No Time Like the Presentby Nadine Gordimer
"A perfect example of what literature can give us that history books cannot."Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Steve and Jabulile, once clandestine lovers under a racist law forbidding sexual relations between black and white, are living in a newly free South Africa./b>/i>/b>/i>
"A perfect example of what literature can give us that history books cannot."Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Steve and Jabulile, once clandestine lovers under a racist law forbidding sexual relations between black and white, are living in a newly free South Africa. Both were combatants in the struggle against apartheid, and now, he, a university lecturer, and she, a lawyer, are parents of children born in freedom. But as the ideals of this "better life for all" are challenged by the realities of the world around them, Steve and Jabulile consider leaving the country they so vehemently fought to free.
The subject in No Time Like the Present is contemporary, but Nadine Gordimer's treatment is, as ever, timeless. In the telling of this conflicted couple, she captures the fragmented essence of a nation.
The New York Times Book Review
“No Time Like the Present is Gordimer's best novel since her first, The Lying Days.” Susan Salter Reynolds, Newsday
“To read No Time Like the Present is to plunge into the cauldron that is South Africa today.... Although she is eighty-eight, Gordimer has all the enthusiasm of youth as she celebrates what she sees all around her. Her approach is kaleidoscopic.” Los Angeles Times
“Gordimer sees history, power, and a gnawing desire for something secular yet entwined in every mundane gesture. The personal remains political even when the great political fight has been won.” Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Every once in a while, you begin to read a book and suddenly realize you are experiencing greatness. This is such a book….There are few, if any, writers today who can match Nadine Gordimer….May she never stop.” The Washington Times
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No Time Like the Present
By Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 Nadine Gordimer
All rights reserved.
Glengrove Place. It isn't a glen and there isn't a grove. It must have been named by a Scot or Englishman for features of a home left behind, when he made money in this city at more than five thousand feet and entered the property market enterprise.
But it has been a place. It was somewhere they could live—together, when there wasn't anywhere to do so lawfully. The rent for the apartment was high, for them then, but it included a certain complicity on the part of the owner of the building and the caretaker, nothing comes for nothing when law-abiding people are taking some risk of breaking the law. As a tenant, he had the kind of English- or European-sounding name no different from others usual on the tenants' mailboxes beside the elevator in the entrance; a potted cactus decorative there, if there was no grove. She was simply the added appendage 'Mrs'. They actually were married, although that was unlawful, too. In the neighbouring country where she had gone into exile just over the border to study, and he, a young white man whose political affiliations made it necessary for him to disappear from the university in the city for a time, they, imprudently ignoring the consequence inevitable back home, had fallen in love and got themselves married.
Back home in South Africa, she became a teacher at a private school run by the Fathers of a Catholic order tolerated outside state-segregated education, able there to use her natal surname on non-racial principles.
She was black, he was white. That was all that mattered. All that was identity then. Simple as the black letters on this white page. It was in those two identities that they transgressed. And got away with it, more rather than less. They were not visible enough, politically well known enough to be worth prosecution under the Immorality Act, better to be watched, followed if they might, on the one hand, make footprints which could lead to more important activists, or on the chance they might be candidates for recruitment to report back from whatever level, dissident to revolutionary, they were privy to. In fact, he was one of those who, while a student, had been sidled up to with finely judged suggestions either of the cause of patriotic loyalty or, maybe, youth's equally assumed natural lack of funds, and had it made clear to him not to worry, he'd be ensured of his own safety and no longer be so hard up if he would remember what was said in the huddles where it was known he was present and had his part. Swallowing a gob of disgust and mimicking the tone of the approach, he refused—not that the man recognised rejection not only of the offer but also of the man who had agreed to be a political police pimp.
She was black, but there's a great deal more to that now than what was the beginning and end of existence as recorded in an outdated file of an outdated country, even though the name hasn't changed. She was born back in that time; her name is a signature to the past from which she comes, christened in the Methodist church where one of her grandfathers had been a pastor and her father, headmaster at a local school for black boys, was an Elder, her mother chairlady of the church ladies' society. The Bible was the source of baptismal first names along with the second, African ones, with which white people, whom the child would grow up to have to please, deal with in this world, had no association of identity. Rebecca Jabulile.
He was white. But that's also not as definitive as coded in old files. Born in the same past era, a few years before her, he's a white mix—that was of no significance so long as the elements were white. Actually, his mix is quite complicated in certain terms of identity not determined by colour. His father was a gentile, secular, nominally observant Christian, his mother Jewish. It is the mother's identity which is decisive in the identity of a Jew, the mother whom one can be sure of when it comes to parental conception. If the mother is Jewish that is the claim for her son within the faith, and of course this implies ritual circumcision. His father evidently raised no objection, perhaps like many agnostics even atheists he secretly envied those practising the illusion of a religious faith—or was it indulgence for the wife he loved. If that's what she wanted, important to her in a way he didn't understand. Let the foreskin be cut.
There was a Pleistocene Age, a Bronze Age, an Iron Age.
It seemed an Age was over. Surely nothing less than a New Age when the law is not promulgated on pigment, anyone may live and move and work anywhere in a country commonly theirs. Something with the conventional title 'Constitution' flung this open wide. Only a grandiose vocabulary can contain the meaning for the millions who had none recognised of the rights that go by the word freedom.
The consequences are many among the aspects of human relationships that used to be restricted by decree. On the tenants' mailboxes there are some African names: a doctor, a lecturer at a university and a woman making a career for herself in the opportunity of business. Jabulile and Steve could go to the cinema, eat in restaurants, stay in hotels together. When she gave birth to their daughter this was in a clinic where she would not have been admitted—before. It's a normal life, not a miracle. It was made by human struggle.
He had been interested in science from an early childhood and studied industrial chemistry at university. His parents saw this as at least some hope of antidote, insurance for his future in contrast to the leftist activities against the regime that led to his disappearing apparently over the border somewhere for periods; he would have a respectable profession. They were never to know how useful his knowledge of chemical elements was to the group who were learning how to make explosives for targets such as power installations. When he graduated, the junior post he found in a large paint factory was indeed a useful cover for a suspect way of life, political and sexual.
Ambition. Wasn't a time, then, to think about what you really might want to do with your life. The compass within swung the needle firmly back to the single pole—until the distortion of human life in common was ended, there was no space for meaning in personal achievement, climb Mount Everest or get rich, all cop-outs from reality, indecent sign of being on the side of no change.
Now there was no reason why he should continue to research advances in the durability of paint for new varieties of construction and decorative purposes, from rooftops to jukeboxes, bedrooms to sports convertibles. He supposed he could have returned to a university to further his knowledge of other branches of chemistry and physics, not confined to appearances. But there was a child for whom he and she had to provide a home. He did his work well anyway without much interest, there was no spice left as there had been in knowing that at the same time as (literally) keeping up appearances for white industry he was making explosives to blow up the regime. The firm had a number of countrywide branches, he was advanced in this one, the headquarters where he had begun. If he didn't make a decision, as he kept considering, to reconsider test-tube chemistry and move into the other kind, between humans, non-governmental, non-profit making, he worked part-time voluntarily on a commission for land claims of communities dispossessed under the past regime. She studied by correspondence, economics and law, and was volunteer secretary to a women's action group against woman and child abuse. Their small Sindiswa was in day care; what little time was left they spent with her.
They were sitting on their Glengrove Place balcony just after sunset among the racks of child's clothes draped to dry. A motorbike ripped the street like a sheet of paper roughly torn.
Both looked up from companionable silence, her mouth slewed, the curve of the brows pencilled on her smooth forehead flown up. It was time for the news; the radio lay on the floor with his beer. But instead he spoke.
—We should move. What d'you think. Have a house.—
—Wha'd' you mean—
He's smiling almost patronisingly.—What I say. House—
—We don't have money.—
—I'm not talking about buying. Renting a house somewhere.—
She half-circled her head, trying to follow his thought.
—One of the suburbs where whites have switched to town house enclosures. A few comrades have found places to rent.—
—Peter Mkize, I think. Isa and Jake.—
—Have you been there?—
—Of course not. But Jake was saying when we were at the Commission on Thursday, they're renting near a good school where their boys could go.—
—Sindiswa doesn't need a school.—She laughed and as if in a derisive agreement the child hiccupped over the biscuit she was eating.
—He says the streets are quiet.—
So it is the motorbike that has ripped open the thought.
—Old trees there.—
You never know when you've rid yourself of the trappings of outdated life, come back subconsciously: it's some privileges of the white suburb where he grew up that come to her man now. He doesn't know—she does—lying in his mind it's the Reed home whose segregation from reality he has left behind for ever. How could she not understand: right there in the midst of enacting her freedom independence, when one of her brothers, the elder of course, dismisses her opinion of some family conduct directed by custom, she finds what her studies by correspondence would call an atavistic voice of submission replacing the one in her throat.
He is saying as he lifts Sindiswa flying high on the way to bedtime (fathering is something the older generation, white and black, segregated themselves from)—She'll need a good school nearby soon enough.—
In the dark, withheld hours of quiet, two, three, in the morning, you don't know what is going on in the mind-rhythm of the one breathing beside you. Maybe there tore through the unconscious an echo of what prompted the idea that sunset a week—some days—ago.
Jake Anderson calls to ask whether he and Isa had been forgotten lately, would their comrades come by on Sunday—whether this was prompted by he who slept against her, she wasn't told. Anyway, it meant that they bundled Sindiswa and a couple of bottles of wine into the car and took the freeway to an exit unfamiliar. It debouched on streets brooded over by straggly pepper trees drooping their age and what must be jacarandas, but not in bloom, whose roots humped the pavements. The houses all revealed somewhere in their improvements their origin: front stoep, room ranged on either side under rigid tin roof, although some had additions, sliding glass-fronted, somehow achieved in the space of each narrow plot within walls or creeper-covered fences defining the limit between neighbours. Apparently following Jake's directions Steve slowed at what appeared to be a small red-brick church peaking among the houses, but as he drove past to take a left turn, revealed a swimming pool contrived where the church porch must have been, and three or four young men or perhaps determinedly youthful older ones, in G-string swimming briefs were dancing and tackling one another in the water to the sound of loud reggae. In the small gardens of other houses there were the expected bicycles, garden chairs and barbeque jumble. Jake's was one of them. The standard stoep had been extended by a pergola sheltered by a grape vine. There was a car and a motorbike in the street at the gate, a party evidently. Well, no, just a few comrades remembering to get together, out of the different paths their lives were taking.
They're all young but it's as if they are old men living in the past, there everything happened. Their experience of life defined: now is everything after. Detention cells, the anecdotes from camp in Angola, the misunderstanding with the Cubans who came—so determinately, idealistically brave—to support this Struggle at the risk of their own lives, the clash of personalities, personal habits in the isolation of cadres, all contained by comradeship of danger, the presence of death eavesdropping always close by in the desert, the bush. Peter Mkize is at this Sunday gathering, taking a hand at expertly turning chops and sausages on the charcoal grill under the grape vine, a beer in the other hand. His brother was one of those who were captured and killed, their dismembered bodies burned at a braaivleis by drunken white South African soldiers and thrown into the Komati River, a frontier between this country and Mozambique. That history, may it not come back to him as he flips over the spitting sausages for the comrades.
Now everything is after.
Steve feels a breath of rejection lifting his lungs. What they did then, some of those present much braver and enduring hell beyond anything he risked, anything Jabu, herself black, inevitable victim, took on—it can't be the sum of life experience? To close away from this he tosses a personal distraction.—Jake, where's the house you were telling me about. Like to have a look at it.—
—Sure, plenty time. Have another glass of this great wine you brought, while the sun goes down.—
Jabulile smiles, the patronage of intimacy.—He has a sudden urge to move.—
Move on. Yes, let's move on.—Is it in this street?—
—No, but we'll still be neighbours. It's a couple of houses down from where you turned to our street.—
—Before that weird-looking place that looks as if it was a church? There were some guys dancing in a mini pool there.—
—Was a church, this is an old ware Boer suburb, no Kaffirs allowed to come to Jesus at the altar of apartheid, blankes alleen.—
Everyone laughing release from the past. Spread hands thrown up and head dropped in mock responsibility for the guilt of the generation of his mother and father, Pierre du Preez is the one who arrived on the caparisoned motorcycle parked outside, as elaborately accoutred as some royal carriage, flashing flanks, sculptured saddle, festooned with flasks and gauges. He's an Afrikaner who no more takes offence at the gibes than Mkize does at the outlawed word, Kaffir.
—Who are the frolicking owners who've taken over?—
Pierre answers whomever's question.—It's one of our gay families.—
More laughter—this is the final blasphemy, housed.
Jake signals to Steve, leaving Isa to take care of the comrades. Jabu in turn signals she is enjoying herself and doesn't want to be interrupted but Steve's arm goes gently decisive around her and the three move unnoticed to follow past the church swimming pool to the next street to look at the house with FOR SALE TO LET board on the wall.
—Shit, it seems it's not a show day, usually at weekends ... where's the agent got to? I hope it hasn't been snapped up since I told you.—
—Live behind a spiked wall.—Steve hasn't counted on that.
Through the pattern of the wrought-iron gate they saw something of what is behind it. There is a modest representation of the setting of the house he grew up in: a rockery with aloes in flower, a jacaranda tree, a neat mat of lawn either side of a path to steps and the front door. No clue to the previous inhabitants—oh, except a rusted braaivleis grill and a kennel with half the roof missing.
—There's a garage at the back, another gate and, believe it or not, an old chicken run.—Jake is standing in for an estate agent's hard sell, in his purpose of making some kind of community out of dispersed comrades, in this suburb claimed against the past.
Back at Glengrove Place Steve holds a towel ready while Jabu coaxes their small girl out of the bath. In the steam haze his voice is softened as reflection rather than question, he doesn't want to press her.
—What do you think of it?—
The gathering, the house, the church as gay commune something to laugh about together; and something not to be avoided, the practical future there was no time to think about from Glengrove asylum, before.
She's a clear-headed person always capable of occupying her hands in some task while active elsewhere in her mind.—It's a nice house, far as you can tell from the outside.—
—Of course I'll get the estate agent to take us, or give us the keys, that'd be better, next week. But the set-up, the place.—
—How can I say. I don't have any comparison, I mean I've never lived in such places, suburbs, whatever, have I.—Smiling, whether at the wriggling child she was patting dry, or for him.
—I rather like the idea.—He doesn't have to explain, taking over from the Boere, if even Pierre welcomed the displacement of his own clan, although everyone is supposed to live together, no ghettos, luxurious or new black-and-white middle class.
Alone, if you can be said to be while those whose being you share are somewhere close by in kitchen or bedroom; not lonely, he wonders whether he really wants to prolong in some way the intimacy between comrades that was survival in detention or the bush, there's a resistance to nostalgia. And at the same time self-reproach; what will there ever be like the bonds between cadres, the rest will always be strangers.
Excerpted from No Time Like the Present by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 2012 Nadine Gordimer. 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 fourteen novels, more than ten volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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This is one of the most beautiful books I ever read! You feel the character's emotions, and the author makes ordinary events compelling. You feel what apraheid left behind and how there is still some of it left.
I wanted to read this for a book club, but could not get past a couple of chapters and have given up on it. This was written by a reputable, highly praised author, so it could be me. However, my impression was that it was written in a dense style in which the structure of a sentence was wrested from its usual flow into a collection of words to be pondered, worked on, I want to say, unscrambled. I do not believe this added to the novel and in my case it sunk it. Additionally, the personalities of the mixed-marriage couple were flat and showed no indivuality beyond the contrast between how a black woman in South Africa was raised versus how a white man was raised. They just seemed to be types that went along with South African society. Terrorism is presented as the thing to do. I don't agree, even when the cause is socially popular. Maybe if I read further I would have changed my opinion, but the experience was so unpleasant I guess I'll never know.
No Time Like The Present is one of Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer's minor pieces of fiction. The writing is strained and thick; the characters not fully fleshed and the overall impact only a whisper where it needed a shout. I am a Gordimer fan, and this fiction was a big disappointment.
Good ideas presented in terrible prose make this book a frustrating read. This is just poor craftmanship.