A Difficult Read: The Conservationist

downloadNadine Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist may have won the Booker Prize, but that does not make it an easy read. In fact, I get the sense that it won the award precisely because it is a difficult book. Difficult from both a methodological standpoint and from its themes and motifs. The novel centres on Mehring, a rich South African industrialist, who has purchased a farm out in the country to provide himself a place to seduce his mistress. However, he quickly becomes attached to the place and its beauty and spends more and more time here. The farm is operated by blacks and is near a black settlement, or more properly what the novel calls a “location,” and there is a palpable tension throughout that is bred by apartheid. As Mehring reflects on his life, it becomes more and more clear that his personal life is in shambles, he deludes himself about the very questionable politics of South Africa under apartheid, and remains willfully ignorant of the general humanity of anyone other than himself. Published 20 years before apartheid officially ended, Gordimer’s novel very clearly intends to unsettle any convenient or self-serving notions about justice in South Africa.

From a narrative standpoint, the novel is also quite difficult because Gordimer uses a roving narration that is by turns third-person limited (rotating between a few different characters) and first person (mostly of Mehring’s thoughts). The narrative almost moves fluidly between the present in which Mehring visits his farm and his past where his relationships to his wife, his mistress, his potentially gay son, and the farm’s workers, are explored. It is almost like stream-of-consciousness writing, but not quite that intense. What I think this roving point of view does is continually show us how blind Mehring is not only to his own privileged position as a wealthy white male South African, but it also shows us how others alternatively buy into his self-image and reject it. I’m thinking particularly of his relationship with Jacobus, his black overseer who runs the farm. On the one hand, Jacobus admires Mehring for his Mercedes, his actions, and his lifestyle but, on the other hand, there is also a sense that Jacobus knows Mehring does not possess the land. Mehring’s name may be on the deed, but he has very little claim to the land itself unlike Jacobus and his companions who work in it everyday. When there is a catastrophic flood, Jacobus is unable to get a hold of Mehring and the farm begins to shift subtly as the blacks believe they are on their own again. Of course, Mehring comes back when the roads are fixed, but there is a subtle shift in the relationship as both Jacobus and his fellow workers seem to see through Mehring.

One thing that really intrigued me about the novel was the relationship to land in it. Mehring delights in losing himself in his third pasture, laying amidst the grasses in different seasons. But this seems like a false calm because buried nearby is an anonymous black corpse that mysteriously turned up one day. The landscape seems to allow Mehring to escape the turbulent politics of apartheid, but not quite either as the flood disrupts his sense of pastoral innocence, revealing the partially-decomposed corpse again. This also makes me wonder who the conservationist of the title is: is it Mehring who wants to preserve a nostalgic and romanticized farm? Or is it the blacks who work in the land and can lay claim on it? Is it an ironic sense of conservation whereby Mehring is trying to keep alive a flawed and dying system of justice? I have no answers to these questions, but I find them intriguing nonetheless.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in South Africa, but be forewarned that it is a difficult read.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Conservationist. London: Penguin Books, 1974. Print.


South Africa’s Civil War: The Life and Times of Michael K

lifeJ.M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K is a deceptive book. It appears to be the narration of a simple-minded man, Michael, as he carries his mother to her hometown in Prince Albert from Cape Town. The novel is set during the turbulent 1970s in South Africa when strong resistance to governmental apartheid caused civil war and increasing restrictions on citizens’ movements and freedoms. Of course, none of this is made clear in the narrative itself as Coetzee very carefully removes any kind of reference to specific events, groups, or places beyond Prince Albert, Cape Town, and Stellenbosch. I may have missed some reference because I am not South African nor do I have any kind of extensive knowledge of apartheid, but the novel itself is very hazy about events and details. In a way, the novel reads like a simple travelogue told by someone with a developmental disability, yet there is a very complex and violent reality beneath it. Michael is put into work or rehabilitation camps at various points because the soldiers believe him to be a rebel. Like Franz Kafka’s The Trial (many have suggested that the K of Michael K is a homage to Kafka), there is a surface to the narrative that hides a complex depth.

This surface level makes the novel an easy read, but I had a sinking suspicion that I missing key phrases and clues scattered throughout its length. Part of this comes from the fact that Coetzee’s narrator employs a limited vocabulary and does not question larger social or political issues. He is a “simpleton” as many characters describe him, yet by the end of the novel he shows a remarkable self-knowledge that belies this label. Many people mistake him for a mute or dumb being, yet he often plays this role because he simply wants to exist in his own way. His own mother, Anna, is disdainful of him and had sent him to an institution until he was old enough to be able to help her around the house.

One of the most interesting things about the novel for me was the way that Michael, on his journey, comes to appreciate and love the veld (the South African prairie). He had worked as a gardener in Cape Town, but on the veld he begins to grow his own food and finds this richly rewarding. So much so that when he is offered food in one of the camps he refuses it because it has not come from the ground. There is an elemental attachment between Michael and the ground that the other characters do not understand. In this sense, Michael begins to appear like a character in a philosophical novel, someone playing a role in a narrative charting out of a philosophical position (like the brothers in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). The novel itself tends towards the philosophical with its lack of social specificity. There were moments when I felt like I was re-reading  Albert Camus’s The Fall.

Right near the end of the novel, Michael has this thought: “Is that the moral of it all, he thought, the moral of the whole story: that there is time enough for everything’? Is that how morals come, unbidden, in the course of events, when you least expect them?” (249). This might be the core of Coetzee’s reflections on racial conflict in the novel. There is no reference to any character’s colour, so that we never know if Michael, the doctor who narrates the second section, or the soldiers are black or white. I am not a South African scholar, so this is not necessarily a well-formed view. Yet the kind of patience and wisdom evinced by Michael seems like a welcome dose of knowledge in an age when we often act or speak out before we have truly thought through things.

I would highly recommend this novel to any reader. It was thoroughly enjoyable even if I did not pick up the racial context underpinning it.

Coetzee, J.M. The Life and Times of Michael K. London: Secker& Warburg, 1983. Print.