Nadine 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.