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Critical Essay by Graham Huggan
SOURCE: "Echoes From Elsewhere: Gordimer's Short Fiction as Social Critique," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 61-73.
In the following essay, Huggan applies Gordimer's short story theory to her practice, analyzing "Six Feet of Country" in comparison to three later stories.
Nadine Gordimer's novels have done much toward "articulating the consciousness" of contemporary South Africa. What is not often realized, or not realized often enough, is that her short stories also contribute to this articulation, and that the short story is just as well-equipped as the novel to attempt it. Gordimer has proved herself over time to be one of the foremost exponents in the world of the modern short story. Yet her critics have tended, almost exclusively, to focus on her novels. Why should this be so? The main reason for the critical imbalance in favor of Gordimer's novels might be brought down, perhaps, to a lowest common denominator: that critics have had and continue to have difficulty with the short story. The lack of theoretical groundwork does not help; for while theories of the novel abound, it has not been until relatively recently that short story theory has awakened academic interest, most noticeably in the United States. Recent theoretically informed studies such as Susan Lohafer's Coming to Terms with the Short Story and Bill New's Dreams of Speech and Violence act as valuable correctives to those who persist in seeing the short story as a "minor" genre or, still worse, as an incipient or microcosmic form of the novel. Two collections of nineteenth- and twentieth-century views of the short story, Charles E. May's Short Story Theories, and its "sequel," Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey's Short Story Theories at a Crossroads, are also particularly useful, although it seems significant that most of the views provided in either collection are by short story writers rather than by short story critics. It is in May's collection that Gordimer's most succinct statement on the short story can be found: her essay "The Flash of Fireflies," which first appeared in The Kenyon Review in 1968. In this paper, I shall look first at some of the propositions put forward by Gordimer in this earlier essay, and compare them to later statements made in her introduction to the 1975 Selected Stories. I shall then go on to suggest how her short story theory may be applied to her fiction, beginning with a detailed analysis of the early story "Six Feet of the Country," and continuing with brief, comparative comments on three later stories: "A Company of Laughing Faces," "Livingstone's Companions," and "Keeping Fit."
The essay "The Flash of Fireflies" opens with the question: "Why is it that while the death of the novel is good for post-mortem at least once a year, the short story lives on unmolested?" Gordimer's contention is that "[i]f the short story is alive while the novel is dead, the reason must lie in approach and method." Yet how do the approach and method of the short story differ from that of the novel? Gordimer argues that the strongest convention of the novel, its "prolonged coherence of tone," is also potentially its weakest aspect, since it is "false to the nature of whatever can be grasped of human reality." The short story, which relates to "an area-event, mental state, mood, appearance which is heightenedly manifest in a single situation," is, according to Gordimer, "better equipped to attempt the capture of ultimate reality." Shelving for a moment the problem of what Gordimer might mean by "ultimate reality," I shall focus on her concept of "heightened manifestation." Reminiscent of Joyce's epiphanies or Woolf's moments of being, the "heightened manifestations" of the short story are posited by Gordimer as being particularly appropriate to modern consciousness, which "seems best expressed as flashes of fearful insight alternating with near-hypnotic states of indifference."
So far in her essay, Gordimer would seem to be doing little more than restating Frank O'Connor's influential thesis that the short story is somehow a more "authentic" form of self-expression than the novel, and that the self it expresses is more often than not lonely, alienated, idiosyncratic. Gordimer goes on, however, to ask what I believe to be the most challenging question posed in the essay: "What about the socio-political implications of the short story's survival?" For Gordimer, the novel "marks the apogee of an exclusive, individualist culture … [I]t implies the living room, the armchair, the table lamp." The short story, like the novel, presupposes leisure and privacy, but it does not have "the consistency of relationship" of the novel; because of its limited duration, fragmented form and immediate impact, it "depends less than the novel upon the classic conditions of middle-class life, and perhaps corresponds to the breakup of middle-class life which is taking place." It is not clear what Gordimer means here by the "classic" conditions of middle-class life. Presumably she is referring to the security and tendency toward a reassuringly integrated outlook that are reflected in the literary conventions of, say, the nineteenth-century realist novel. It is debatable, of course, whether the novel is as consistent and integrated, or the society it supposedly reflects as secure, as Gordimer implies; her own novels, in any case, expose the flaws and contradictions inherent in middle-class ideology. Her second point, however, is more illuminating: for if the short story corresponds to a breakup of contemporary life, its implicit expression of the disintegration of the existing social order makes it an ideal vehicle for radical social critique. The anti-authoritarian potential of the short story has not been lost on other commentators: O'Connor, for example, suggests that "we can see in it an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups, whatever these may be at any given time." It is precisely this attitude of mind which emerges from Gordimer's short fiction, corresponding to the short story writer's attempt to articulate what I shall refer to here as a "submerged consciousness." This hypothesis suggests that the reader should treat the primary narratives of Gordimer's short stories with suspicion, and should look instead for what emerges from beneath the surface or between the cracks of these narratives. Terry Eagleton's comments are useful here:
It is in the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt. It is these silences which the critic must make 'speak'. The text is, as it were, ideologically forbidden to say certain things.
Eagleton is describing Pierre Macherey's theory of literary production, but he could equally well be describing the politically repressive conditions under which Gordimer's work has been—and continues to be—produced. In Macherey's model, however, ideology is unconsciously produced by the literary text; in Gordimer's, it emerges from a deliberate strategy of textual interruption. Repressed narratives rise to the surface and make their presence felt: a technique Gordimer uses most obviously in the novel The Conservationist, but which is used in intensified form in several of her short stories. The literary devices of inference and ellipsis—not restricted to the short story, of course, but at their most telling in the short story—are particularly well-suited to Gordimer's exposure of the politics of repression. By using inferential techniques to articulate a submerged consciousness, Gordimer identifies the short story as a powerful agent of social critique in a country where freedom is strictly limited.
Gordimer outlines her approach toward the short story more clearly in her introduction to the 1975 edition of her selected short stories. The problematic "ultimate reality" to which she refers in her earlier essay, implying that her primary interest is in portraying "universal" aspects of the human condition, is this time more closely identified with her immediate social environment. "A writer is selected by his subject [sic]," claims Gordimer, "his subject being the consciousness of his own era." The short story, in this context, is not political by design but by necessity: "ultimate reality" is indissociable from social reality. This does not mean that Gordimer's short stories need subscribe to the "dreary" social realism she disparages in "The Flash of Fireflies" but rather that, irrespective of their artistic handling, they are the products of a specific set of social and historical conditions. Gordimer suggests further that, since the writer is "selected by his subject," he or she is highly likely to inquire into the mode of production of his/her work, to explore both the social conditions which have given rise to it and the ideological presuppositions on which it is based. It is true of course that in her explicitly political novels (such as Burger's Daughter) and her implicitly political ones (such as The Conservationist) Gordimer does just that, but the most succinct and, in my view, most pertinent expression of the limits of the ideology within and against which she writes is in short stories where an elided sub-text, submerged beneath the body of the presented text, implicitly challenges and undercuts the dominant narrative voice. I would like to demonstrate what I mean by taking a closer look now at some of the narrative tactics employed in Gordimer's short stories, beginning with the early story "Six Feet of the Country."
For a reader accustomed to the complex narrative displacements of Gordimer's novels, the apparently univocal and syntactically uncomplicated story "Six Feet of the Country" might seem disarmingly simple. The disarmed reader is the deceived reader, however, for the apparent simplicity of the story is part of a greater narrative strategy which consists in presenting the reader with an illusion of completeness while allowing him/her (if he/she reads carefully enough) to see through that illusion. The reader recognizes, in the process, that the content of the story is not so much contained in the form as omitted from it. The central technique, then, is that of irony; the most telling literary device, that of ellipsis.
The plot of "Six Feet of the Country" can be quickly summarized as follows: The anonymous narrator, a travel agent in the city, has bought a nearby farm for himself and his ex-actress wife in the hope that it will improve the quality of their lives and give some stability to their unhappy marriage. Neither happens, and matters are complicated further when Petrus, one of the black farmhands, informs the narrator that his brother has died. Petrus's brother is taken away by the authorities for post-mortem and duly disappears; but Petrus and his family insist on (and pay for) the right to bury their own. After some delay, the coffin is returned, and the funeral takes place; it transpires, however, that the body in the coffin is not Petrus's brother. The mistake cannot be rectified, and Petrus loses both his brother and his money.
The story seems well rounded: beginning with background, it proceeds with action and moves on to dénouement in conventional realist fashion. Yet, from the outset, the reader is led to suspect that the narrative is unreliable and incomplete. "My wife and I are not real farmers," says the narrator at the beginning of the story, giving the reader immediate grounds for suspicion: for if he is not a "real" farmer, who is he "really"? Significantly, we never learn his name: and although his is certainly the dominant narrative voice, the "real" voice is suggested as being elsewhere. This initial suspicion increases when we learn that his wife would like to be an actress (i.e., to play another role), and increases still further when he compares his wife unfavorably with his female visitors: his wife, "her hair uncombed, in her hand a stick dripping with cattle dip," is contrasted with "some pretty girl and her husband shambling down to the riverbank, the girl catching her stockings on the mealie stooks." The impression given to the reader in the first few pages is of an unstable marriage in uncertain surroundings; for the narrator lives neither in the city nor, properly speaking, on the land: instead of "having it both ways," he finds himself with "not even one way or the other but a third, one he had not provided for at all." The implication is that the narrator's control over his subject is at best limited, and that he is offering us a falsification—or at least an abridged version—of the story.
Out of this uncertainty, the possibility emerges of a subtext (or texts) which tacitly inform(s) the reader of the "real" conditions that drive the narrative. This sub-text can be located in two areas: first in (his wife) Lerice's, second in (his farmhand) Petrus's version of events. That there is a large degree of coalition between these two versions is suggested by the narrator's discovery of a strange similarity between his wife and Petrus:
She and Petrus both kept their eyes turned on me as I spoke, and oddly, for in those moments they looked exactly alike, though it sounds impossible: my wife, with her high, white forehead and her attenuated Englishwoman's body, and the poultry boy, with his horny bare feet below khaki trousers tied at the knee with string and the peculiar rankness of his nervous sweat coming from his skin.
Although their social status is obviously very different, Lerice and Petrus both occupy a subordinate subject position; as Martin Trump puts it: "Gordimer has perceived a common element in the degrading way in which black people and women are treated in her society." Indeed, the major source of irony in the story can be traced back to the narrator's failure to recognize that the third possibility, the one he has not provided for at all, is that his own patriarchal values are complicitous with the more obviously divisive and inhumane practices of the apartheid state. His failure to acknowledge his wife's right to her own voice is thus consistent with the authorities' failure to acknowledge the blacks' right to bury one of their own people.
Let me return for a moment to the notion of "submerged consciousness." Gordimer's belief in the heightened manifestations which suddenly illuminate the narratives of short stories to produce "flashes of fearful insight" can be interpreted in this context as an attempt not merely to capture momentarily an "ultimate reality," but to identify this reality with the emergent consciousness of a beleaguered social group (or groups). The two groups I have in mind, of course, are the blacks of South Africa and the women of South Africa and elsewhere. The narrator of "Six Feet of the Country," rather like Mehring in Gordimer's novel The Conservationist, only provides the "principal" voice of the narrative; he does not provide the "real" voice, which belongs to a "submerged consciousness" functioning as sub-text to the presented text. In The Conservationist, the sub-text, Henry Callaway's The Religious System of the Amazulu, gradually comes to the forefront of the narrative to disposess Mehring of his "inauthentic" version of events and relocate them within an "authentic" Zulu context. The sub-text not only destabilizes Mehring's narrative; it also provides an alternative narrative (even if, as Brian Macaskill points out, that narrative continues to function within a counter-hegemonic interruptive framework that eschews interruption as mere replacement). In "Six Feet of the Country," however, the sub-texts of Lerice and Petrus are precisely that: sub-texts, drowned out by the patriarchal rhetoric of the dominant narrative voice. Neither Lerice nor Petrus is given an opportunity to give their side of the story, and when the opportunity would seem to arise, they are immediately cut off, or accounted for, by the narrator. Noticing that in Petrus's presence, his wife seems "almost offended with him, almost hurt," the narrator refuses to elucidate: "In any case, I really haven't the time or inclination any more to go into everything in our life that I know Lerice, from those alarmed and pressing eyes of hers, would like us to go into." Like Lerice, Petrus is condescendingly accounted for by the narrator; when he hands over the money for his brother's exhumation, for example, we are duly informed that "[t]hey're so seldom on the giving rather than the receiving side, poor devils, that they really don't know how to hand money to a white man." The narrator thus covers up his earlier, mistaken assertion that the possibility of Petrus ever obtaining the money was something "so unattainable that it did not bear thinking about." This persistent strategy of self-exoneration complements the central image of the story, that of Petrus's brother "somewhere in a graveyard as uniform as a housing scheme, somewhere under a number that didn't belong to him or in the medical school, perhaps, laboriously reduced to layers of muscle and strings of nerve." Buried and forgotten in some unknown place, Petrus's brother becomes a metaphor for an apartheid régime which withholds the identity of its subjects by denying them a sense of place. He also represents the disenfranchised voice which can neither speak nor be spoken about, being submerged instead beneath a strident rhetoric of authority that at best restricts, at worst annuls its own freedom of expression. The health authorities' mistake in digging up the wrong man, and their apparent unconcern in looking for the right one, thus mirror a mistake-ridden but self-exonerating narrative: a narrative that seeks spurious legitimacy by dismissing the whole affair as "a complete waste" and by glossing over potentially incriminating alternatives.
There are occasional moments, however, when these alternatives provide, against the grain of the narrative, their "flashes of fearful insight." Such moments, for example, are those when, in Johannesburg, "a black man won't stand aside for a white man" or when, during the funeral procession, "the old man's voice was muttering something…. [T]hey could not ignore the voice; it was much the way that the mumblings of a prophet, though not clear at first, arrest the mind." It is precisely when the mind is arrested, when the flow of the narrative is interrupted, that the flash of insight occurs. The reader is informed, at these moments, that the primary narrative has been false all along; that the narrator has either been consciously diverting us from truths he does not wish us to understand, or unconsciously diverting us from truths he does not fully understand himself.
Quite clearly, the narrator of "Six Feet of the Country" is not in full control of his narrative. His lack of control is made manifest in two ways: first, in his attempt to hide or cover up his mistakes: and second, in his ignorance of his mistakes, as when, for example, he ironically upbraids the health authorities for their lack of principle, unaware that their principles coincide largely with his own. It is significant that at his moments of greatest stress, the narrator experiences, or claims to experience, a sense of unfamiliarity. Thus, when he first sees the dead man, Petrus's brother, he admits to feeling "extraneous, useless"; similarly, his wife, in her moments of greatest emotional intensity, is described as looking "searchingly about her at the most familiar objects as if she had never seen them before." These admissions of unfamiliarity seem suspiciously disingenuous, however, for the narrator proves adept, throughout the story, at laying claim to the unfamiliar: a self-protective ruse that includes, for example, his perception of blacks refusing to stand aside for whites as "strange," or his description of Petrus's wish to give up a large part of his earnings to rebury his brother as "incomprehensible." In these cases, it is not that the narrator does not understand, but rather that he does not wish to understand: calling an action "strange" or "incomprehensible" becomes a convenient means of repressing its deeper implications.
Let me dwell for a moment on the further implications of the unfamiliar. Defamiliarization has been seen by many critics and theoreticians as a characteristic effect of the short story. For the Russian Formalists, defamiliarization was primarily a question of stylistics (the "making new" of form within the structure of the literary text through the "laying bare" of its technical devices); but for contemporary critics of the short story such as Charles May, it becomes a question of epistemology (the unsettling effect of the text on the reader's knowledge of the world). According to May:
The reality the short story presents us with is the reality of those sub-universes of the supernatural and the fable which exist within the so called 'real' world of sense perception and conceptual abstraction. It presents moments when we become aware of anxiety, loneliness, dread, concern, and thus find the safe, secure and systematic life we usually lead disrupted and momentarily destroyed.
May concludes from this that "the short story is closer to the nature of reality as we experience it in those moments when we are made aware of the inauthenticity of everyday life … those moments when we sense the inadequacy of our categories of conceptual reality." As Gordimer shows, however, these categories of conceptual reality are based on existing social conditions and prevailing ideologies: the "familiar" and the "unfamiliar" are finally questions neither of stylistics nor of epistemology, but rather of social and cultural context. Defamiliarization therefore becomes a means of "laying bare" both the form of the text and the form of the society in which the text has been produced; by internalizing the defamiliarizing effect of the short story, making it operative on its narrator, Gordimer effects the critique of a society in which it is possible for the narrator's "ordinary" world to be the world of apartheid. By jolting the narrator's "categories of conceptual reality," Gordimer exposes the false consciousness of the narrative and validates the "submerged consciousness" beneath it.
"Six Feet of the Country" provides an early example, then, of the ways in which Gordimer uses the formal devices and generic conventions of the short story to social ends. Similar techniques are applied in a story Gordimer wrote nearly ten years later, in her fourth, ironically entitled collection Not For Publication. In the story, "A Company of Laughing Faces" (itself ironically entitled), the seventeen-year-old ingénue Kathy Hack is escorted by her mother to the beach resort of Ingaza for the Christmas holidays. In a company of dutifully laughing faces, amid the empty rituals of a holiday entertainment carefully orchestrated for Kathy and her adolescent companions by their overprotective parents, Kathy meets, and is seduced by, an arrogant young man. Shaking off his crude advances, shocked by the apparent indifference with which he makes them, Kathy turns her attention instead to a small boy of nine: a loner, like herself, who prefers his own company to the comforting anonymity of the crowd. But no sooner has Kathy befriended the boy than disaster strikes: the boy goes missing and Kathy finds him, drowned. Kathy cannot bring herself to break the news to the boy's big sister, however: and long after the boy is discovered, lamented, and—presumably—forgotten, Kathy still guards her complicitous secret.
In "A Company of Laughing Faces," Gordimer uses inferential strategies—litotes, prolepsis, innuendo—to convey the ironic discrepancy between a world of glittering surfaces and a darker world within. The flash of fearful insight that occurs when Kathy finds the boy is a moment not of shock, but of recognition. For the lagoon in which the boy lies drowned, "not a foot below the water … held up by the just submerged rock that had struck the back of his head as he had fallen into [it]" harbors another secret: Kathy's realization that her "sight [of the boy], there, was the one real happening of the holiday, the one truth and the one beauty." As in "Six Feet of the Country," a previously hidden sub-text reveals itself through layers of geographical metaphor. In the earlier story, Petrus goes missing and is never found; in the later one, the boy is eventually retraced. But both figures, in a sense, form the absent center around which their respective stories revolve. The boy's death and his subsequent unreported discovery by the protagonist allow for the articulation of a submerged consciousness that underlies, but also undercuts, the superficially "correct" but unprincipled conventionality of the primary narrative.
In "Six Feet of the Country," Gordimer had used short story techniques to uncover a repressive politics of race and gender; in "A Company of Laughing Faces," she uses similar techniques to expose the hollow value-system of a white middle class which seeks to disguise its privilege by "giving some semblance of productivity to [its] leisure." The adolescent holidaymakers in Gordimer's story seek solace in the crowd: initiated into this willfully homogeneous world. Kathy experiences the momentary "thrill of belonging." But she senses, even as she makes polite conversation with her newly acquired boyfriend, that
the only part of her consciousness that was acute was some small marginal awareness that along this stretch of gleaming, sloppy sand he was walking without making any attempt to avoid treading on the dozens of small spiral-shell creatures who sucked themselves down into the shore at the shadow of an approach.
Through proleptic moments such as this one, Kathy foreshadows her own subjection; she also anticipates her alliance with the young boy whose drowning is itself foreshadowed when, in the "pause that comes in the breathing of the sea," and muffled music from the beach tearoom wafts up to her hotel bedroom, Kathy imagines herself "under the sea, with the waters sending swaying sound-waves of sunken bells and the cries of drowned men ringing out from depth to depth long after they themselves have touched bottom in silence." Sights and sounds from below rise to the surface of Gordimer's fractured narratives, imposing themselves upon the consciousness of their narrators, their protagonists and, not least, their readers. The novel, says Bakhtin, resonates with a multitude of voices. So too does the short story, but many of its voices, and some of the most insistent among them, do not emanate from "within" the text; instead, they reverberate from "outside" or "beyond" it: from behind walls or beneath floors, from underwater or underground. Through their troubled visions and unsettling "absent presences." Gordimer's stories resurrect a series of unquiet ghosts: through their conspicuous silences, embarrassing interruptions, and vaguely threatening undertones, they orchestrate a sequence of echoes from elsewhere.
In the title story of Gordimer's 1972 collection Livingstone's Companions, echoes well up from the graves of Livingstone's eponymous companions: unsung heroes of his last expeditionary party. Sent by the newspaper he works for to retrace the steps of Livingstone's last journey, Carl Church finds himself drawn not to Livingstone himself, but to the pages of Livingstone's journals, where the celebrated explorer pays rich, if patronizing, tribute to those who died on his behalf. Searching for the graves of these "companions," Church loses his way and ends up at an isolated hotel: itself something of a ruin, a product of former colonial times, now a weekend retreat and haven for those, like Church, who seek temporary refuge from their worldly responsibilities. Church spends a few untroubled days at the hotel: "This sort of hiatus had opened up in the middle of a tour many times [before]," he consoles himself, "lost days in a blizzard on Gander airport, a week in quarantine at Aden." The difference? "This time he had the Journals instead of a Gideon Bible." But the journals, as Church discovers, open up a different kind of hiatus: a submerged counter-narrative that throws ironic relief on his own explorations in Africa; on his allegedly compassionate liberal politics; and on his frustrated desire for personal companionship.
In "Livingstone's Companions," Gordimer employs similar interruptive techniques to those used in her novel The Conservationist. But the random clippings from Livingstone's journals, unlike the accumulated excerpts from Callaway's Religious System of the Amazulu, fall short of establishing an alternative narrative. Instead, they alert the reader to a submerged consciousness within the primary narrative: a consciousness which speaks the silences of the colonial past, but which also gives voice to the contradictions of a neo-colonial present. (Set in Central Africa, in an unnamed country which sets itself apart from the white-supremacy states south of its borders, Gordimer's story explores the ironies of an emergent nation which claims to have thrown off the shackles of its former oppressors—to have disabused itself of the legacy of the colonial past—but which continues to be driven by social, political, and economic differences: differences that are submerged beneath a rhetoric of national unity, but are clearly unassimilable to that rhetoric.)
By adopting a technique of multiple ventriloquism—Church speaking Livingstone speaking Livingstone's companions—Gordimer draws attention, once again, to the palimpsestic structure of her short story narratives. As in "Six Feet of the Country," the sociology of narrative voice—who speaks, and for whom; who does not speak—is closely related to the politics of territorial claim. The owner of Gough's Bay Hotel, like the narrator in "Six Feet of the Country," appears to have few doubts about her territorial rights. The graves of Livingstone's companions, she tells Church, are only two minutes' walk from the hotel: "My graves. On my property." But as Church discovers, the graves, and the submerged narratives they contain, cannot be so easily accounted for. Another grave lies alongside them: that of Richard Macnab, the original owner of Gough's Bay Hotel and its current owner's former husband. This grave, too, contains its own hidden story: a story, like the stories of Livingstone's companions, which effectively challenges the entitlement of the primary narrative. Who "owns" Gough's Bay Hotel and the land that surrounds it? Who is the story of Gough's Bay Hotel "about"? And why is the hotel still there: a survivor, like the graves of Livingstone's companions, from another era? These questions remain unresolved in Gordimer's story; by presenting a surface narrative which then cracks and ruptures to reveal other narratives sedimented beneath it, Gordimer articulates rival claims to a "new" but residually colonial country that remains, like the story itself, unfinished, unstable, and subject to dispute.
In a story from a more recent collection, Jump, Gordimer provides a further variant on the intrusive sub-text. A bird, trapped in a drain-pipe outside the protagonist's bedroom window, cheeps plaintively from somewhere behind the wall, disturbing his sleep, "penetrating the closed space of his head from some other closed space." As in "Livingstone's Companions," a voice from elsewhere impinges upon the protagonist's consciousness, defamiliarizing the world of his everyday experience. The bird's accident reminds the protagonist of his own misadventure earlier that morning when, jogging in the indeterminate area between his protected white suburb and a neighboring black township, he had witnessed a brutal murder and had been forced to run: not for his health, this time, but for his life. Unlike the bird, or the latest casualty of South Africa's intertribal violence (if that is the reason for the murdered man's death, for we never find out), the protagonist eventually gets away; but not before he is trapped into complicity with the events of the morning. For in a sense, like both bird and man, the protagonist has no place to go: he can only escape into further captivity.
As in so many of Gordimer's short fictions, the absent presences of the text—the suffocating bird, the murdered man—become the invisible nodes around which the story coheres. Both creatures are robbed of their most fundamental of rights: "the first imperative [of life] … to breathe." But breathing depends on space as well as air; and space depends, in turn, on social status. After witnessing the murder, the panic-stricken protagonist crosses over into the "forbidden territory" of the township, where he is rescued by a family who offer him temporary, if understandably grudging, shelter. The protagonist is well aware of his intrusion: the intimacy of his new—and wholly unfamiliar—surroundings "pressed around him, a mould in which his own dimensions were redefined. He took up space where the space allowed each resident must be scrupulously confined and observed." The inferences are easy enough to draw: the protagonist is reminded that the air is not his alone to breathe; that privacy elides privilege; that physical freedom masks psychological entrapment; that the accidental intruder can also be an inadvertent accomplice.
"Keeping Fit"—the title, once again, is heavily ironic—provides the latest instance of a preoccupation in Gordimer's fiction with the politics of space: a polities in which text and sub-text, surface narrative and submerged narratives, interact with one another in a complex imbroglio of territorial disputes. These disputes, needless to say, are conducted on unequal terms; but paradoxically, it is within the more concentrated form of the short story, rather than the more elaborate structure of the novel, that the enormity of this discrepancy makes itself most readily felt. It is hazardous, of course, to make categorical distinctions between the novel and the short story; Gordimer's fictions are no exception. But by using the inferential techniques of the short story to articulate the submerged consciousness of marginalized and/or oppressed groups, and by using the defamiliarizing effect of the short story to expose the moral bankruptcy of a white bourgeoisie intent on "naturalizing" its unearned privilege, Gordimer illustrates that the seemingly innocuous short story may well cut deeper than the ostensibly political novel into the fabric of society.
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