The Reader, Vol. X, No.4, December 1991
Pleasure. Before you even read the first story in Jump you experience two perfect pleasures.
One is hedonistic. The cover—glossy black and white, an intriguing painting of a naked man jumping into a blue void; the text—laid out in a clean-cut typeface, generous leading between the lines, an unusual bold sans serif initial cap.
The second is anticipation. A new collection of short stories by this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Short stories are wonderful—at bedtime you can read a whole one before falling asleep. You can savour an elegant structure clearly in this compact form.
Jump is Nadine Gordimer’s ninth collection of stories. She is a master of nuance and subtext, of oblique and spare exposition; her use of language is lucid and intellectually precise, her sensibility sensual and concrete. Her narrative can be as penetrating and subversive as counterespionage; she leaks information to the reader so ingeniously that it is not until the end, when the disparate elements planted throughout the story coalesce, that the meaning is suddenly comprehended. The effect is like a very sophisticated O. Henry ending, coming not from left field but right from the centre of the story.
The title story, “Jump,” opens with a man alone in a nondescript hotel room:
The curtains are open upon the dark, at night. When he gets up in the morning he closes them. By now they are on fire with the sun. The day pressing to enter. But his back is turned; he is an echo in the chamber of what was once the hotel.
His situation comes to light gradually. He has shaven his beard, divested himself of combat fatigues. He is brought foreign cigarettes but no longer whiskey. He was promised a house, a car, a garden, but these have not materialized. He has told his story (what story?) on television in the company of government officials. He has told everything. A chance experience in his youth resulted in his joining a white counterrevolutionary group dedicated to destabilizing the black government. Slowly, the true nature of the terrible acts behind the abstract word ‘destabilization’ dawned on him. He defected to the other side and was debriefed; all the trappings of his identity are dissolving.
Gordimer leaves questions floating and gives answers to questions never asked. What is being revealed, as layers are stripped off the story, is the man, bewildered, vulnerable, exposed, left with nothing but the knowledge of his past.
As a politically active and ardently committed supporter of the African National Congress, Gordimer might have been in danger of sacrificing some of the complexity and ambiguity in her writing. In a 1980 Paris Review interview she acknowledges that black South African writers experience this pressure. “They have to submit to an absolute orthodoxy within black consciousness.” Of her own writing she says, “. . .the real influence of politics in my writing is the influence of politics on people. Their lives, and I believe their very personalities, are changed by the extreme political circumstances one lives under in South Africa.”
Through her characters, Gordimer illuminates the half conscious way in which people stumble into the events of their lives, through a kind of inevitability or fate, yet this unconsciousness does not reduce their responsibility nor make them any less subject to the consequences of their actions.
In “Keeping Fit,” a jogger, enjoying his Sunday morning run, decides to run a little further down the road, past a high fence which contains a black township. The fence bursts open, an enraged crowd of men armed with butcher knives and makeshift weapons spills out. The jogger is swept along by the crowd in pursuit of a terrified black man.
This is how life unfolds. Blindly. Things understood, or at least patterns deciphered, only in retrospect. Lessons learned only once.
In “Spoils” (most of Gordimer’s story titles have an ironic resonance) a white man and his wife join friends at a lodge on a private game reserve. They have just had a lamb dinner on the evening before their excursion:
“I want no part of it.”
We are listening to the news.
“What? What are you going on about. What?”
What indeed. No: which. Which is it I choose to be no part of. . . the planned, devised, executed by people like myself, or the haphazard, the indifferent, executed senselessly by elemental forces. Senselessly. Why is there more sense in the conscious acts that make corpses? Consciousness is self-deception. Intelligence is a liar.
“You’re not having a great thought. That’s life.”
Her beauty-salon philosophy. Stale, animal, passive. Whether I choose or not; can’t choose, can’t want no part.
The daily necrophilia.
“Become a vegetarian, then!”
One evening at the lodge, a zebra is killed nearby and the guests are driven by Siza, the caretaker, to the kill. They are transfixed by the sight of four lionesses and their cubs eating the zebra. It’s a pivotal moment for the man, he feels he has been close at last to something timelessly, uncomplicitly real. The next day, the group returns to the kill and Siza cuts a steak from the zebra’s haunch. When asked why he didn’t take the whole haunch Siza replies:
The lions, they know I must take a piece for me because I find where their meat is. They know it. It’s all right. But if I take too much, they know it also. Then they will take one of my children.
This is how Gordimer brings together the personal and the political so brilliantly. The man’s discomfort with his “part in it,” his sense of life as daily necrophilia, a piling up of corpses, his discomfort at the distance between his public role and his real self, and his fascination with the lionesses and their kill are neatly, obliquely linked to the political reality of South Africa, the sub-conscious uneasiness of having taken too much, of the natural order reasserting itself—of what lies ahead.
Several stories in this collection are so perfect they take your breath away, and there are no bad ones. Nadine Gordimer is a writer of extraordinary talent with a window onto one of the most intense, painful and fascinating political situations of our time. Her combination of skill and subject matter is a knock-out. She deserves her prize.