Great divides

So sooner had Nelson Mandela emerged from prison than people began to ask what, if anything, “oppositional” authors such as Nadine Gordimer would find to write about in the dawning post-apartheid world. The Nobel laureate’s 13th novel is proof, if any were needed, that there is no shortage of targets in the “new” South Africa for her unswervingly ironic gaze.

The Pickup, set in Johannesburg and an unnamed Arab desert state, takes migration as its theme, the industrialised, newly democratic South Africa having joined the West as an illusory promised land for those without hope elsewhere. But while Gordimer’s abiding strength is ironic detachment, her weakness, perhaps ever more evident as she extends her range, may lie in a lack of imaginative sympathy, a failure that unbalances and ultimately wrecks this novel.

The pickup of the title refers to an episode in which a young woman befriends a garage mechanic, an illegal Arab immigrant known as Abdu, when her car breaks down. Julie Summers has rejected the northern suburbs and her investment banker father in favour of a back-yard cottage adapted from servants’ quarters and a crew of hippy-like friends, or “elective siblings”. Though they talk of Julie’s “oriental prince” as a “grease-monkey”, they complete “the image of herself she believes to be her true self”.

Part of that self-image is “to be open to encounters”, and Julie instigates an affair with Abdu, a labourer with an economics degree who, having overstayed his permit, is threatened with deportation to his “run-down, deprived strip of a country”.

The scene shifts to Abdu’s homeland. Julie insists that they stay together, and Abdu that they get married before meeting his family. But as Julie finds teaching English more fulfilling than her Jo’burg job in PR, and discovers kinship with women in the family of Ibrahim Ibn Musa — Abdu’s real name — his drive to emigrate to the United States sparks conflict. Her surprise decision, inspired by the desert, forms the novel’s final twist.

Gordimer remains adept at revealing discrepancies between how people imagine themselves and the true limits of their commitment. Just as she laid bare both the abnormality of the “habit” of apartheid and the inadequacy of the liberal response to it, here she lacerates those businessmen who now invite black notables to their parties: pragmatists for whom racism was less an article of faith than an economic convenience.

As the embattled love affair unfolds through cross-cultural rifts and accommodations, each partner surprises the other. Ibrahim admires the successful father Julie despises; his dream of California resembles the life she has fled. For him, tenderness is a temptation; he must “guard against that thing, luxury, people who could afford it called love”. For Julie everything is an “adventure”, but as Ibrahim sees it: “She’s a child, they’re all children … innocence is ignorance, with them.” Yet Julie, who resembles Gordimer’s revolutionary heroines, naive but capable of growth, “knows something” in her love.

Part of the problem with the novel’s shifting viewpoints is that Ibrahim is a totally unconvincing subject. In the cursory filling out of his history — as a dishwasher in London, swabbing floors in Berlin beer halls — the language is leached of colour. The device of addressing the reader directly compounds an emotional distance from the couple, a barrier not helped by forced observations such as this: “In her body he was himself, he belonged to nobody, she was the country to which he had emigrated.” An aside on Julie’s uncle, a gynaecologist wrongly accused of sexual harassment, forms a brief intrusion, as though the author merely sought to say her piece on the topic.

The Pickup seems like a short story extended beyond its natural length. Gordimer’s trademark ironic twist appears here as a cheap device that diminishes the complexity of what she has tried to build before. There are dash-filled sentences of staggering clumsiness and opacity, and peremptory shorthand.

Strangely cold observations jar with the novel’s ostensible sympathies, as in a reference to a barefoot Arab worker waiting “like a patient attendant dog”. Such perceptions, together with the failure to illuminate Ibrahim’s life, suggest that while the author mocks liberal ignorance, she may share more of its limitations than she knows.

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