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Critical Review by Richard Eder
SOURCE: "Faces of Revolution," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 18, 1994, pp. 3, 10.
In the following review, Eder emphasizes the theme of change, both social and personal, in the South Africa of None to Accompany Me.
There are revolutions—the French, the Chinese, the Russian—that devour the children who made them. More often, perhaps, it is a matter not of being devoured but of being digested. A little ahead of the curve of history, as always, Nadine Gordimer writes of two anti-apartheid fighters from whom victory, like a river rising and jumping its bed, has begun to withdraw and leave stranded.
None to Accompany Me takes place in the blurred and confusing excitement of South Africa in the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela was out of jail and negotiating with the government, the black exiles were returning and change was happening too quickly to be legalized or stopped—or safe. What with so many straws, leaves and twigs in the wind, it was like Birnam Wood advancing.
Two of the characters, for example, meet at an elegant gallery. It was showing a black painter "whose work had become fashionable since city corporations and white collectors had seen such acquisitions as the painless way to prove the absence of racial prejudice." Gordimer is a master ironist; here she plays in light tones.
She can play in darker ones. Odendaal, an Afrikaner farmer, refuses to negotiate with several thousand squatters. At the same time—if you can't lick the devil perhaps you can make a profit off him—he quietly but unsuccessfully tries to get the government to proclaim the land a black township and buy it up.
In a patriarchal fury, but not really losing his head as it turns out, he enlists a band of white commandos. Nine squatters are killed and many wounded, including their leader, Zeph Rapulana, one of the book's pivotal figures and one of its richest. Zeph is not happy about it—Gordimer is rarely simplistic—but he recognizes the advantage. Both sides will profit. With nine dead, at a time when De Klerk and Mandela are subtly maneuvering toward change, the government will have to give the squatters the land. And Odendaal will be handsomely paid.
Two families are the center of the novel. Their fortunes, their nerves and their deepest sense of themselves all refract the change between the old struggle and the new times. As other authors use sexual passion, Gordimer is able to use politics as the fine psychological matrix of her characters. (In this novel Gordimer uses sex too, and in some detail, but she uses it awkwardly; it lacks pheromones.)
Vera and Ben Stark are privileged and conscientious whites. She has worked for 20 years as the indomitable moving force in a foundation that fought apartheid in one of its cruelest aspects: its forced displacement and resettlement of rural black communities. Her husband, a sculptor once, became a businessman to provide security for her dangerous life.
In their youth two of their closest friends had been Didymus Maqoma, a budding Soweto lawyer, and his wife, Sally. Their families would spend weekends together at the Starks' pleasant house, despite the apartheid restrictions. Then the Maqomas disappeared, ostensibly abroad. In fact, while Sally lived in London, Didymus went underground as one of the top leaders of the African National Congress resistance inside the country.
Now they are back. Among the hundreds of returned exiles he has pride of place—a chauffeured car met him at the airport—as one of the movement's authentic heroes. But he had made enemies; and in any case his courage and fighting qualities are not what are wanted. Flexibility and the ability to negotiate with the white powers are what counts. Shockingly, he is excluded from the newly elected executive committee.
Sally, on the other hand, who had lived quietly during the fighting years and held their family together, is elected in his place. She had been put in charge of finding jobs for the returning exiles. To do so she had to deal with the business community; and she showed such tact, energy and talent for it that she has become a rising star. The night of her election, and his defeat, she rages and mourns in their bedroom; at the same time she feels a dizzying exhilaration.
Vera's passage is less marked and less dramatic. She remains active in her mission to fight for displaced black claimants. She works with Zeph against Odendaal. And, reluctantly, she will let herself be elevated to the mixed commission in charge of drafting the crucial document of the future: a constitution. Her decline has to do with a gradual loss of function: White heroes will no longer be relevant to the fight for black empowerment. The word itself is a displacement for her. "What is this new thing?" she asks Zeph. "What happened to what we used to call justice?"
There is a hint of "Animal Farm" foreboding here and in a few other places, but it is only a hint. Gordimer can at the same time be ironic about the changes, committed to them and capable of seeing the dangers. There are shadows on the new forces; there is also the infinitely promising figure—though with his own dangerousness—of Zeph. By the end of the book he has achieved stature, deepened mystery, and perhaps large promise.
None to Accompany Me is a political novel of intelligence and subtlety and it brings us news that we need. It is more than that, as well; though its more is somewhat less successful. The characters have an expository function, and for the most part what they have to expound is worked into their vital condition. Several are memorable; particularly Vera's endearing assistant, Oupa, who becomes a tragicomic victim of the changing times, and Didymus and Sally. Their reciprocal rise and fall makes a political point, but it is also a moving and beautifully imagined account of the intimate shifts within a marriage.
Gordimer works them all hard, though, and sometimes their duties wear their essences pretty thin. The writing grows rough when it tries to do too much, knotting into an odd mix of the baroque and the elliptical. This is particularly true with Vera, the novel's main voice. Her personal history, her emotions and her character get the fullest treatment of anyone. She has a gnawing will to power, as well as genuine nobility, and Gordimer works it into her two marriages and her two adulterous affairs. The more deeply she is opened up to us, though, the more effortful and less real she becomes. She and the author seem to need a certain distance from each other.
Measured distance lights up the book's most haunting link between the political and the personal. Vera's function as white mentor dissipates gradually; gradually too, she is growing old. Her last love—her husband has faded away—can exist only as a relinquishing. No One to Accompany Me, alludes both to the waning of all white hegemonies, even that of heroic idealism, and the waning of old age. Gordimer's novel is prophetic, and it has the very still quality of what is already passing. Your truest revolution is your clock's: recurring each 24 hours, always predictable and always a dismay.
This section contains 1,196 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)