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How has Duncan come to abandon the sanctity of human life they taught him? What kind of loyalty do parents ...
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How has Duncan come to abandon the sanctity of human life they taught him? What kind of loyalty do parents owe a self-confessed murderer? In post-apartheid South Africa the defense of their son's life is in the hands of a black man: Hamilton Motsamai, a flamboyant, distinguished advocate returned from political exile. The balance of everything in the parents' world is turned upside down.
The House Gun is a passionate narrative of that final text of complex human relations we call love, moving from the intimate to the general condition. If it is a parable of present violence it is also an affirmation of the will to reconciliation that starts where it must, between individual men and women.
I know -- I ought to be ashamed of myself. Gordimer's courageous opposition to apartheid in her native South Africa remains among the most inspiring stances on the modern literary record. Since April 1994, when South Africa held its first free elections in many years, she has turned her eye and her acute sensibilities to a variety of other ills and social injustices: the threat of nuclear proliferation; the problem of world poverty; the question of Jerusalem; the menace of AIDS. "In art begins responsibility," Gordimer says, "and with human responsibility, justice and peace have a chance." She is so right-minded I feel like a squeaky idiot for criticizing her at all. But having finished The House Gun, Gordimer's 12th novel, my pupils feel as if they've been dilated for an eye exam and my brain as if it's been rubbed with sandpaper.
The House Gun is the disquieting, discordant, hallucinatory tale of a well-to-do South African family -- an insurance executive, Harald, a doctor, Claudia, and their enigmatic son, Duncan -- whose lives fall apart when Duncan is accused of murder. Duncan is, in fact, guilty as hell, and it's Harald and Claudia's challenge to reconcile his deed with the son they raised and the love they feel for him. In the end, in spite of their own refinement and continuing privilege in post-apartheid South Africa, they must face the fact that Duncan is guilty and that believing in him, unfortunately, is not the same as believing a word he says.
So far as I can tell, that's all there is to it. "Out of something terrible, something new," Gordimer writes, "to be lived with in a different way, surely, than life was before?" Her text is willfully disjointed, dissociative and opaque, and it's peppered with questions, "He/She" ruminations, endless ambiguities and hyphens run amok in the European manner. It's all "writing," anyhow, tailor-made for the deconstructionists, among whom Gordimer is already a hero thanks to her well-known "distrust" of conventional narrative: " -- Unfortunately. Unfortunately -- I have to tell you, when he (a wide gesture) when he opens up, when he begins to co-operate with me -- that is when he and I will have to tackle what there is to face. -- " And later: "Duncan's manner stopped their mouths against any concern about how the ordeal under scrutiny among the schizophrenics and demented had passed." That sentence had me thinking some schizophrenic thoughts of my own, and left me not caring a hoot whether Duncan hanged or his parents adjusted or not. Doubtless I'm too superficial for a writer as important as this. But for my money, if you want Moral Dilemmas, read Muriel Spark, who deals with the same sort of subject with a light and heartless hand and whose own Nobel -- you heard it here first -- is way overdue. --SalonJan. 30, 1998
"As the moral anatomy of a murder, The House Gun will seem to American readers closer to their own existence than many Gordimer books."—The Washington Post
"An intellectual thriller with a soap opera engine . . . Nothing short of epic. "—The Baltimore Sun
"A memorable blend of the topical and the timeless, at once a profound, lingering meditation on the human heart and a story so gripping you can scarcely bear to put it down."—San Francisco Chronicle
"It feels like the reworking of pages from the notebook of an excellent journalist, an observer sitting for the first time on the Court's press benches and recording the historic scene as human rights are finally incorporated into South African supreme law."—Neal Ascherson, The New York Review of Books
"As complex, compelling, and memorable an account of race and class as any of her earlier works . . . A brilliant, beautifully crafted novel of betrayal."—The Dallas Morning News
"The House Gun is like a well-cut diamond. Its many angles and planes catch the light and illuminate understanding, laying bare the emotions of a people caught in the transition from one world to another."—The Orlando Sentinel
"Gordimer is a major literary figure, working at the peak of her craft . . . The House Gun is an awe-inspiring work."—The Cincinnati News and Observer
"Exquisitely drawn . . . Passionately intelligent, it’s more complicated than any detective story. Complicated not so much by plot, it’s about the mystery of the human heart, the ‘mystery that is the other individual, even the one you have created out of your own flesh.’"—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
"A passionately schematic moral anatomy of a murder."—Kirkus
They are watching it on the screen with their after-dinner coffee cups beside them. It is Bosnia or Somalia or the earthquake shaking a Japanese island between apocalytic teeth like a dog; whatever were the disasters of that time. When the intercom buzzes each looks to the other with a friendly reluctance; you go, your turn. It's part of the covenant of living together. They made the decision to give up the house and move into this townhouse complex with grounds maintained and security-monitored entrance only recently and they are not yet accustomed, or rather are inclined momentarily to forget that it's not the barking of Robbie and the old-fangled ring of the front door bell that summons them, now. No pets allowed in the complex, but luckily there was the solution that theirs could go to their son who has a garden cottage.
He, she--twitch of a smile, he got himself up with langhuor directed at her and went to lift the nearest receiver. Who, she half-heard him say, half-listening to the commentary following the images, Who. It could be someone wanting to convert to some religious sect, or the delivery of a summons for a parking offence, casual workers did this, moon-lighting. He said something else she didn't catch but she heard the purr of the electronic release button.
What he said then was, Do you know who a Julian-somebody might be? Friend of Duncan?
He, she--they didn't, either of them. Nothing unusual about that, Duncan, twenty-seven years old, had his own circle just as his parents had theirs, and these intersected only occasionally where interests, inculcated in him as a child by his parents, met.
What does he want?
Just said to speak to us.
Both at the same instant were touched by a live voltage of alarm. What is there to fear, defined in the known context of a twenty-seven-year-old in this city--a car crash, a street mugging, a violent break-in at the cottage. Both stood at the door, confronting these, confronting the footsteps they heard approaching their private paved path beneath the crossed swords of Strelitzia leaves, the signal of the second buzzer, and this young man, come from? for? Duncan. He stared at the floor as he came in, so they couldn't read him. He sat down without a word.
He, she--whose turn.
There's been an accident?
She's a doctor, she sees what the ambulances bring in to Intensive Care. If something's broken she can gauge whether it ever can be put together again.
This Julian draws in his lips over his teeth and clamps his mouth, a moment.
A kind of ... Not Duncan, no no! Someone's been shot. He's arrested. Duncan.
They both stand up.
For God's sake--what are you talking about--what is all this--how arrested, arrested for what--
The messenger is attacked, he becomes almost sullen, unable to bear what he has to tell. The obscene word comes ashamedly from him. Murder.
Everything has come to a stop. What can be understood is a car crash, a street mugging, a violent break-in.
He/she. He strides over and switches off the television. And expels a violent breath. So long as nobody moved, nobody uttered, the word and the act within the word could not enter here. Now with the touch of a switch and the gush of a breath a new calendar is opened. The old Gregorian cannot register this day. It does not exist in that means of measure.
This Julian now tells them that a magistrate was called 'after hours' (he gives the detail with the weight of its urgent gravity) to lay a charge at the police station and bail was refused. That is the practical purpose of his visit: Duncan says, Duncan says, Duncan's message is that there's no point in their coming, there's no point in trying for bail, he will appear in court on Monday morning. He has his own lawyer.
He/she. She has marked the date on patients' prescriptions a dozen times since morning but she turns to find a question that will bring some kind of answer to that word pronounced by the messenger. She cries out.
What day is it today?
It was on a Friday.
It is probable that neither of the Lindgards had ever been in a court before. During the forty-eight hours of the weekend of waiting they had gone over every explanation possible in the absence of being able to talk to him, their son, himself. Because of the preposterousness of the charge they felt they had to respect his instruction that they not visit him; this must indicate that the whole business was ridiculous, that's it, horribly ridiculous, his own ridiculous affair, soon to be resolved, better not given the confirmation of being taken in alarm by mother and father arriving at a prison accompanied by their lawyer, states of high emotion etc. That was the way they brought themselves to read his injunction; a mixture between consideration for them--no need to be mixed up in the business--and the independence of the young he had been granted and asserted in mutual understanding since he was an adolescent.
But dread attends the unknown. Dread was a drug that came to, them both not out of something administered from her pharmacopoeia; they calmly walked without anything to say to one another along the corridors of the courts, Harald standing back for his wife Claudia with the politeness of a stranger as they found the right door, entered and shuffled awkwardly sideways to be seated on the benches.
The very smell of the place was that of a foreign country to which they were deported. The odour of polished wooden barriers and waxed floor. The windows above head height, sloping down searchlights. The uniforms occupied by men with the impersonality of cult members, all interchangeable. The presence of a few figures seated somewhere near, the kind who stare from park benches or lie face-down in public gardens. The mind dashes from what confronts it, as a bird that has flown into a confined space does, there must be an opening. Harald collided against the awareness of school, too far back to be consciously remembered; institutional smell and hard wood under his buttocks. Even the name of a master was blundered into; nothing from the past could be more remote than this present. In a flick of attention he saw Claudia rouse from her immobility to disconnect the beeper that kept her in touch with her surgery. She felt the distraction and turned her head to read his oblique glance nothing. She gave the stiff smile with which one greets somebody one isn't sure one knows.
He comes up from the well of a stairway between two policemen. Duncan. Can it be? He has to be recognized in a persona that doesn't belong to him, as they know him, have always known him--and who could identify him better? He is wearing black jeans and a black cotton T-shirt. The kind of clothes he customarily wears, but the neat collar of a white shirt is turned down outside the neck of the T-shirt. They both notice this, it's an unspoken focus of attention between them; this is the detail, token submission to the conventions expected by a court, that makes the connection of reality between the one they knew, him, and this other, flanked by policemen.
A blast of heat came over Harald, confusion like anxiety or anger, but neither. Some reaction that never before has had occasion to be called up.
Duncan, yes. He looked at them, acknowledging himself. Claudia smiled at him with lifted head, for everyone to see. And he inclined his head to her. But he did not look at his parents directly again during the proceedings that followed, except as his controlled, almost musing glance swept over them as it went round the public gallery across the two young black men with their legs sprawled relaxedly before them, the old white man sitting forward with his head in his hands, and the family group, probably wandered in bewildered to pass the time before a case that concerned them came up, who were whispering among themselves of their own affairs.
The magistrate made his stage entrance, all fidgeted to their feet, sank again. He was tall or short, bald or not--doesn't matter, there was the hitch of shoulders under the voluminous gown and, his hunch lowered over papers presented to him, he made a few brief comments in the tone of questions addressed to the tables in the well of the court where the backs of what presumably were the prosecutor and defence lawyer presented themselves to the gallery. Under the ladders of light tilted down, policemen on errands came in and out conferring in hoarse whispers, the rote of proceedings concluded. Duncan Peter Lindgard was committed for trial on a charge of murder. A second application for bail was refused.
Over. But beginning. The parents approached the barrier between the gallery and the well of the court and were not prevented from contact with the son. Each embraced him while he kept his head turned from their faces.
Do you need anything?
It's just not on, the young lawyer was saying, I'm serving notice to contest the refusal, right now, Duncan. I won't let the prosecutor get away with it. Don't worry.
This last said to her, the doctor, in exactly the tone of reassurance she herself would use with patients of whose prognosis she herself was not sure.
The son had an air of impatience, the shifting gaze of one who wished the well-meaning to leave; an urgent need of some preoccupation, business with himself. They could read it to mean confidence; of his innocence--of course; or it could be a cover for dread, akin to the dread they had felt, concealing his dread out of pride, not wanting to be associated with theirs. He was now officially an accused, on record as such. The accused has a status of dread that is his own, hasn't he!
I'll see to everything, Duncan needs--the lawyer squeezed his client's shoulder as he swung a briefcase and was off.
If there was nothing, then ...
Nothing. Nothing they could ask, not what is it all about, what is it you did, you are supposed to have done?
His father took courage: Is he really a competent lawyer? We could get someone else. Anyone.
A good friend.
I'll get in touch with him later, find out what happened when he saw the prosecutor.
The son will know that his father means money, he'll be ready to supply surety for the contingency that it is impossible to believe has arisen between them, money for bail.
He turns away--the prisoner, that's what he is now--in anticipation of the policemen's move to order him to, he doesn't want them to touch him, he has his own volition, and his mother's clasp just catches the ends of his fingers as he goes.
They see him led down the stairwell to whatever is there beneath the court. As they make to leave Court B17 they become aware that the other friend, the messenger Julian, has been standing just behind them to assure Duncan of his presence but not wanting to intrude upon those with the closest claims. They greet him and walk out together with him but do not speak. He feels guilty about his mission, that night, and hurries ahead.
Nadine Gordimer interrupted our long-distance conversation to thank me, vigorously, for having not asked a particularly irksome, and frequently asked, question. Her contempt audibly exaggerated by a South African accent, Gordimer mimicked her previous interviewers, "What are South Africans going to write about now that apartheid is gone?" Realizing I'd narrowly escaped a fate doomed by the next of my neatly prepared questions, I listened with quiet gratitude.
Implying that the abolition of apartheid had left South African writers wanting for material, these imbecile journalists had worn the patience of their subject. "As if life stopped then -- it's really amazing!" Gordimer elaborated enthusiastically on an answer to the question that only she, a writer shaped mentally and spiritually by Africa, could ask without irony.
Earlier in the day, Gordimer had visited with an old friend. While we spoke, she traced the history of this black poet friend whose childhood was spent in an impoverished slum and who in adulthood endured prison and exile. Now a member of Parliament, he resides with his children in what used to be an exclusively white suburb. Just the possibility of an ordinary existence for this former freedom fighter, and the simple pleasures of his children, is what generates extraordinary excitement among writers who might have felt, as Gordimer points out, that exploring personal subjects was an indulgence in a time of public strife. In post-apartheid South Africa, "things are happening that couldn't happen before, so these are our subjects."
Indeed, there is much to write about. And Gordimer had much to say about the intertwining of her own history with that of the land to which she is passionately loyal, and how South Africa has arrived, bursting with excitement, in this time of (albeit conflicted) freedom.
Q: How did you get a start at writing? I've read that you began very young.
A: I began writing, as most people do, because I was an absolutely omnivorous reader. And I have to thank my mother for that because she read to my sister and me when we were little, and by the time I was six I could read myself. We lived in a small town; my parents were not rich. We didn't have a private library in our house, but we had the local municipal library. She inscribed me as a member of the children's library, but as it was a small place and the librarian was a friend of hers, I had the freedom of the whole library. So I wandered around and just picked up whatever I liked, and quickly moved out of the children's library.
Q: I guess you learned early that fiction is a tremendous means of expression. At what point did you become interested in exploring through fiction the human reaction to the social and political structures within which they live?
A: Well, my subject matter was drawn long before my time, and certainly very long before yours, but what a writer does is, you close your eyes and you dip your hand into the fabric of the life around you, and what you bring up in your hand contains something of the truth. It comes out of the culture of the life around you, culture in the sense of something liquid that you put your hand into.
That is how this came about for me. I had no political theories; I came from a small-town family that had no interest in politics and never discussed politics. They were living, of course, within a political context, and their lives were expressive of a political status which was that of privileged whites totally accepting the way blacks were treated as inferior beings with no civil or other rights. But I wasn't reading Marx, I hadn't read any theories of class or economic equality, I didn't understand how the world was divided between rich and poor. I thought this was the way that, as the sun came up in the morning and went down at night, this was the way white people live in our little town and the way black people lived outside the town. The fact that I went to my convent school, where there were only white kids, I just presumed that black children, you know, went to school somewhere else, and that was the way it was divinely ordained.
Q: Coming from a white, middle-class upbringing, how is it to write of the black African's life? Some critics say it would be impossible for you to identify with their consciousness.
A: Do they really? The fact is that ever since I've been an adult, I haven't lived isolated from black people. If we tally this kind of idea of how the imagination works, how could I at the age of 15 or 16 write a story from the point of view of an old man? How could I, jumping ahead 40 years or so, write a story from the point of view of a child, a black child refugee walking with a grandmother through the Burger Park? How could I -- not only I but many other writers -- write in the first person from the point of view of a young person, of a man when that writer is a woman, of a woman when the writer is a man? I always quote this, but it seems to be totally unanswerable: How could James Joyce have written Molly Bloom's soliloquy? How did he know what a woman felt like when she was about to have her period come on? You know, let them answer that question. This is something to do with the writer's ability, God knows where it comes from, and we must be humble about it, to project into other states of being. So I cannot see why, living all one's life among black people, how it's possible that one cannot create black characters, just as you might as well say that my black comrades cannot write about whites -- of course they can write about whites! We live together, and indeed I often think that whites are seen by blacks in aspects they don't know about themselves, and vice versa.
Q: Would you give us some insight into the creative process of your fiction, how you organize your thoughts into a story? Do you do much rewriting?
A: Almost nothing.
Q: That's incredible!
A: I was rewriting a lot in my late teens and into my 20s and in my 30s, perhaps, but that kind of rewriting I think happens in the subconscious, it happens in the middle of the night, but by the time I come to write it down a lot of that chatter has been discarded. So I do very little rewriting. And I don't do any reorganizing.
I love writing stories, and I've written, I should think, well, nine books, so probably 'round about 200 stories or something. But when I think of a story, it's something that occurs to me, it's like an egg, it's all contained in that shell -- the center's there, the yoke is there, the surrounding white is there. I've got it all. But with a novel I don't make great detailed notes. I'll have a few words of dialogue here and there, a scrap relating to an incident, something about a character somewhere else, but the main part of it will be staked out with big distances between, so I know that I'm going to get from A to C, but it will only be worked out while I'm writing it. So I have these stakes leading to the end of it, but I'm not sure, as I am with a short story...I haven't got the whole thing in my hand.
Q: With that in mind, what kind of expectations do you bring to other fiction? Have you been influenced or inspired by any writers in particular?
A: Well, like most people who have a long life, as I've already had -- I've gone through many stages of enthusiasms and gained a great deal -- the richest thing I think in my life, as in any writer's, is reading other writers' work. What influenced me when I was 15 or 17 years old was not the same influence when I was 25 or 30. So I have been eclectic and I read pretty widely in my life, but it's changing all the time. Writers that I'm devoted to and enthusiastic about now I didn't even know about ten years ago, perhaps even five or seven years ago -- people like Joseph Roth, the wonderful The Emperor's Tomb and The Radetzky March, about which I have written. Of course, people like Primo Levi, whom I indeed knew about perhaps ten years ago. Naguib Mahfouz is a great writer; even as he's gotten the Nobel Prize, he's so little read by people in the West. I find even my friends who are great readers, it had to be only when I had written about him -- it was indeed a lecture, one of my Charles Eliot Norton lectures devoted to him, and then it was published in a little book -- then they said, "What has he written?" and "What can we read?" And these are people who read a great deal! So there are always discoveries, there are always new things.
Q: What are your current interests?
A: I've just received today a parcel of books, I'm happy to say, that I thought was lost, which I bought in America when I was there in October. I'd said to my dear friend and agent Timothy Shoales, "Don't send them by airmail, just put them in the box and let them go sea mail." So of course it's taken, you know, we've gone back to the 19th century by the time they've arrived. Anyway, they've come today. The one is Don DeLillo's latest novel; I'm very interested in DeLillo. Then there's the most recent Kurt Vonnegut, someone else I've admired for years and admire greatly. And then there's James Salter's autobiographical book that I was interested in, and then some poems by Seamus Heaney, who's a great friend and of course a wonderful person.
Q: What about early literary influences?
A: If we go back to my childhood we've got to say Chekhov, since I became a short story writer. I suppose I have to say Hemingway, although I find Hemingway pretty unreadable now, I'm sorry to say. But I still think that his short stories are wonderful; I just find his novels rather difficult to read. But those of us who write short stories, in my generation and following, we all learned a great deal from Chekhov and from Hemingway -- Hemingway's dialogue is wonderful, the sparseness of it. I also learned a lot from Eudora Welty. I think Eudora is a great short story writer, and I could reread her again and again.
Q: I do want to talk about The House Gun. I thought the presence of the media and its portrayal of violence very interesting. Claudia and Harald seemed quite capable of shutting it out -- they could not believe that this public violence could enter their home by way of their own son. What is the media's role in our own understanding of violence?
A: It's very interesting you brought it up because I think it's a very difficult role. It's so easy to create panic because of it. You know, in my own country, this last week, a couple on a farm were murdered. We could talk for hours, going way back to apartheid and the kind of oppression that went along with it. I'm inclined to think about Freud's Return of the Oppressed, but there are all sorts of strange things behind incidents like this. But right, it happens somewhere, but then if it's reported, especially abroad, it seems to stand for everything that happens in the whole country. And of course that's not true.
We all know that old thing that's so true -- that only bad news is good news -- so that when, as happened last week, a dam is opened where people have never had access to water before and there's water running where they live. For you and me, we turn on a tap and we run a great hot bath and we hop into it. We've never lived that way where you've got to trek down to a slow-running river and come back with a bucket of water or a can of water on your head, but to imagine what this means to people! The same thing with the vast areas where people have been given electricity for the first time. The way rural people or the way people in so-called formal settlements have lived -- it's not news, you know it's boring to read about. Who cares where there's a dam opened and there's water matriculation? It's not news, but the fact that two people have been killed coming back from the cinema or whatever it was to their farm, that's news! I would hate to see any kind of censorship or muzzling of the press, God knows we had it for years and years, but I don't know how you reduce this barrage. It's not really the fault of the press as it is the people wanting sensation.
Q: Do you think then that this deluge of reports of domestic violence influences individuals? It seems that Duncan's actions are greatly influenced by this atmosphere of violence.
A: Yes, you know I think so. And I must tell you, it's a curious thing, when I began to think about this book and when I first began to write it, for me it was about those three people -- it was about Duncan, Claudia, and Harald. And I hadn't realized the context in which they lived was the context of violence. And it's not only in South Africa, it's the big-city context in many parts of the world. But this I think does influence, it makes subconsciously possible, actions that perhaps would not have happened before. Especially in people who have led, as Duncan was brought up to lead, this cozy middle-class life with two sets of moral precepts: the father's religious one and the mother's humanitarian one. But when everybody else is settling every piece of frustration and every conflict by taking out a gun, when everybody is resorting to violence, it may affect one, and I think it does affect one subconsciously.
Furthermore, in a society like our own, like my own here, we would never have attained freedom in South Africa without people having to accept that when violence is done to you there is no other way to respond except with violence. You must remember in the '50s here there was passive resistance, there was a great influence of Gandhi, who had lived here for 14 years, there was civil disobedience on the model of what happened in the American South -- no result at all. The oppression got worse and worse, and eventually there was a turn to counterviolence. Now I can't believe because we suddenly got our freedom here that people can shed this way of responding to conflict, this way of responding to frustration. Unfortunately, I think it's going to take at least another generation before people learn that once you've got a civil society and you've got a true recourse to the law without any discrimination, you don't have to burn your school buildings when the principal doesn't treat you fairly and your teachers don't work properly; you don't have to take over the headquarters and the manager's office and destroy the plant in a factory because your wages are low and your working conditions are not good. These are the only resources people had, but now there are other possibilities. But it takes time to learn them.
Q: In the midst of all this, what happened to personal responsibility? It seems the line's been blurred, that parents can no longer answer for the actions of the child, that even the child is not responsible for his own actions.
A: Well, I think you're absolutely right, that is really the big question that comes up. How do personal relationships somehow prevail against this kind of pressure from the outside and especially the relationships between parents and children? It's obviously central to the book, but I've looked at it before in a previous novel of mine called My Son's Story. It's another aspect of the same thing -- the generation gap, as it's called, and the strange situation where first of all you're a child and you're the victim of your parents and then the role is reversed. So this has interested me very much, not only in my own life but in observation of other people's lives.
You haven't asked me, thank heavens, the standard question -- thank you very much for not asking it; that is why I bring it up anyway. Journalists ask, "What are South African writers going to write about now that apartheid is gone?"
As if life stopped then -- it's really amazing! But everywhere you turn, every day, there are so many things that haven't been explored, haven't been written about, that people indeed felt inhibited, because they were too much connected with private life, and it seemed an indulgence to go into them. It so happens that today, this afternoon, I've been to see a friend of mine, a black poet and a great friend from long ago who was imprisoned and then in exile and who now, to my great pleasure, now that we don't have segregation, he has a proper home and his children have a home in a way that he has never had and that no generation of blacks has had before. He lives in what used to be an exclusively white suburb; it's a middle-class house with a garden. The kids have got a puppy, it's normal -- it's surely what we want for everybody, it is not great luxury. He happens to be, although he's a poet and writer and has been a freedom fighter, he's now a member of Parliament. To me, suddenly, this was not something special and extraordinary, it was something ordinary that has now been attained. So that when his child comes in playing with the puppy and then takes the pup out to the garden, this is just something that should always have been there, that was exclusive to whites that no longer is. So this man, having lived the life of a freedom fighter and having been brought up indeed in a terrible slum (which I know well, because I knew him during that time, and I know his parents and his background), what the feelings are of a man like this, how he relates to the different attitude toward life of his children -- they will never know, thank God, what he knew. But there is a kind of distance between them, I can feel that when I talk to them. To me this is all tremendously exciting for a writer. I'm sure he will write it. It could never have been written before because things are happening that couldn't happen before. So these are our subjects.
Q: The change is staggering. You must consider yourself a revolutionary.
A: Yes, yes.
Q: Several times you've quoted Kafka in saying, "A book ought to be an ice-pick to break up the frozen sea within us."
A: That's a wonderful thing that he said.
Q: Do you still hold true to this goal?
A: I do. I don't think I've ever attained it, but I do think it's an ideal that one should keep trying for.
Q: Do you have anything that you would like to express about your intentions for The House Gun or any future writing?
A: I often feel sorry for painters if I go to their opening exhibition and people are going around with them to the painting and they've got to explain to them what it is about. I always feel if they haven't managed to get it into the painting, they shouldn't have to try and explain it. I feel the same about anything that I write. If it's not in the work, I can't add anything to it.
Q: Were you surprised at all by the way The House Gun turned out?
A: You know there are always surprises when you work, as I did for -- as I always do -- roughly about three and a half years on this book. I always say, somehow the ravens feed you. You have a fairly simple idea, in a sense it's complicated but it's on one level, and then you don't really know there are all sorts of sides to your characters that you haven't yet explored. I don't at all follow the romantic theory that some writers come up with that the characters take over. That's nonsense, because you create them; they can't take over. But what does happen, while you're working on them you think more and more about that kind of person; there's a kind of accretion of all the things you remember, all the things you've experienced, and slowly the contradictions in that character. To me that's the key to it. There's nothing more consistent than contradictions in human nature, and that's the thing that you have to get to when you're creating characters in a novel. And of course out of that comes some sort of surprises, and it always comes from the so-called secondary characters. I had fully visualized the three of them, the mother, the father, and the son, and I'd also thought a great deal about how the relationship between the husband and wife would change and how the basic incompatibilities that they seem to have in the beginning would suddenly become important when they had to face this process, which was right out of the neat little bourgeois milieu in which they lived quite happily.
I wondered a bit about Duncan; you only hear from him after about 200 pages, but then I realized this was absolutely intentional. Because the thing about Duncan is that the parents don't know what he is; he's their own child, they've produced him, but he's a mystery to them. So if I'd had him coming in and speaking for himself earlier, I would have destroyed that. The concentration after that point is really on what happens to the people who have produced him and who are responsible for his life, and how much you are responsible for anyone else's life, even your own child's.
ABOUT THE TITLE
The House Gun is Nadine Gordimer's twelfth novel, her second set in post-apartheid South Africa. For Harald and Claudia Lingard, the passively liberal, white couple at the center of the story, not much has changed in the political transition from apartheid to majority rule, from F.W. de Klerk to Nelson Mandela. Harald and Claudia live in comfort and safety until one evening when they discover "something terrible has happened." Their only son, Duncan, has been arrested for killing one of his housemates. There is never a question of his guilt -- he has confessed to the crime -- but Harald and Claudia cannot understand how Duncan could abandon his belief in the sanctity of human life, nor can they believe that the violence that had always affected "other people" has found a way into their world. The House Gun records with remarkable precision the psychological transformations that Harald and Claudia undergo as they search for the truth.
In this novel, as in most of Gordimer's books, the personal becomes political. While Duncan's crime was surely one of passion, the repercussions force Harald and Claudia to snap out of their oblivion and face the legacy of South Africa's bloody history: since the end of apartheid the murder rate in South Africa has skyrocketed, and, as a result, guns are "kept for protection" in almost every household. Harald and Claudia also must face their own prejudices as they put their faith in Hamilton Motsamai, the black lawyer Duncan has hired to defend him.
With stunning grace and clarity, Nadine Gordimer seamlessly intertwines the self with society as she tests the boundaries of love and intimacy. Readers will find, like Harald and Claudia, that even within the most complicated frameworks, these boundaries are resilient. The House Gun is a portrait of powerful awakenings -- of a father and mother, a husband and wife, a parent and child, a nation and its citizens. But it is also an affirmation of the will to reconciliation that starts where it must, with individual men and women.
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in Springs, a small gold-mining town thirty miles from Johannesburg. Her parents were Jewish émigrés, her mother from England and her father from Latvia; he ran a jewelry store in town, where Gordimer attended an all-white convent school. Gordimer credits Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, about oppressed Chicago meatpackers, with opening her eyes to the plight of the black mine workers in Springs. Her focus, though, in life as well as work, has always been on the individual experience. In a 1991 interview in The New York Times, Gordimer describes being "drawn into politics not through ideas but through friendships with many black people through the years. Little by little, I began to see what I was part of."
Gordimer's first short story was published when she was fifteen. Her writing career took off when The New Yorker printed a story in 1946, her first collection appeared three years later. She has since published seven volumes of short stories and twelve novels, which have been translated into thirty languages. Gordimer has won some of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. She has been given honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, and other universities and has been honored by the French government with the decoration Commandeur de l'Ordre des Artes et des Lettres. A vocal member of the long-outlawed African National Congress, she is also a founder of the predominantly black Congress of South African Writers. Nadine Gordimer has long been considered a preeminent interpreter of South Africa, and also its conscience.
What follows is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Dwight Garner for Salon Magazine in 1998. If you would like to read the rest of the interview, please visit the Salon Web site at http://www.salonmagazine.com.
Q: One of the main characters in The House Gun is a talented black lawyer, to whom a wealthy white couple turns for help when their son is accused of murder. You are clearly writing about the new South Africa.
Q: How likely is this scenario today?
A: These kinds of changes are proceeding apace. When you think -- I just can't believe it, I laugh when I think about it -- that our former president, P.W. Botha, has had to appear in court before a black judge, a black magistrate. This is an unthinkable reversal.
Q: Botha is rebelling, isn't he? He's trying to have the black judge tossed out. [The former president is accused of refusing to cooperate with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.]
A: Well, but on a technicality. The issue is whether the black judge understands Afrikaans sufficiently well to follow his testimony. Which, of course, is nonsense. Because anybody who becomes a magistrate or a judge in South Africa of any color -- since Afrikaans and English were the two official languages -- is fluent in both languages. But the irony of this is just unbelievable. That P.W. Botha appeared under the judgment of a black man!
Q: Botha said something threatening, too, something like "the tiger is awakening," meaning white rage.
A: But I think there were only 30 tigers, rather timid tigers, who came to support him. And there were thousands of blacks, young blacks and other blacks outside, singing and enjoying that this man was being treated now like everybody else. That he had to account for what he did.
Q: Do you know Botha? Did you ever meet him?
A: No. It would be very unlikely.
Q: He's a very complicated figure, isn't he?
A: The old crocodile, we call him.
Q: He did crack open the door, at least, to change.
A: Yes, he did. It was a back door, as usual. That he actually sent for Mr. Mandela to come out of prison, and had tea with him. And this was before the advent of F.W. de Klerk taking over and actually beginning to negotiate the changes. It was initiated in some sort of way with Mandela. But this doesn't really weigh in the scale of justice when you think of all the things that P.W. Botha did during the time he was president.
Q: What kind of justice do you expect for him?
A: Well, apparently there is a way in which he can simply pay a fine. So I imagine that if he is found guilty -- and how can he not be? -- then he has an option of a fine. He's not hard up, I assure you.
Q: The House Gun is about a murder committed by the son of elite white parents. And to some degree it's about what happens to them when they're yanked out of their controlled lives and their controlled environment. Is this to some degree a metaphor for what's happened to many whites since apartheid ended?
A: Well, this is something that's got nothing to do with apartheid. It has to do with intimate human relations and how we know each other. It's about how children know their parents and how parents know their children. So that's really the core of the book. Of course, it doesn't take place in a vacuum. It takes place in a particular time, in a particular city. But I see the same thing [the tendency toward wanting to live in a controlled environment] in this country [the U.S.]. Mostly I'm interviewed by white people, and identified with white society. Hardly anybody says to me, "How are blacks dealing with change?" They're only interested in how whites are. And after all, whites are a minority. There are huge changes in the lives of blacks as well and even though one would think this is just release and freedom, it brings its problems.
Q: And yet your books, perhaps by necessity, are largely about the white experience in South Africa.
A: Perhaps the books of mine you've read, but they're not all about the white experience at all. For instance, My Son's Story and None to Accompany Me are not.
Q: We were speaking of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee a moment ago, and I can't help but notice that your novel is really about truth and reconciliation. It's about getting to the truth of a shocking story, and it's about the things that hold you afloat -- religion, literature . . .
A: Well, not literature. It's rationalism. The wife is a doctor and she's not a literary person at all. Indeed, the religious one, the husband, Harold, is the great reader. What I'm looking at there is, in a terrible crisis, when something terrible happens, what structures are there to support you? If you're religious there are certain ways of dealing with whatever happens. And with birth, with death, with disaster, you turn to God. You pray. And you believe somebody is looking after you from up there. But Claudia does not have any beliefs. She has only her work, her humanism, the idea that life itself is sacred, we mustn't cause pain. But what interested me was that neither of them could really deal with this situation from their different point of view, from the religious one or the rationalist point of view. What happened is so overwhelming that they feel inadequate to it. And they are inadequate to it. Their coming to adjust to it is what you love to call here "a learning process."
Q: The couple's black lawyer makes the observation that these two are less resilient than a black couple might have been in the same situation. They haven't been through the same kind of hardships.
A: I think that reflection of his would be very true. Harold and Claudia are middle-class white professionals and typical liberals who say, "I have no race feeling at all," but who didn't do anything, who didn't risk, who didn't put their lives on the line in any way for change. All they did was probably vote against the Nationalist government. But they voted for people who really were so middle-of-the-road that you could not be depicted as overthrowing that government. How do these people find themselves in the position that they are? How do they find themselves now, as you remarked before, dependent upon a black man, their son's life is in his hands, and his reflection on how they deal with it comes from his culture? The way they are unable to deal with it is an indication of what a protected life they've lived. If you're black and you've lived during the apartheid time, you're accustomed to people going in and out of prison all the time. They didn't carry the right documents in their pockets when they went out. They couldn't move freely from one city to another without acting against the law and being subject to imprisonment. So that there's no real disgrace about going to prison, because you didn't have to be criminal to go to prison. And then, when people were in prison, then there was sorrow, there was degradation, it was a common happening. I expect people are more accustomed to it. He's reflecting on how for whites, unless you belonged to the criminal class, this couldn't happen. So that they are much more vulnerable than black people would be in the same position.
Q: Speaking of liberal guilt, is there a lot of that among your acquaintances on the left in South Africa? A sense among some of them that they could have done more?
A: Well, now you must draw a distinction between people on the left and liberals. We draw that distinction. F.W. de Klerk is a liberal, because he came to realize that things have got to change. Being on the left is something much tougher in South Africa. And those of us on the left don't suffer from this guilt thing. Because guilt is and was unproductive. It's no good saying, "I feel guilty because I'm privileged or white." You couldn't throw away your privilege, but you could do something active against that. So the left did that. As you know, there was a considerable number, an extraordinarily effective number of people on the left. And especially on the so-called extreme left. You went to prison, you went to exile. We have heroes among whites as we have among the blacks. But the liberals, the people like my couple, who said, "Of course we're not racist" and had no personal involvement, they may feel guilty that they didn't do more. But the next people on the list have got nothing to feel guilty about, because many of them risked their careers, risked their personal safety, they deprived their families of a kind of safety because they were tied up in politics. There were several generations of people who have made this sacrifice from father to son and so on. And I don't think now that many of these liberals feel guilt. They have a very pragmatic attitude. They have adapted to the situation, saying, "We always wanted it to be like this," and they're probably very useful in the transition period. Because they accept the fact that certain privileges aren't. . . they haven't lost them, but they're not theirs alone, they're sharing them with other people.
Q: How long will this transition period last, do you think?
A: Let's be realistic. The real extent of the transition is going to be a whole generation. If I look now at little kids at grammar school, going to school together, black and white, in what were formerly white schools -- they're now 6 or 7 years old. So it's only when they grow up that you will see whether we really have overcome completely the racial divides. Because that's the first time ever that children have been brought up together to know each other as people, rather than "I'm black, and you're white." And it'll take a generation also in terms of realizing in material terms the differences in people's daily life. We're not going to move 3 or 4 million people out of Soweto -- everybody knows Soweto, but you've got lots of Sowetos all over. White people are not going to move in there. Why should they? They'd have to be extremely idealistic to do so, and the people living there would think they're crazy, because they just want to get out. It's a matter of conditions, living conditions, facilities that people are used to. Libraries and cinemas and shopping centers. It's still the fact that all these millions who live in the ghettos come and buy in town. Over the last few years, they are beginning to change this, to create business and proper shopping malls and things within the townships. But you can see the difference in living conditions, and that'll take a long time to change. It's virtually creating new cities. Johannesburg is no longer a white city. But even in the elite suburbs, black professionals and the new entrepreneurial class, they live there. So you're beginning to see class difference operating within the black community. It's inevitable.
Q: You can go to the American South and see similar things. There are black neighborhoods that look like they haven't changed in 100 years.
A: I find that rather depressing. But of course you must remember that here you've got a black minority. Our situation is very different from the point of view of proportional values. Here, we've got a black majority. We have a black native government. There are whites and others -- people of different, black, colored races -- in the government, but it is indeed a black majority government, you've got a black majority population. The biggest difference is that blacks in South Africa all have their own languages. I think this is of tremendous importance. There's something about having your own mother tongue. Black Americans cannot turn to the ear, to the intimate shelter of another language. South African blacks have always had that. And they also had, of course, their own ground under their feet -- they no longer had the title deed to it -- but the earth under the feet and the rivers running and the forests, these were their natural home, their habitat.
"Elegantly conceived, flawlessly executed... Gordimer tells a love story unlike any other I have ever read."
-- Jack Miles, The New York Times Book Review
"A memorable blend of the topical and the timeless, at once a profound, lingering meditation on the human heart and a story so gripping you can scarcely bear to put it down."
-- San Francisco Chronicle
"With the scaffolding of a courtroom drama and the moral underpinnings of the state's responsibility, the novel infuses an isolated crime of passion with the atmospheric pressure of a country reeling from its own past."
-- The Boston Sunday Globe
"The House Gun ... is a tense post-apartheid family drama as vital as anything [Gordimer] has ever written."
-- Time magazine
None to Accompany Me
This story of two couples, one black, one white, whose relationships evolve as their homeland heads towards majority rule. "May well be the finest [Gordimer] has ever produced" (The Washington Post Book World). Penguin Readers Guide available for.
In this brilliantly realized work, Gordimer unfolds "a riveting history of South Africa and a penetrating portrait of a courageous woman" (The New Yorker).
An unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites. "Gordimer knows this complex emotional and political territory all too well and writes about it superbly" (Newsweek).
My Son's Story
In this tale of sexual jealousy between father and adolescent son, Gordimer offers wrenching, passionate insight into the worlds of political and erotic liberation.
Posted January 18, 2001
The Nobel Prize was well deserved. The book is written from a mother perspective; her emotions (sometimes painful) are well displayed. A modern book - well articulated - a question-book - what went wrong in her's boy education & evolution in life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.