Gordimer is brilliant... Her stories are achingly beautiful. (Pittsburgh Post- Gazette)
A remarkable collection. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
With her characteristic brilliance, Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer follows the inner lives of characters confronted by unforeseen circumstances. An earthquake offers tragedy and opportunity in the title story, exposing both an ocean bed strewn with treasure and the avarice of the town's survivors. 'Mission Statement' is the story of a bureaucrat's idealism, the… See more details below
With her characteristic brilliance, Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer follows the inner lives of characters confronted by unforeseen circumstances. An earthquake offers tragedy and opportunity in the title story, exposing both an ocean bed strewn with treasure and the avarice of the town's survivors. 'Mission Statement' is the story of a bureaucrat's idealism, the ghosts of colonial history, and a love affair with a government minister that ends astoundingly. And in 'Karma,' Gordimer's inventiveness knows no bounds: in five returns to earthly life, a disembodied narrator, taking on different ages and genders, testifies to unfinished business and questions the nature of existence. Revelatory and powerful, these are stories that challenge our deepest convictions even as they dazzle us with their artful lyricism.
Gordimer is brilliant... Her stories are achingly beautiful. (Pittsburgh Post- Gazette)
A remarkable collection. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Once upon our time, there was an earthquake: but this one is the most powerful ever recorded since the invention of the Richter scale made it possible for us to measure apocalyptic warnings.
It tipped a continental shelf. These tremblings often cause floods; this colossus did the reverse, drew back the ocean as a vast breath taken. The most secret level of our world lay revealed: the sea-bedded—wrecked ships, facades of houses, ballroom candelabra, toilet bowl, pirate chest, TV screen, mail-coach, aircraft fuselage, cannon, marble torso, Kalashnikov, metal carapace of a tourist bus-load, baptismal font, automatic dishwasher, computer, swords sheathed in barnacles, coins turned to stone. The astounded gaze raced among these things; the population who had fled from their toppling houses to the maritime hills ran down. Where terrestrial crash and bellow had terrified them, there was naked silence. The saliva of the sea glistened upon these objects; it is given that time does not, never did, exist down here where the materiality of the past and the present as they lie has no chronological order, all is one, all is nothing—or all is possessible at once.
People rushed to take; take, take. This was—when, anytime, sometime—valuable, that might be useful, what was this, well someone will know, that must have belonged to the rich, it's mine now, if you don't grab what's over there someone else will, feet slipped and slithered on seaweed and sank in soggy sand, gasping sea-plants gaped at them, no-one remarked there were no fish, the living inhabitants of this unearth had been swept up and away with the water. The ordinary opportunity of looting shops which was routine to people during the political uprisings was no comparison. Orgiastic joy gave men, women and their children strength to heave out of the slime and sand what they did not know they wanted, quickened their staggering gait as they ranged, and this was more than profiting by happenstance, it was robbing the power of nature before which they had fled helpless. Take, take; while grabbing they were able to forget the wreck of their houses and the loss of time-bound possessions there. They had tattered the silence with their shouts to one another and under these cries like the cries of the absent seagulls they did not hear a distant approach of sound rising as a great wind does. And then the sea came back, engulfed them to add to its treasury.
That is what is known; in television coverage that really had nothing to show but the pewter skin of the depths, in radio interviews with those few infirm, timid or prudent who had not come down from the hills, and in newspaper accounts of bodies that for some reason the sea rejected, washed up down the coast somewhere.
But the writer knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination.
Now listen, there's a man who has wanted a certain object (what) all his life. He has a lot of—things—some of which his eye falls upon often, so he must be fond of, some of which he doesn't notice, deliberately, that he probably shouldn't have acquired but cannot cast off, there's an art nouveau lamp he reads by, and above his bed-head a Japanese print, a Hokusai, 'The Great Wave', he doesn't really collect oriental stuff, although if it had been on the wall facing him it might have been more than part of the furnishings, it's been out of sight behind his head for years. All these—things—but not the one.
He's a retired man, long divorced, chosen an old but well-appointed villa in the maritime hills as the site from which to turn his back on the assault of the city. A woman from the village cooks and cleans and doesn't bother him with any other communication. It is a life blessedly freed of excitement, he's had enough of that kind of disturbance, pleasurable or not, but the sight from his lookout of what could never have happened, never ever have been vouchsafed, is a kind of command. He is one of those who are racing out over the glistening sea-bed, the past—detritus=treasure, one and the same—stripped bare.
Like all the other looters with whom he doesn't mix, has nothing in common, he races from object to object, turning over the shards of painted china, the sculptures created by destruction, abandonment and rust, the brine-vintaged wine casks, a plunged racing motorcycle, a dentist's chair, his stride landing on disintegrated human ribs and metatarsals he does not identify. But unlike the others, he takes nothing—until: there, ornate with tresses of orange-brown seaweed, stuck fast with nacreous shells and crenellations of red coral, is the object. (A mirror?) It's as if the impossible is true; he knew that was where it was, beneath the sea, that's why he didn't know what it was, could never find it before. It could be revealed only by something that had never happened, the greatest paroxysm of our earth ever measured on the Richter scale.
He takes it up, the object, the mirror, the sand pours off it, the water that was the only bright glance left to it streams from it, he is taking it back with him, taking possession at last.
And the great wave comes from behind his bed-head and takes him.
His name well-known in the former regime circles in the capital is not among the survivors. Along with him among the skeletons of the latest victims, with the ancient pirates and fishermen, there are those dropped from planes during the dictatorship so that with the accomplice of the sea they would never be found. Who recognized them, that day, where they lie?
No carnation or rose floats.
Full fathom five.CHAPTER 2
There was a great deal of entertaining up at the Manager's house, weekends. On Monday morning a member of the kitchen and ground staff whose job it was set off to walk fifty miles to town with the master's note for the liquor store. A case of Scotch whisky. The man walked back with twelve bottles in the case on his head, arriving on Friday. Every Friday. The feat was a famous dinner-party story, each weekend: that's my man—what heads they have, eh, thick as a log!
Roberta Blayne née Cartwright works for an international aid agency, has been based both at headquarters in New York and Geneva, and posted abroad a number of times. Her first appointment to Africa came when she was nearly forty-six and felt she looked it; she had been married once, long ago it seemed to her. The journalist husband had fallen in love with a Chinese girl while on assignment in Beijing; the marriage was an intermittent one, so to speak, each of the pair generally somewhere else and it fell into desuetude amicably. He did not share her need to have some part in changing the world, which grew in inverse proportion to any other emotional need. There were no children as a reminder of the marriage; only the tragic-eyed swollen-bellied ones of the horde waiting, here, there, for succour through thebureaucratic processes she served. Not always, or often, the direct means of putting food in their gaped nestling-mouths, but projects of policy, infrastructure, communications, trade treaties, education, land distribution by which development aid was meant to satisfy all hungers.
Could have been India. Even the European countries brought to Third World conditions by civil wars. But it was Africa; a tour of duty, a territory in the process of transformation as in most others on the African continent. She unpacked at the type of house in the capital her aid agency hired for whatever personnel in middle-level position merited. The suburb must have dated from colonial times; verandah round three sides darkening rooms with fireplaces whose chimneys were now blocked by electric heaters, a garden where loquat and bougainvillaea, gnarled as old oak, tangled above stony red earth. The bedroom she chose—there were three—was obviously the best one, this confirmed by the aura of recent occupation by her predecessor and his or her bedmate, the hangers on the rods bearing the ghosts of clothes. Her own took their place; her papers and books spread where others had been cleared away. She was accustomed to this kind of takeover. Whatever lingering presence of others was quickly erased by hers. This was a confidence acquired by the nature of international work, routine as computer competency: you have to be in constant touch with headquarters, home base in New York or Geneva, and you occupy, where others were before you and will come after, designated quarters—even though the black man who insists on waking you with tea every morning and polishes the floors, and the other who squats to tend weeds that have taken the place of flower-beds, enact old colonial rituals of a home.
Her title was Assistant to the Administrator of the programmes for this country planned by experts in New York and Geneva according to their Mission Statement. Much of the application consisted of informing New York/Geneva tactfully as possible that the Agency's plan for the country to enter globalisation couldn't be achieved quite as visualised, and concealing how she and the Administrator were deviously, prudently finding out how to go about the process—not on their own well-trained theoretical model, but in the ways the Government itself best understood how the country might practise reforms and innovations according to the circumstances in which their constituents lived, often unimaginable in New York/Geneva, and the expectations, demands, prejudices, political rivalries within which Ministers thrashed about to keep their cabinet seats. This meant not only travel into the bush and up rivers to communities where the development plan saw the local school as being thrust into the new one world with information technology equipment—and where the Administrator and his Assistant found there was no electricity in the village—but also required attentive socialising with Ministers and their various Deputies, advisors, often unidentified figures attendant and clearly influential, who would pick up in mid-sentence some wandering statement by a Minister, clarifying it briskly. Who were these men—even a woman or two? How to approach them for inside facts, for warnings or encouragements about whom to seek out to breach a Minister's generalisations, that slam of doors on undesirable realities.
She enjoyed field trips: she distrusted abstraction.—Then you're working for the wrong outfit.—Her Administrator, a Canadian, taunted her; but they got on well, he had his wife and teenage son with him, the boy enrolled at a local school as evidence of the Administrator's commitment to sharing the life of the local people wherever posted. As the bachelor woman (his wife dubbed her with mock envy), she was invited to drop in and share meals at their house where the same kind of resident tea-provider and floor-polisher had become a mate of the schoolboy, teaching him to play the guitar the traditional African way, and in turn being taught the latest pop music. In addition to the official gatherings and embassy parties, the Administrator's house was where Government Ministers and officials, members of parliament, the capital's dignitaries, judges, lawyers, businessmen, were entertained for what could be gleaned of use to the Agency's mandate. Few brought their wives along; the female Minister of Welfare and two MPs were usually the only black women present, and they were strident in their interruptions of male discourse, as they had to be to distinguish them from the wives left at home. Roberta Blayne, the Administrator and his wife, Flora, had no particular sense of being white, in this company; all three had lived with black, yellow, all races in the course of their work around the world and accepted their own physical characteristic like that between eyes with or without the epithelioid fold, noses high-bridged or flat. They were also aware that they were not always accepted by the same token among all the eminent blacks present—it's easier for the former masters to put aside the masks that hid their humanity than for the former slaves to recognise the faces underneath. Or to trust that this is not a new mask these are wearing.
For the first few months neither Ministers nor their satellites addressed Roberta Blayne beyond the usual general greeting, which then began at least to include her name—not a difficult one to recall: somebody's assistant, home-grown or imported, a genus there to be ignored. But as her Administrator, Mr Alan D. Henderson, often spoke in the plural 'we' and turned to her for her interpretation of points in an interview or observations on a field trip, the dignitaries began to recognize her as, if not one of the company of Minister of Welfare and MPs—her manner was not strident—part of a delegation, another honorary man. Her status was marked by observation that she drank whisky with the Ministers instead of the beer that was the expected choice of any entourage. A dinner-table companion might turn to her sometimes with the usual questions of obligatory interest—where did she come from?—English, of course?—what does she think of our country?—ever been in Africa—first time?—First time. India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan—but not here.——You see you are welcome, we Africans are friendly people, don't you find.—There was a lawyer who was witty and forthright, making her Administrator and her laugh at themselves, with his anecdotes and mimicry of encounters with officials from aid agencies.—One thing you development fundis don't know about is the new kind of joke you've inspired among us in the taverns.—The Administrator was equal to the banter.—It's a good sign when you hear you're the butt of humour, means you're accepted.—
The lawyer, with lips everted expectantly in a grin, saw the Assistant was about to speak:—As what? Part of the community? Or part of the scene playing between donor and beneficiary? —
—Ah, she's right on, man!—The lawyer flung himself back in his chair delightedly.—Is it a sitcom, miniseries starring the IMF and World Bank—
The Administrator was enjoying himself.—Oh not your standard villains—
This sort of pleasant exchange struck up only after the tap on a glass signalled that the host, Minister or Chairman, was about to make a welcoming speech, and discussion of the latest announcements or 'pending' announcements (development topics had their own evasive lingua franca) on trade tariffs, bills coming before parliament for land reform, proceedings of Mercasur, SADEC, the EU, had been respectfully listened to or contested (the listeners asserting themselves to become the listened to) over the skill of eating and drinking without appearing to be aware of this lowly function.
It was only then that whatever everyone had been drinking released the individual from the official; the volume rose convivially. The Administrator's Assistant felt a hand on her arm or met an assessing smile—not at all bad, this aid agency woman, the flush on the flesh where breasts lift it above her dress.
But there were not many such moments, she wasn't bothered by men; and that was perhaps not flattering. Earlier assignments, other parts of the world, it had been rather different. The attitude she had learned to convey to keep undesirables at bay without offending (aid agency work implied diplomacy above all, personal feelings must be discounted in the philosophy of equal partnership between donor agency and the people of a recipient country): that defence was scarcely needed, here; not this time; not any more.
There was even a man—not sure what he was, Assistant to a Deputy-Minister or Director-General in some portfolio or other—who did not greet her when he was seated round a conference table; one of those in official positions who do not see unimportant people: a simple defect in vision. Which meant that she did not turn to the voice, thought it was someone else in the corridor who was being addressed, when this man was saying, as she recognised him drawn level with her—Will you come for a drink?—In a pause, he added her name:—You are Miss Blayne.—As if confirming an identity.
—I'm sorry ... I didn't ... —
They were being carried along by politely hurrying people, sticks caught in a river current.—Here's the bar.—
She was so unprepared that she trotted along with the man like a schoolgirl summoned. He and his appendage were greeted with the special attention accorded by waiters and barmen indiscriminately to any face known to be in Government. He rejected one table-nook and was immediately directed to a choice of others; only the stools at the bar were occupied. She could not remember his name and did not know how to open a conversation as his silence seemed to suggest she was expected to. The waiter came, the man looked to her: she ordered her usual brand of Scotch and he made it:—Two doubles and what is there—chips, nuts.—He sent the chips back because they were stale. Then he began to speak, address—yes, he had been, he was addressing her—now, with questions about what she had had to say, at her Administrator's request, in the meeting just ended. If he did not look at her or acknowledge her presence at these official sessions, it appeared that he—she unaware of this attention as he had shown himself of her existence—listened to her duly Agency-correct depositions. There had been a contentious discussion about the ratio of subsistence crops to cash crops, particularly those with potential for export, in rural development. He wanted to know how the Agency arrived at its recommended balance, and how, in other developing countries the rural people could be convinced that it was (he had the term ready from the Government's unwritten primer) the way forward.
Excerpted from Loot and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 2003 Felix Licensing, B. V.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Nadine Gordimer is the author of eleven previous novels, as well as collections of stories and essays. She has received many awards, including the Booker Prize (for The Conservationist in 1974) and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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