Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Part 1 Debate: Is Gordimer out of time?

By Mary Corrigall

After the country went to the polls in the first democratic elections of 1994, a line was drawn, delineating what the country had been and what it would become. This socio-political rupture between the past and present was to some degree artificial; it also implied an erasure. In No Time Like the Present (Picador Africa), Gordimer expresses this temporal break in the form of a compelling motif of a motorbike ripping “the street like a sheet of paper roughly torn.”
This everyday event has momentous significance for the Reeds – Steve and Jabu – for the simple fact that it coincides with Steve’s suggestion that the family move into the suburbs. For the Reeds transplanting their lives in the suburbs is a politically loaded act; after years of living under the radar as not only an interracial couple, but as Umkhonto operatives taking up residence in the suburbs implies that they are being reaggregated into a society with which they were once at war.
Gordimer places the “s” in suburb in upper case throughout the text as a way of drawing attention to the politics underpinning this spatial and ideological frame. The suburb where they settle offers the utopian dream for which they fought. Around the corner live their (former) comrades and an NG Kerk has been overrun by gay men – an obvious sign that the old authority has been overturned.
“Now everything is after,” becomes a mantra for this new society or condition, this ideological shift.
But the rip that has segmented their existence, their narratives, isn’t a clean one.

Their capacity to surrender to “the now”, this space after “everything has happened”, initially remains overshadowed by what has come before, their previous existence. The privileges that their new freedom affords them – the suburban home, the private schools for their children – are negotiated at each step as they battle to reconcile with the attainment of individual gain.
“There was no space for meaning in personal achievement” before, Gordimer observes.
Their moral/political positions become murky with time; during a student uprising at the university where Steve teaches, he is uncertain which side of the picket-line he belongs. Jabu and Steve can’t reimagine themselves outside of political or social activism; they both pursue jobs that allow them to serve civil society – Steve as a teacher and Jabu as a lawyer who does work for a justice centre, where she prepares victims and records the abuse they suffer.
These professions are also useful positions for Gordimer to record the myriad of problems in the education system and the abuse women suffer at the hands of men fixated by “entitlement.” As the title of the novel implies, Gordimer aims to document the present.
This presentness she evokes, which stretches from 1994 to President Zuma taking office, isn’t a temporal condition but an ideological one – a post-apartheid one.
As the novel progresses, and the political climate begins to heat up again, Steve and Jabu’s existence runs parallel to a tale of political struggles; the power battles in the ruling party.
Naturally, the two narratives are related – Steve and Jabu are card-carrying members and are affected by developments in the political sphere as all citizens would be. However, in recounting the political shenanigans in the ruling party –in particular the rise to power of Zuma, Gordimer aims to record its failures. But it’s simply a dry account of events before and after Polokwane, told with the disdain of a white middle-class observer.
Gordimer simply recounts what has been well documented in newspapers over the last five years.
She evinces no desire to get beyond headlines. What is the purpose of this  account? Does she have an international audience in mind here?
This one-dimensional view of the political landscape  recalls Brett Murray’s modus operandi in Hail to the Thief II, though in the main, parallel tale of Jabu and Steve she creates room to sort through more nuanced – and shifting (nothing is quite fixed) responses to race and politics.However, these two former cadres’ attitude towards the ruling party and party politics would not be so cut-and-dried.
Seemingly insignificant details such as descriptions of spiky-haired youths (a 1970s motif of rebellious youth) and clumsy references to Facebook suggest that Gordimer is out of touch with our times. Is this a political novelist who has lost her way, or is the literary model that brought her acclaim now outdated? Like her main protagonists Gordimer seems unable to locate herself outside of activism, for which the political novel serves as her main tool.
However, as with Murray’s contentious exhibition she fails to penetrate beyond the surface; she does not reveal what we don’t already know. The strength of the book lies in the unspoken racial dynamics between Steve and Jabu, who still, after years of knowing each other have to reconcile with their racial and cultural identities, and the manner in which she maps the shift in consciousness around notions of belonging and freedom since 1994. - published on June 10, 2012

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