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The Nobel Laureate’s penetrating story of a love affair that begins as a casual encounter between a rich South African and an illegal alien.
Who picked up whom? Is the pickup the illegal immigrant desperate to evade deportation to his impoverished desert country? Or is the pickup the businessman’s daughter trying to escape a privileged background she despises? When Julie Summers’s car breaks down in a sleazy street, at a garage a young Arab emerges from beneath the chassis of a ...
The Nobel Laureate’s penetrating story of a love affair that begins as a casual encounter between a rich South African and an illegal alien.
Who picked up whom? Is the pickup the illegal immigrant desperate to evade deportation to his impoverished desert country? Or is the pickup the businessman’s daughter trying to escape a privileged background she despises? When Julie Summers’s car breaks down in a sleazy street, at a garage a young Arab emerges from beneath the chassis of a vehicle to aid her. The consequences develop as a story of unpredictably relentless emotions that overturn each one’s notion of the other and of the solutions life demands for different circumstances. She insists on leaving the country with him. The love affair becomes a marriage — a state she regards as a social convention appropriate to her father’s set and her mother, remarried in California, but decreed by her "grease monkey" in order to present her respectably to his family.
In the Arab village, while he is dedicated to escaping, again, to what he believes is a fulfilling life in the West, she is drawn by a counter-magnet of new affinities with his close family and the omnipresence of the desert.
A novel of great power and concision, psychological surprises, and unexpected developments, The Pickup is a story of the rites of passage that are emigration/immigration, where love can survive only if stripped of all certainties outside itself.
Nadine Gordimer’s most recent work includes a novel, The House Gun, and a collection of reminiscences, Living in Hope and History. She received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“This is surely what art has at its highest octane done: attempts to push its way around the ineffable, to get inside others’ heads, to cross the many boundaries that so terminally and tragically divide us.”—-The Washington Post Book World
“Gordimer plays the lovers off of one another expertly….She explores the problems of dispossession with characteristic subtlety.”—-The New Yorker
“Ms. Gordimer’s ability to delineate the psychological consequences of exile, class, disaffection, and racial prejudice enables her to lend Julie and [Ibrahim’s] relationship an unusual poignancy and depth.”—-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Brilliant…Gordimer’s stark sentences and emotional depth make most modern fiction seem trivial.”—-The Times (London)
Clustered predators round a kill. It's a smallcar with a young woman inside it. The battery has failed andtaxis, cars, minibuses, vans, motorcycles butt and challengeone another, reproach and curse her, a traffic mob mountingits own confusion. Get going. Stupid bloody woman.Idikazana lomlungu, le! She throws up hands, palms open, insurrender. They continue to jostle and blare their impatience.She gets out of her car and faces them. One of the unemployedblack men who beg by waving vehicles into parkingbays sidles his way deftly through fenders, signals with hishead—Oka-ay, Oka-ay go inside, go!—and mimes control ofthe steering wheel. Another like him appears, and they pushher and her car into a loading bay. The street hustles on.They stand, looking musingly beyond her while she fumblesfor her purse. An expert's quick glance at what she has put inhis hand assures the street boss that it is more than adequate.She doesn't know how to thank them enough, etc. He hitcheshis body to get the money stowed in trousers cut to fit somebodyelse and smiles with his attention on the lookout forthe next vehicle seeking a place to park. A woman wearing atowel as a shawl, enthroned on a fruit-box before her stock ofhair combs, razor blades, pumice stones, woollen caps andheadache powders, yells out to him what must be a teasingremark in a language the young woman doesn't understand.
There. You've seen. I've seen. The gesture. A woman in atraffic jam among those that are everyday in the city, any city.You won't remember it, you won't know who she is.
But I know because from thesight of her I'll find out—asa story—what was going to happen as the consequence ofthat commonplace embarrassment on the streets; where itwas heading her for, and what. Her hands thrown up, open.
The young woman was down in a thoroughfare,a bazaar of all that the city had not been allowed to beby the laws and traditions of her parents' generation. Breakingup in bars and cafes the inhibitions of the past has alwaysbeen the work of the young, haphazard and selectively tolerant.She was on her way to where she would habitually meet,without arrangement, friends and friends of friends, whoeverturned up. The L.A. Café. Maybe most people in the streetthrongs didn't know the capitals stood for Los Angeles; sawthem as some short version of the name of a proprietor, as theold-style Greek corner shop would carry the name of Stavrosor Kimon. EL-AY. Whoever owned the café thought the chosenname offered the inspiration of an imagined life-style tohabitués, matching it with their own; probably he confusedLos Angeles with San Francisco. The name of his café was astatement. A place for the young; but also one where old survivorsof the quarter's past, ageing Hippies and Leftist Jews,grandfathers and grandmothers of the 1920s immigrationwho had not become prosperous bourgeois, could sit over asingle coffee. Crazed peasants wandered from the rural areasgabbled and begged in the gutters outside. Hair from a barber'spavement booth blew the human felt of African haironto the terrace. Prostitutes from Congo and Senegal sat attables with the confidence of beauty queens.
Hi Julie—as usual, beckoned. Her welcomers saw a gracefulneck and face, naturally pale, reddened with emotion ofsome sort. Black and white, they fussed about her: Hi Julie,relax, what's up with you. There were two of her friends fromuniversity days, a journalist out of work who house-sat forabsent owners, a couple who painted banners for rallies andpop concerts. There was indignation: this city. What shits.
—All they care about is getting there ...—
And where is it they think they're getting to—this fromthe hanger-on with a shining bald pate and a cape of greylocks falling from behind his ears; still unpublished but recognizedfrom childhood as a poet and philosopher, by hismother.
—Nothing gives a white male more of a kick than humiliatinga woman driver.—
—Sexual stimulant for yahoos—
—Someone else shouted something ... like Idikaza ...mlungu ... What's that, `white bitch', isn't it? — Her questionto the black friend.
—Well, just about as bad. This city, man!—
—But it was black men who helped me, of course.—
—Oh come on—for a hand-out!—
Her friends knew of a garage in the next street. With a wavefrom the wrist she left them to take the necessary practicalstep.
She feels hot gassy breath. Steel snouts and flashing teeth-grillesat her face. Inside her something struggles againstthem. Her heart summons her like a fist under her ribs, gaspsrise within her up to her collar-bones. She is walking alongthe street, that's all, it's nothing. Walking round a block to agarage. It's nothing, it was nothing, it's over. Shudder. A trafficjam.
There's the garage, as they said. As she walked in she sawits ordinariness, a landing on normality: vehicles as helpless,harmless victims upon hydraulic lifts, tools on benches, waterdispenser, plastic cups and take-away food boxes, radio chattering,a man lying on his back half-under the belly of acar. There were two others preoccupied at some noisy machineryand they signalled her over to him. The legs andlower body wriggled down at the sound of her apologeticvoice and the man emerged. He was young, in his greasywork-clothes, long hands oil-slicked at the dangle from longarms; he wasn't one of them—the white man speakingAfrikaans to the black man at the machine—but glossy dark-hairedwith black eyes blueish-shadowed. He listened to herwithout any reassuring attention or remark. She waited amoment in his silence.
So could you send someone to have a look ... the car'sround the corner.
He stared at his hands. Just a minute while I clean up.
He carried a bulky handleless bag with a new battery andtools and it was awkward to walk beside him through thestreets with people dodging around them, but she did not liketo walk ahead of the garage man as if he were some sort ofservant. In silence, he got the car going and drove back to theworkshop with her as his passenger.
There's still some—I don't know—in the ignition. Your carwill stall again, I think.
Then I'd better leave it with you. I suppose it needs a generalservice, anyway.
When was the last time?
She was culpable, smiling, I don't remember.
I suppose I just drive until something goes wrong.
He nodded slowly, did not speak: of course, that's yourway.
I'll give a call to find out when it's ready—you're Mr ...?
Ask for Abdu.
She allowed the garage two or three days to do whatever wasneeded. When she called and asked by name for the mechanicwho had taken charge of her car she was told he wasout but it was certain the car was still under repair. Thisdidn't matter, there was her father's third car at her disposal,a handsome old Rover he'd bought at a Sotheby's auctionand had refurbished, then seldom used. It was a car from TheSuburbs, of a kind that wouldn't be ventured down in thequarter of the EL-AY Café When it was parked there underthe admiring care of a well-tipped street man, people stoodaround to gaze at it, a denizen from another world, affluenceas distant as space. She was not over-concerned that it wouldbe stolen—it was too unique to be easy to get away with undetected,and too grandly obsolete to be a profitable source ofparts, if broken up. She was only uncomfortable at the ideaof its exposure—and hers, as its family occupant—before herfriends. She did not live in The Suburbs, where she hadgrown up, but in a series of backyard cottages adapted fromservants' quarters or in modest apartments of the kind theyfavoured, or had to, being unable to afford anything better.On the Sunday when she came to dose on therapeutic mineralwater and coffee with the friends after a night at a club inSoweto where one of them was blowing the trumpet, shefound three happy children and a baby in arms sitting on thegleaming bonnet and playing with the silver statuette of Mercurythat was its figurehead. Her father just might have beenamused by this new game on his vintage plaything, but shedid not relate it because it wouldn't do to reveal to his youngwife that the car was being driven around in unsuitableplaces—that one was vigilant in protection of his possessions.
In the week that followed—she had not yet bothered tocall the garage again—when she got out of her father's carthere was the mechanic, in the street, turned looking at it.
That's a car ... Excuse me. As if he had accosted someonehe did not know.
It's not mine! She claimed her identity: I'd like to have myown old one back! And laughed.
He seemed to recall who this was among clients underwhose vehicles' bellies he lay. Oh yes—. Ready by Thursday.They have to get a distributor from the agent.
He was looking at the Rover from another angle. Howold? What is the model?
I've really no idea. It's borrowed, I don't own it, that's forsure.
I never saw one before—only in a photo.
They used to be made in England ages ago, before eitherof us was born. You love cars? Even though you work withtheir insides all day?
`Love'—I don't say. That is something different. It's justit's beautiful (his long hand rose towards his face and opened,to the car). Many things can be beautiful.
And mine certainly isn't. What else's wrong apart from thewhatever-it-is you have to get from the agent? Sounds as ifit's going to be a major overhaul.
Why do you keep it. You should buy a new car.
He was turned from her, again looking at the Rover: theevidence gathered that she could afford to.
She lobbed the accusation back to him. Why should Iwhen you can get it going again for me?
He screwed his eyes, very liquid-black in the sun, authoritative.Because it can be a danger for you to drive. Somethingcan fail that can kill you. I can't see (he seemed to reject aword, probably that came to him from another language—hepaused uncertainly)—know to stop that, in my work.
And if I were driving a new car, someone else on the roadcould fail in some way, and that could kill me—so?
That would be your fate, but you would not have—whatdo I say—looked for it.
She was amused: Is there such a thing? Do I believe in it.You do, then.
To be open to encounters—that was what she and herfriends believed, anyway, as part of making the worth of theirlives. Why don't we have coffee—if you're free?
I'm on lunch. He pulled down the corners of his mouthundecidedly, then smiled for the first time. It was the glimpseof something attractive withheld in the man, escaped now inthe image of good teeth set off by clearly delineated lips undera moustache black as his eyes. Most likely of Indian orCape Malay background; like her, a local of this country inwhich they were born descendant of immigrants in one era oranother—in her case from Suffolk and County Cork, as in hisfrom Gujerat or the East Indies.
The friends probably at their usual table inside. Shedidn't look, and made for a corner of the terrace.
In casual encounters people—men and women, yes, avoidingany other subject that may be misunderstood, compromising—telleach other what they do: which means what work is theirs,not how they engage their being in other ways. A big word hadbeen brought up from what was withheld in this man—`fate'—butit was simple to evade its intimate implications of belief, afterall, steer these to the public subject: the occupations by whichshe, driver of the Rover (even if, as she insisted, it was borrowed),just as he, his place the underbelly of other people's vehicles,gained her bread. Whatever his ancestry, as a local of thesame generation they'd share the understanding of `bread' asmoney rather than a loaf. Nevertheless she found herself speakingrather shyly, respectful of the obvious differences in `fate' betweenthem: she in her father's (having lied by omission aboutthis) Rover, he trapped beneath her small jalopy.
What I do, what you do. That's about the only subjectavailable.
I don't know how exactly these things work out. I wantedto be a lawyer, really, I had these great ambitions when I wasat school—there was a lawyer aunt in the family, I once wentto hear her cross-examine in that wonderful black pleatedgown and white bib. But with various other things on the way... I quit law after only two years. Then it was languages ...and somehow I've landed up working as a PRO and fundraiser,benefit dinners, celebrity concerts, visiting pop groups.Everyone says oh great, you must meet such famous people—butyou also meet some awful people and you have to be niceto them. Sycophantic. I won't stick to it for long. She stoppedshort of: I don't know what I want to do, if that means whatI want to be. That was a lead into the confessional, even if theethic were to be open with strangers.
It's good money, isn't it?
Commission. Depends what I bring in.
He drank the coffee evenly in swallows and pauses, as ifthis were a measured process. Perhaps he wasn't going tospeak again: it was patronizing, after all, this making free encountersout of other people's lives, a show of your convictionof their equal worth, interest, catching the garage mechanicin the net, EL-AY Café When he had taken a last swallowand put down the cup he'd get up and say thank you andgo—so she had to think of something to say, quickly, tomend, justify, the pickup.
What about you?
It was the wrong thing—there! She'd done it, it came outgod-awful as Showing Interest, and she thought she heardhim take a breath in order to deal with it, with her; but heonly put out his hand for the sugar-bowl, she hastened tohand it to him, he helped himself to another spoonful for thedregs in his cup. He would keep silent if he wanted to, hecould speak if he wished, it wasn't up to her.
Many things, different countries.
Perhaps that's the way.
It is if they don't want you, say it's not your country. Youhave no country.
Isn't this our country. That's a statement, from her.
Oh I thought you were—like me—this's home, but it'sgood to get out of it. I was in America for a year—some othercountry would have been a better idea, for me.
I go where they'll let me in.
And from ... She was tentative. It couldn't be avoidednow.
He named a country she had barely heard of. One of thosepartitioned by colonial powers on their departure, or secededfrom federations cobbled together to fill vacuums of powerlessnessagainst the regrouping of those old colonial powersunder acronyms that still brand-name the world for themselves.One of those countries where you can't tell religionapart from politics, their forms of persecution from the persecutionof poverty, as the reason for getting out and goingwherever they'll let you in.
Things were bad there. Not really knowing what she wastalking about.
But you're all right, here? Are you?
Now he neatly replaced cup in saucer, placed spoon, anddid get up to leave.
Thank you. I have to go back to work.
She stood up, too. Thursday?
Better if you call before you come. Thursday.
Excerpted from The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 2001 by Felix Licensing, B.V.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted December 22, 2001
Those expecting to find in 'The Pickup' more of Nadine Gordimer's wonderfully insightful plumbing of life in post-apartheid South Africa will only be partially rewarded. Once heroine Julie fatefully meets and falls in love with a dark-skinned illegal alien from a Arabic-speaking country, the story moves to the man's homeland when Julie decides to marry her lover and accompany him when he is deported. From there the book becomes upper-class South African white girl confronts third-world Islamic culture. The writing style can be off-putting at times, yet it is a good yarn that, as always with this author, is well worth the reading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 7, 2008
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Posted March 3, 2012
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