Monday, July 11, 2005

Book 14: July's People, by Nadine Gordimer (Infinite Feast XXI)

Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (June 1, 1981)

The racial tensions and possible societal disintegration that occupy the pages of Nobel Prize winning novelist Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People will most likely seem eerily familiar to Americans. The inferior status of blacks, the exploitative and domineering position of whites – these are American problems. Yet, Gordimer is not an American. She is South African and her novel deals not with the Civil Rights Movement or the legacy of slavery in the U.S., but rather with the disastrous consequences of Apartheid in her homeland.

Written in 1981, July’s People is set in a future South Africa in which blacks have finally overthrown their white oppressors through the use of extreme violence. The society that cradled Apartheid has been destroyed, as black militias battle the white army for control. The novel centers around the Smales, a liberal white Johannesburg family and their flight from their war-torn home. But this story is not just about them – they are led from the mayhem by their servant of 15 years, a man they only know as July, who takes them to his tribal village in the nation’s interior wilderness. This turning of the tables of dependency in the family and servant’s relationship is what pushes this work forward.

Little “happens” as far as sustained action in July’s People. The war, the fighting, the havoc is all kept on the periphery, heard through jumbled radio broadcasts, second-hand retellings, and pure speculation. What Gordimer focuses on is the interaction of her characters. Objects once meaningless, take on entirely new levels of symbolic importance in this post-Apartheid world. When they flee, July has to drive the Smales’ family vehicle to avoid attracting combative attention. But once the keys are in his possession, July is hesitant to give them back, having acquired a new found power as the sole individual who has the skin color to pass in the new society. Predictably, the Smales’ adaptation to this new dynamic, is less than smooth. Buried tensions come to the surface on both sides, as the characters struggle to accept their new lives. The Smales can only react and their passive response to powerless existences is provocative. The novel begs the reader to ask: What would you do if you were in this position?

What may be most interesting about July’s People, is that for a novel localized around interracial relationships, none of the characters in the novel are complete, appearing as two-dimensional studies of people rather than genuine well-rounded individuals. Perhaps this is deliberate, as Gordimer wants us to focus more the issue of black-white relations than allowing our emotions to become involved. Readers might then take sides and the entire novel rotates on an axis of ambiguity, concerning everything from the motivations of the characters to what the future will bring. We are left in the same limbo as the characters and this achieves an alienating chill which overwhelms the reader. But while Gordimer succeeds in distancing our feelings from clouding our visions of the ideological conflict, this leads to some feelings of indifference. Nowhere does the reader sense the same panic as Maureen Smales as she watches July become less and less subservient and more independent over the course of her family’s stay in his village. Nowhere does the reader see any shred of hope in the novel’s pages. The open-ended conclusion of the work continues in this vain, leaving the reader wondering whether a situation as horrible as Apartheid can ever have a positive outcome. Strangely, as events played in reality, they did and yet this doesn’t undercut the intellectual muscle of the work.

Much of this work is likely Gordimer probing her own conscious and anxieties, as a liberal South African white. The Smales’ never supported Apartheid and pride themselves on how well they treated July while he was in their employment. Yet, they never did anything to change the situation either. To thinkers like Foucault or Fanon, if one does not actively try to revolt against exploitive institutions, a person is therefore indicted in the institutions’ injustices. The Smales’ may feel liberal guilt, but is their guilt for the lower status of blacks in society or because they don’t necessarily want to give up their privileges? These are the questions Gordimer wants us to ponder.

The most revealing aspect of July’s People is how all of Gordimer’s characters devolve into selfishness and greed, and act largely only on part of their own interests. Her portrayal of both races is far from one-sided, far from sympathetic. While the blacks have spent decades under foreign rule in their own land, once they gain a whiff of power, they begin to fight with one another. The future society Gordimer leaves us with is one of absolute chaos and unmitigated hatreds. Even reasons for potential optimisms (like July so graciously trying to help his former employers despite the shade of their skin) are lost as time progresses and old foundations crumble. We all bear the guilt of the societies we create and the ramifications of iniquity seldom are solved through violence. Fortunately, in this case, life didn’t mimic art, and Apartheid ended in a more beneficial manner than Gordimer had imagined. But her work still pertains – race relations, not just in South Africa, but worldwide remained fractured. Guns and bombs are still the path favored by governments and terrorists alike to end disputes. Gordimer shows us a world that is frightening because it is so possible. She reminds us that no change, no matter how needed or worthy, ever comes without consequences.

1 comment:

tara said...

Totally unrelated question (well, sort of): have you ever attended Book Expo NYC?