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Diane Awerbuck

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Dose of Reality: Review of Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present

Without a doubt, Nadine Gordimer is the closest thing we have to a national conscience, one of a chorus of South African writers decrying the kleptocracy that is the nouveau ANC. Novelists can get away with this sort of thing because nobody in this country buys books.

But her new novel, No Time Like the Present, goes beyond the call of duty. It should really be titled Bigotry for Dummies, or perhaps, Gordimer: The Best of. Polemic does not make for readable prose, and No Time Like the Present is a manifesto, not a novel. Its morose and anthropological tale of an interracial couple – stop me if you’ve heard this one – will have you packing for Perth quicker than you can say “ubuntu”, if only to escape the hectoring.

We assume the title is sarcastic: the characters are always backward-looking, the products of their race-bound pasts. Jabulile and Steve Reed met in Swaziland during the Struggle-with-a-capital-S. Now she is a lawyer and he is a lecturer, living in the Suburbs (the other capital S), raising two coffee-coloured but less attractive kids. They remember fondly their time in an exile practically Elysian compared to the really hard stuff – how to be normal – while engaging in the sorts of conversations punted only by the very young and the very drunk.

The events of the present are exclusively topics of the post-apartheid/post-apocalyptic “cadre bourgeoisie”: Steve’s unsexy adultery scene is practically light relief in the face of the relentless march of disappointments, betrayals and atrocities. Crime? Tick. Aids? Tick. Xenophobia? Tick. It’s like going to hell and finding the only reading material is the Mail & Guardian, and it is a terrific waste of a tour of the wunderkammer that is the mind of Gordimer.

In a departure from the twiggy, literate prose of the rest of her oeuvre, Gordimer presents here with a writing style Faulknerian in its opacity – a startlingly fragmentary, demented technique, as if someone has tried to transcribe her notebooks from scratch: “With the need of a demand of using it illegally in the cause of the revolution that had somehow justified his rather random choice of a career, was he to stay in the paint manufacturing industry as the meaning of his working life”.

The lack of punctuation is perhaps attributable to the ennui of a disillusioned society that has got what it wished for – a freedom so thorough that all the ordinary rules of interaction are rendered permeable or unnecessary.

But rules are there for a reason. People live; writers write; readers must make sense of what has been lived and written. The jumps in tense and person, and occasional stream-of-consciousness format, may be deliberate -but they intersect with scenes of just plain bad writing: “They made love not war between them that night.”

The writer’s puzzling interest in the logistics of gay sex provides some entertainment, but this is overshadowed by her fetishisation of the same. She unblushingly refers to the gay neighbours as Dolphins throughout the novel because they are initially seen in their swimming pool. How this is an exclusively homosexual activity is not explained; neither is there an examination of this reverse anthropomorphism, the same kind at the heart of any prejudice.

If you want evidence that Gordimer is the South African Susan Sontag, and a demonstration of her percussive range and talent, read Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 instead. We catch a single glimpse of the old potency only at the end of No Time Like the Present: “[T]here are so many unspeakable happenings skin-to-skin close, human to human, real, not symbolic, around them.”

Except they are not, of course, unspeakable at all. A luta continua.

This review is brought to you by Books LIVE Wire. Books LIVE Wire books sponsored by Exclusive Books.


Recent comments:

  • Sloan
    March 14th, 2012 @11:36 #

    While I fully appreciate criticism levelled at any writer when their work is not to standard, I find this review itself substandard and an embarrassment for this website. This is less review than an attempt it would seem at amusing slashing and trashing. Where is the intelligent and critical response to a piece of work? How about an analysis of its major flaws? Or some sort of critical and serious engagement with the characters or the writing?

    It isn't that one needs to respect a Noble Laureate -- rather, that a serious literary work should be challenged seriously or at least (if with humour) intelligently. Surely, even Nadine Gordimer (who I bet will get proper reviews internationally even if her book is atrocious) deserves a well thought out and well written review?

    This was more review by one-liners (which were not particularly funny).

  • Sloan
    March 16th, 2012 @15:28 #

    I don't mean to belabor the point, but the Mail and Guardian this week has a proper review of this book that is also very tough on the author. As a visitor to this country this past week, I'm stunned at how many here do not regard artists like Atholl Fugard and Nadine Gordimer as they are in places like the States (they are studied and pretty much revered).

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 16th, 2012 @17:49 #

    "Athol" Fugard, ne. ;) B

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    March 23rd, 2012 @08:58 #

    And "Nobel laureate", not "Noble Laureate".


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