past and the present as they lie has no chronological order, all is one, all is nothing – or all is possessible at once.

People rushed to take; take, take. This was – when, anytime, sometime – valuable, that might be useful, what was this, well someone will know, that must have belonged to the rich, it’s mine now, if you don’t grab what’s over there someone else will, feet slipped and slithered on seaweed and sank in soggy sand, gasping sea-plants gaped at them, no-one remarked there were no fish, the living inhabitants of this unearth had been swept up and away with the water. The ordinary opportunity of looting shops which was routine to people during the political uprisings was no comparison. Orgiastic joy gave men, women and their children strength to heave out of the slime and sand what they did not know they wanted, quickened their staggering gait as they ranged, and this was more than profiting by happenstance, it was robbing the power of nature before which they had fled helpless. Take, take; while grabbing they were able to forget the wreck of their houses and the loss of time-bound possessions there. They had tattered the silence with their shouts to one another and under these cries like the cries of the absent seagulls they did not hear a distant approach of sound rising as a great wind does. And then the sea came back, engulfed them to add to its treasury.

That is what is known; in television coverage that really had nothing to show but the pewter skin of the depths, in radio interviews with those few infirm, timid or prudent who had not come down from the hills, and in newspaper accounts of bodies that for some reason the sea rejected, washed up down the coast somewhere.

But the writer knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination.

Now listen, there’s a man who has wanted a certain object (what) all his life. He has a lot of – things – some of which his eye falls upon often, so he must be fond of, some of which he doesn’t notice, deliberately, that he probably shouldn’t have acquired but cannot cast off, there’s an art noveau lamp he reads by, and above his bed-head a Japanese print, a Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave’, he doesn’t really collect oriental stuff, although if it had been on the wall facing him it might have been more than part of the furnishings, it’s been out of sight behind his head for years. All these – things – but not the one.

He’s a retired man, long divorced, chosen an old but well-appointed villa in the maritime hills as the site from which to turn his back on the assault of the city. A woman from the village cooks and cleans and doesn’t bother him with any other communication. It is a life blessedly freed of excitement, he’s had enough of that kind of disturbance, pleasurable or not, but the sight from his lookout of what could never have happened, never ever have been vouchsafed, is a kind of command. He is one of those who are racing out over the glistening sea-bed, the past – detritus-treasure, one and the same – stripped bare.

Like all the other looters with whom he doesn’t mix, has nothing in common, he races from object to object, turning over the shards of painted china, the sculptures created by destruction, abandonment and rust, the brine-vintaged wine casks, a plunged racing motorcycle, a dentist’s chair, his stride landing on disintegrated human ribs and mettarsals he does not identify. But unlike the others, he takes nothing – until: there, ornate with tresses of orange-brown seaweed, stuck-fast with nacreous shells and crenellations of red coral, is the object. (A mirror?) It’s as if the impossible is true; he knew that was where it was, beneath the sea, that’s why he didn’t know what it was, could never find it before. It could be revealed only by something that had never happened, the greatest paroxysm of our earth ever measured on the Richter scale.

He takes it up, the object, the mirror, the sand pours off it, the water that was the only bright glance left to it streams from it, he is taking it back with him, he’s taking possession at last. And the great wave comes from behind his bed-head and takes him.

His name well-known in the former regime circles in the capital is not among the survivors. Along with him among the skeletons of the latest victims, with the ancient pirates and fishermen, there are those dropped from planes during the dictatorship so that with the accomplice of the sea they would never be found. Who recognized them, that day, where they lie?

No carnation or rose floats. Full fathom five.

•→The Generation Gap←[2003]

•→«The Culture of Corruption» [TALK TO AL JAZEERA]

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