Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nadine Gordimer's A World of Strangers

I didn't want Nadine Gordimer's A World of Strangers to end. 

I began it on the bus.  Passengers were talking about prison and the Lord. I was uncomfortable and burrowed into my book.  While I was reading, I heard about somebody's son who had just gotten out of prison. It's an everyday occurrence if you have a certain education.   Most got out at Walmart.  I boycott Walmart for political reasons but wasn't going to hold up a sign and say, "Don't go there."

In 2011 we certainly have our social problems.

Published in 1958, A World of Strangers is Gordimer's second novel and one of her best.  There is nothing of the neophyte about it.  It is utterly polished, utterly absorbing.  Her voice is clear and unhistrionic.  The novel showcases the racial politics of South Africa in the '50s.  It was banned for 12 years in South Africa.

It is, alas, no longer in print.  You can buy it for a penny.

The issues still seem pertinent. 

The hero, Toby Hood, an Englishman, does not want to come to South Africa. The son of two radicals, he intensely dislikes political movements.  He goes to South Africa to represent his uncle's publishing company.  He is not a likable narrator. He is repulsed by blacks.  

"I hate the faces of peasants."
 "I thought that the day the ship anchored at Mombasa, and I saw the Africans for the first time."
So it begins.  And there is something shocking about the tone.  Toby is sneery and detached, a cipher.  He is rather like a Graham Greene hero.  We have no feeling that he has ever been involved with anyone or cared about anyone.  

In Johannesburg, his attitudes change. At first he lives mainly in a white world. He is freed from the stifling progressive pressures of his English parents by the exaggerated insularity and indifference of new wealthy friends.  They have cocktail parties and swimming parties.

But he is divided. He meets a lawyer, Anna, who often represents black South Africans. And one of her black friends, Steven, a young brilliant man who breaks the rules without wanting to become political, becomes Toby's alter-ego.  Both want to live private lives and to ignore politics if possible.  And Toby spends many nights roaming the African townships without a government pass, never telling his white friends about it because they are completely oblivious to that world.

One thing that is surprising is Gordimer's male point of view.  Anna, the lawyer, though the most interesting person in the novel to me, does not interest Toby, who muses about her intellectual attractions but somehow is threatened.  Although she introduces him to Steven and other black people who fascinate him, he becomes involved instead with a beautiful, vapid young woman of the cocktail party set, Cecil.

The worlds clash eventually.

Beautifully written and graceful, this novel is one of the best I've read this year.


Vintage Reading said...

I'm reading Gordimer's The Conservationist for book club right now. I'm only fifty pages in and she's an excellent writer, but there is a warmth missing, I find. I'm going to finish it though. Enjoyed reading your review because Gordimer is on my mind right now.

Frisbee said...

I did love The Conservationist, but I read it long ago. I'm more interested in her fiction than I used to be. Some of it seemed too political to me when I was younger.

zhao said...

by book's end, a year later in the story, after his friend's arrest, the narrator had entered "the world of dispossession, where the prison record is a mark of honor, exile is home, and family a committee of protest".

Remarkable that after Apartheid's only decade earlier start, how clearly his friends and eventually himself, saw through the regime for what it was: "followers of Goebbels" (used by Gordimer much later), and believed (that's not the right word, because people don't need to "believe" in the rising of the sun come morning) that an equal society will one day become reality.