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Critical Essay by Nancy Topping Bazin
SOURCE: "Southern Africa and the Theme of Madness: Novels by Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer," in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Goozé, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 137-49.
In the following excerpt, Topping Bazin discusses how utopian and dystopian visions of Gordimer's novels reflect past and present racism in South Africa.
However different their lives, Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer share the common heritage of having grown up in southern Africa. All three were profoundly affected by that experience. Their responses to the colonialist, racist, and sexist attitudes that permeated their lives have determined, to a major extent, the nature of their fiction. Their novels reflect the grotesque situations and bizarre human relationships created by prejudice, injustice, and the desire to dominate. These three authors focus on the mad nature of this social and political situation in southern Africa. In their works, dystopian and utopian visions of the future provide perspectives from which to view the nightmarish quality of the past and present. These writers seek to communicate the horror of what they have known and their longings for something else—other ways of being and acting than those that characterize not only most whites of southern Africa but also most people of all colors….
The sight of a violent black man in Nadine Gordimer's novel Burger's Daughter functions … as a recurring spur for the protagonist. Rosa Burger, to persist in her political activities. Such moments make her intensely aware of the necessity for an alternative. Born and raised by white activist parents in South Africa. Rosa Burger is driving along when she sees a donkey-drawn cart with a woman and child huddled in terror among the sacks. The black driver, frustrated by his own victimization, in turn, abuses his animal and his family. Rosa sees him standing on the moving cart:
Suddenly his body arched back with one upflung arm against the sky and lurched over as if he had been shot and at that instant the donkey was bowed by a paroxysm that seemed to draw its four legs and head down towards the centre of its body in a noose, then fling head and extremities wide again; and again the man violently salaamed, and again the beast curved together and flew apart.
For Rosa, the donkey, cart, driver, and mother and child behind him "made a single object that contracted against itself in the desperation of a hideous final energy." What that scene represents for her is:
the entire ingenuity from thumbscrew and rack to electric shock, the infinite variety and gradation of suffering, by lash, by fear, by hunger, by solitary confinement—the camps, concentration, labour, resettlement, the Siberias of snow or sun, the lives of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada, Kgosana, gull-picked on the Island, Lionel [her imprisoned father] propped wasting to his skull between two warders, the deaths by questioning, bodies fallen from the height of John Vorster Square, deaths by dehydration, babies degutted by enteritis in "places" of banishment, the lights beating all night on the faces of those in cells.
Faced with so much suffering that she cannot determine when or how to intervene, Rosa's first reaction is to leave her native South Africa: "After the donkey I couldn't stop myself. I don't know how to live in Lionel's country." But later in the novel, Rosa Burger realizes that she cannot stay away and ignore this suffering; her place is in South Africa. She must rejoin the struggle. This is symbolized by the epigraph for section two of the novel: "To know and not to act is not to know."
Through writing her next novel, July's People, Nadine Gordimer seeks an end to the psychological and social madness created by apartheid or any master-servant relationship. She reveals how even the white South African liberals are collaborators benefiting from racist policies. In this book Gordimer presents a dystopian vision of the future. Through it she can perhaps move white readers to take action to abolish apartheid and the many injustices suffered by blacks, thereby preventing the situation described in the novel from becoming a reality. In July's People, violence has erupted. With the help of Cuban and Soviet missiles, the black Africans are taking over the cities, and the white Smales family is saved, presumably from death, only by the ingenuity of their servant July, who allows them to escape with him to his village. However, in the village the power shifts from the whites to the blacks, just as it had in the city. Roles are reversed; July, the servant, becomes the master. Once again there is dominance rather than equality.
Through depicting in July's People what it would be like to be a white person abruptly thrown into a basically hostile black African village, Gordimer conveys a little of what the black person experiences when thrown into an alien white environment. To survive in the white world, July had to learn English; Bam and Maureen Smales need to know, but do not know, July's African language. Unable to speak and comprehend the dominant tongue, they are rendered powerless. Unable to understand local customs or methods of getting food and necessities, the Smales family becomes almost entirely dependent upon July for its survival. Because Bam cannot be seen driving his own small truck, called a bakkie, July keeps the keys. A little later, Daniel, one of the villagers, steals Bam's gun and goes off to fight against the whites for possession of the country. The Smales no longer have any police protection, and both the chief of the village and July have the power at any time to deny them the safety the village provides. On one hand, they are—like the urban blacks—invisible, nonparticipants in the social system; on the other hand, they are totally visible because they are watched closely by every villager.
Both Bam and Maureen Smales lose their status and traditional roles when they enter the African village. Their marital relationship is destroyed by this breakdown of their social order. Powerless, Bam can no longer support or protect his family. He does not know anymore how to speak to his wife, Maureen, because, without their roles, they seem to have no self or identity. He is unable to see this woman he lives with now either as Maureen or as someone functioning in any of her past roles—wife, mother, partner, dance teacher, daughter; therefore, he views this female as "her." He views her as a presence whose "sense of self he could not follow because here there were no familiar areas in which it could be visualized moving, no familiar entities that could be shaping it." Likewise, Maureen can no longer identify Bam as the man she had known back home in the "master bedroom." No longer able to function as her financial and physical protector, he seems useless; "she looked down on this man who had nothing, now." When the village chief asks Bam to explain what is currently happening in South Africa between the blacks and whites, Maureen is quick to perceive that what he was really asking about was "an explosion of roles, that's what the blowing up of the Union Buildings and the burning of the master bedrooms is." Similarly, July had lost his macho role and status when he had gone to the Smales to work, for Maureen had been his daily master and he her "boy." July tells her bitterly, "Fifteen years / your boy / you satisfy." Just as Maureen lost her respect for her husband in the black African village where he had no power, the black African wife's respect for July had been permanently diminished by his lack of power in the white-dominated city. To become powerless and hence to lose control over one's own life mean a loss of social status but also a loss of self-esteem and a clear sense of one's own identity. This loss of identity and well-defined roles is central to the terror evoked by this South African dystopia.
In desperation, Maureen seeks to play a subservient and semi-intimate role with July. She discovers, however, that she, who had had control over his daily life, rather than Bam, the real white power, has earned all of July's hostility. Furthermore, she has absolutely no power over him anymore, for "his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others. She was not his mother, his wife, his sister, his friend, his people." His lack of response to her plea for a new kind of relationship makes her understand for the first time the true nature of their prior employer/employee interactions. She suddenly "understood everything: what he had had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him."
More quickly than Bam, Maureen sees the total impossibility of their situation. July will obey black soldiers when they show up in the village just as he had obeyed whites, and for the same reason: he is powerless. By hiding his white family instead of staying in town to fight with his own people, July was already a traitor, a nonhero. So, too, in the village Bam is a nonhero. He will not fight with the village chief, who wants to defend himself against the revolutionary blacks. Politically, Bam is on the side of the revolutionaries; ironically, these same rebels may kill him.
It is not surprising then that, deserted by Bam and July, Maureen runs toward the helicopter that one day lands near the village. From the noise of the helicopter, "her body in its rib-cage is thudded with deafening vibration, invaded by a force pumping, jigging in its monstrous orgasm." This masculine symbol comes down with "its landing gear like spread legs, battling the air with whirling scythes." Concerned only for her own survival, Maureen is instinctively drawn toward this representation of male power. Her fantasy is of "a kitchen, a house just the other side of the next tree." The book ends with the two words "She runs," and critics have speculated about what it is she is running toward. Will the helicopter contain saviors or murderers? If black men will be inhabiting the new master bedrooms of Africa, will Maureen be accepted inside?
In Gordimer's next novel, A Sport of Nature, she develops further this desire of a white woman to share the future of black Africans as an insider. Being in the master bedroom with the new men in power makes that possible. The white South African protagonist, Hillela, crosses over the racial barrier effectively, marrying first a black revolutionary and then a black ruler. Under their aegis, she works continually and efficiently for the new black Africa. The latter part of A Sport of Nature is a fantasy in which we witness "the proclamation of the new African state that used to be South Africa." Hillela can be part of the new world, but only because, as Nadine Gordimer says, "'Hillela is a kind of freak. She represents a break with all the ways that have been tried.'" Hillela is a "sport of nature" (defined in the epigraph as an "abnormal variation") in South African society, because she is free of racial prejudice. Distrustful of words, her decision making is determined by instinct and sexual passion. Meanwhile, her cousin Sasha, who makes decisions based upon political commitment, spends time in jail and then leaves the country. Despite his revolutionary commitment, he is unable to achieve the degree of integration into the black revolutionary societies of southern Africa that Hillela does through marriages.
Nevertheless, Hillela has to face the fact that the time was not yet right to realize her utopian dream of having an "African family of rainbow-coloured children." Loving the skin and hair of the Other cuts at the root of racism; yet love between a few interracial couples cannot by itself alter an oppressive social structure. Moreover, this white female/black male attraction often hurts the black female—which a close reading of A Sport of Nature and Gordimer's next novel, My Son's Story, makes all too evident. Physical and spiritual love between whites and blacks is one way to undermine the madness of racism, but that love will be fragile in a struggle for dominance or in a racist or patriarchal context—white or black. Will the new African government itself be free of racism, and will black women be empowered? At the end of this futuristic novel, the answers to those questions are not clear. Still, the image of an interracial couple at the founding of the new African nation suggests that racial harmony may eventually prevail.
For Nadine Gordimer, as for Doris Lessing and Bessie Head, the future could be a dystopia or a utopia, depending upon the decisions we make in the present. Growing up in southern Africa made all three writers especially sensitive to the barriers between people. Barriers that separate, based on race or gender or class, breed madness in individuals as in social policies. Their novels suggest that experiencing mystical moments and/or witnessing moments of grotesque human violence convinced them that alternatives had to be found. Their dystopian fantasies and hallucinations help readers better understand the nature and the consequences of injustice and evil. Their utopian fantasies enable readers to imagine positive alternatives. In the words of Sasha, Hillela's cousin in A Sport of Nature, a utopia may be unattainable but "without aiming for it—taking a chance!—you can never hope even to fall far short of it." He concludes that "without utopia—the idea of utopia—there's a failure of the imagination—and that's a failure to know how to go on living." The novels of Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer make clear that to alter attitudes and behavior to support what is just, rationality and sanity are necessary. Until individuals not only know this but also act accordingly, the madness will continue.
This section contains 2,320 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)