Jump and Other Storiesby Nadine Gordimer
A new collection of short stories from the author of My Son's Story. In 16 stories ranging from the dynamics of family life to the worldwide confusion of human values, Nobel Prize-winner Nadine Gordimer gives readers access to many lives in places as far apart as suburban London, Mozambique, a mythical island, and South Africa.
“A gallery of riveting tales . . . Gordimer's long and prolific career has left little doubt of her mastery of the art of fiction.” The Washington Post Book World
“Gordimer has rarely been more profound or more quietly brilliant than in these exquisitely subtle stories.” Publishers Weekly
“Readers of Ms. Gordimer's fiction know that the riveting details, the epiphanies scattered throughout the narrative that shock and surprise, function within a larger vision. This expansive vision, its moral power and artistic integrity, are what elevate her fiction above that of most of her contemporaries.” The New York Times Book Review
“Gordimer's stories are captivating, in the literal sense of holding in thrall the reader's entire attention. ” Chicago Tribune
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Jump and Other Stories
By Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1991 Felix Licensing, B.V.
All rights reserved.
He is aware of himself in the room, behind the apartment door, at the end of a corridor, within the spaces of this destination that has the name HOTEL LEBUVU in gilt mosaic where he was brought in. The vast lobby where a plastic-upholstered sofa and matching easy chairs are stranded, the waiting elevator in its shaft that goes up floor after floor past empty halls, gleaming signs—CONFERENCE CENTRE, TROPICANA BUFFET, THE MERMAID BAR—he is aware of being finally reached within all this as in a film a series of dissolves passes the camera through walls to find a single figure, the hero, the criminal. Himself.
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.
The chair faces the wide-screen television set they must have installed when they decided where to put him. There is nothing to match its expensive finish—the small deal table and four chairs with hard red plastic-covered seats, the hairy two-division sofa, the Formica-topped stool, the burning curtains whose circles and blotches of pattern dazzle like the flicker of flames: these would be standard for a clientele of transients who spend a night, spill beer, and put out cigarettes under a heel. The silvery convex of the TV screen reflects a dim, ballooned vision of a face, pale and full. He forgets, and passes a hand over cheek and chin, but there is no beard there—it's real that he shaved it off. And they gave him money to fit himself out with the clothes he wears now. The beard (it was dark and vigorous, unlike the fine hair of his head) and the camouflage fatigues tucked into boots that struck authoritatively with each step, the leather-bound beret; took them all off, divested himself of them. There! He must be believed, he was believed. The face pale and sloping away into the pale flesh of the chin: his hidden self produced for them. It's there on the dead screen when he looks up.
They supplied a cassette player of good quality as well as the wide-screen television set. He is playing, so loudly it fills the room, presses counter to the day pressing against the curtains, the music track from a film about an American soldier who becomes brutalized by the atrocities he is forced to commit in Vietnam. He saw the film long ago, doesn't remember it well, and does not visualize its images. He is not listening: the swell and clash, the tympani of conflict, the brass of glory, the chords of thrilling resolve, the maudlin strings of regret, the pauses of disgust—they come from inside him. They flow from him and he sits on and does not meet the image smeared on the screen. Now and then he sees his hand. It never matched the beard, the fatigues, the beret, the orders it signed. It is a slim, white, hairless hand, almost transparent over fragile bones, as the skeleton of a gecko can be seen within its ghostly skin. The knuckles are delicately pink—clean, clean hand, scrubbed and scrubbed—but along the V between first and second fingers there is the shit-coloured stain of nicotine where the cigarette burns down. They were prepared to spend foreign currency on him. They still supply from somewhere the imported brand he prefers; packets are stacked up amply in their cellophane, within reach. And he can dial room service as indicated on the telephone that stands on the floor, and, after a long wait, someone will come and bring cold beer. He was offered whisky, anything he liked, at the beginning, and he ordered it although he had never been one to drink spirits, had made the choice, in his profession, of commanding the respect accorded the superiorly disciplined personality rather than the kind admiringly given to the hard-living swaggerer. The whisky has stopped coming; when he orders a bottle nothing is said but it is not delivered.
As if it mattered.
Covered by the volume of the music, there is the silence. Nothing said about the house: the deal included a house, he was given to understand it would be one of the fine ones left behind and expropriated by the State in the name of the people, when the colonials fled. A house with a garden and watchman for privacy, security (in his circumstances), one of the houses he used to ride past when he was the schoolboy son of a civil servant living here in a less affluent white quarter. A house and a car. Eventually some sort of decent position. Rehabilitated. He had thought of information, public relations (with his international experience); it was too soon to say, but they didn't say no.
Everything he wanted: that was to be his reward. The television crews came—not merely the tin-pot African ones but the BBC, CBS, Antenne 2, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen—and the foreign correspondents flew in with their tape recorders. He was produced at press conferences in the company of the Commander of the Armed Forces, the Minister of Defence, and their aides elegant as the overthrown colonial ones had been. A flower arrangement among the water carafes. Him displayed in his provided clothes, his thighs that had been imposing in fatigues too fleshy when crossed in slightly shiny tropical trousers, his chin white, soft and naked where the beard was gone, his hair barbered neat and flat with the dun fringe above the forehead, clippers run up the nape—on his big hunched body he saw in the newspaper photographs the head of a little boy with round bewildered eyes under brows drawn together and raised. He told his story. For the first few months he told his story again and again, in performance. Everyone has heard it, now. On the table with the four chairs drawn up a cold fried egg waits on a plate covered by another plate. A jug of hot water has grown tepid beside a tin of instant coffee. Someone has brought these things and gone away. Everyone has gone away. The soaring, billowing music in the room is the accompaniment the performance never had. When the tape has ended he depresses the rewind button to play it again.
They never mention the house or the car and he doesn't know how to bring up the subject—they hardly ever come to see him any more, but maybe that's natural because the debriefing is over, they're satisfied. There's nothing more to tell the television crews and the press. There's nothing more he can think of—think back! think back!—to find to say. They've heard about his childhood in this capital, this country to which he has been returned. That he was an ordinary colonial child of parents who'd come out from Europe to find a better life where it was warm and there were opportunities. That it was warm and there was the sea and tropical fruit, blacks to dig and haul, but the opportunity was nothing grander than the assured tenure of a white man in the lower ranks of the civil service. His parents were not interested in politics, never. They were not interested in the blacks. They didn't think the blacks would ever affect their lives and his. When the colonial war began it was away in the North; troops came from the 'mother' country to deal with it. The boy would perhaps become an accountant, certainly something one rung above his father, because each generation must better itself, as they had done by emigrating. He grew up taking for granted the activities and outlets for adventurous play that had no place in the reality of the blacks' lives, the blacks' war: as an adolescent he bonded with his peers through joining the parachute club, and he jumped—the rite of passage into manhood.
In the capital, the revolution was achieved overnight by a relinquishment of power by Europe, exacted by the indigenous people through years of war in the rural areas. A few statues toppled in the capital's square and some shops were looted in revenge for exploitation. His parents judged their security by the uninterrupted continuance, at first, of the things that mattered to them: the garbage continued to be collected twice a week and there was fish in the market. Their modest lives would surely not be touched by black rule. He was apprenticed as draughtsman to an architect by then (more prestigious than accountancy) and his weekend hobby, in addition to jumping from the sky, was photography. He even made a bit of pocket money by selling amusing shots of animals and birds to a local paper. Then came the event that—all at once, reeled up as the tape is filling its left cylinder on rewind—the experience that explained everything he had ever done since, everything that he was to confess to, everything he was to inculpate himself for and judge himself on in his performance for the journalists under the monitoring approval of the Commander of the Armed Forces and the Minister of Defence, during the probing of debriefing, the Q and A interviews; and to himself, in fiery dimness behind the curtains' embers, facing the fish-eye of the TV screen, surrounded by the music, alone. He took a photograph of a sea-bird alighting on some sort of tower structure. Soldiers lumbered with sawn-off machine guns seized him, smashed his camera and took him to the police. He was detained for five weeks in a dirty cell the colonial regime had used for blacks. His parents were told he was an imperialist spy—their innocent boy only two years out of school! Of course, this was all in the confusion of the first days of freedom (he would explain to his audience), it was to be expected. And who was that boy to think he could photograph anything he liked, a military installation of interest to the new State's enemies? That white boy.
At this point in the telling came the confession that for the first time in his life he thought about blacks—and hated them. They had smashed his camera and locked him up like a black and he hated them and their government and everything they might do, whether it was good or bad. No—he had not then believed they could ever do anything good for the country where he was born. He was sought out by or he sought out—he was never made to be clear on this small point—white people to whom his parents had successfully appealed to get him released. They soothed him with their indignation over what had happened to him and gave him a substitute for the comradeship of the parachute club (closed down by the blacks' military security) in their secret organization to restore white rule through compliant black proxies. How it was to be done was not yet formulated, allies from neighbouring cold and hot wars had not yet been found, money from international interests wanting access to oil and mineral finds had not been supplied, sources for matériel and mercenaries to put together a rebel army in the bush were still to be investigated. He bent quietly over his drawing board and at night he went to clandestine meetings. He felt importantly patriotic; something new, because his parents had abandoned their country, and this country in which he was born had been taken back by the blacks for themselves. His parents thanked God he was safe in good company, white like them but well off and knowledgeable about how to go on living here where it was warm, trusted to advise one if it were to be time to leave. They were proud when told their son was being sent to Europe to study; an act of philanthropy by compatriots of the country they had all once emigrated from.
Of humble beginnings, he had come into the patrimony of counter-revolution.
The telephone is not only good for house calls that summon the old black man shrunken in khaki who brings the beer, brought the egg and covered it with a second plate. He can phone long distance every day, if he wants to. There is never a bill; they pay. That was the condition understood—they would provide everything. So he phones his mother every third day in the European city to which she and his father returned when the people who knew about these things said it was time to go. He has only to dial, and it's winter there now and the phone will ring on its crocheted mat in the living-room behind double-glazing, discovered to him (so that was where his parents came from!) when he was set up in the same European city. They must have realized soon that he was not studying. At least not in the sense they would understand, of attending an institute and qualifying for a profession you could name. But it was obvious to them he was doing well, he was highly-thought-of by the people who had recognized the young man's qualities and taken him up after the terrible time when those blacks threw him in prison back where everything was lost, now—the civil servant's pension, the mangoes and passion fruit, the sun. He was involved in the affairs of those people of substance, international business too complicated for him to explain. And confidential. They respected that. A mother and father must never make any move that might jeopardize the opportunities they themselves have not been able to provide. He was always on his way to or from the airport—France, Germany, Switzerland, and other destinations he did not specify. Of course his gift for languages must have been invaluable to the people he worked with rather than for—that was clearly his status. He had not an apartment but a whole house purchased for him in the privacy of one of the best quarters, and his study or office there was not only lined with documents and books but equipped with the latest forms of telecommunication. Foreign associates came to stay; he had a full-time maid. His delicate, adolescent's chin disappeared in the soft flesh of good living, and then he grew the beard that came out dark and vigorous giving him the aspect of a man of power. They never saw him wearing the rest of its attributes: the bulky fatigues and the boots and the beret. He visited them in civilian clothes that had come to be his disguise.
The first time he ever used the phone on the floor was when he phoned her, his mother, to tell her he was alive and here. Where? How could she ever have supposed it—back, back in this country! The sun, the mangoes (that day there was fruit supplied on the table where the egg congeals, now), the prison a young boy had been thrown into like any black. She wept because she and his father had thought he was dead. He had disappeared two months previously. Without a word; that was one of the conditions he adhered to on his side, he couldn't tell his parents this was not a business trip from which he would return: he was giving up the house, the maid, the first-class air tickets, the important visitors, the book-lined room with the telecommunications system by which was planned the blowing up of trains, the mining of roads, and the massacre of sleeping villagers back there where he was born.
It is the day to phone her. It's more and more difficult to keep up the obligation. There's nothing left to tell her, either. From weeping gratitude that he was alive, as time has gone by she has come to ask why she should be punished in this way, why he should have got mixed up in something that ended so badly.
Over the phone she says, Are you all right?
He asks after his father's health. Does it look like being a mild winter?
Already the wind from the mountains has brought a touch of rheumatism.
Do you need anything? (Money is provided for him to send to his parents, deprived of their pension; that's part of the deal.)
Then there's nothing to say. She doesn't ask if he's suffering from the heat back there, although the sun banks up its fire in the closed curtains, although she knows well enough what the climate's like in summer, and he was gone seven years and cannot reacclimatize. She doesn't want to mention the heat because that is to admit he is back there, she and his father will never understand what it was all about, his life; why he got himself into the fine house, the telecommunications system, the international connections, or why he gave it all up. She says little, in a listless voice, over the phone. But she writes. They deliver her letters, pushed under the door. Why does God punish me? What have your father and I done? It all started long ago. We were too soft with you. With that parachute nonsense. We should never have allowed it. Giving in, letting you run wild with those boys. It started to go wrong then, we should have seen you were going to make a mess of our lives, I don't know why. You had to go jumping from up there. Do you know what I felt, seeing you fall like that, enjoying yourself frightening us to death while you fooled around with killing yourself? We should have known it. Where it would end. Why did you have to be like that? Why? Why?
First in the weeks of debriefing and then in the press conferences, he had to say.
They demanded again and again. It was their right.
How could you associate yourself with the murderous horde that burns down hospitals, cuts off the ears of villagers, blows up trains full of innocent workers going home to their huts, rapes children and forces women at gunpoint to kill their husbands and eat their flesh?
He sat there before them sane, and was confronted by the madness. As he sits in the red gloom in front of the wide-screen television set, the fuse of a cigarette between the fingers of his fine white hand and his pale blue eyes clear under puppy-like brows. Shuddering; they couldn't see it but he shuddered within every time to hear listed by them what he knew had happened. How could they come out with it, just like that?
Because horror comes slowly. It takes weeks and months, trickling, growing, mounting, rolling, swelling from the faxed codes of operation, the triumph of arms deals secretly concluded with countries who publicly condemn such transactions; from the word 'destabilization' with its image of some faulty piece of mechanism to be rocked from its base so that a sound structure may be put in its place. He sent the fax, he took the flights to campaign for support from multinational companies interested in access to the oil and minerals the blacks were giving to their rivals, he canvassed Foreign Offices interested in that other term, spheres of influence.
Excerpted from Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 1991 Felix Licensing, B.V.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is the author of fifteen novels, more than ten volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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