The Pickup

The Pickup

by Nadine Gordimer

Paperback(First Edition)

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A New York Times Notable Book
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Africa

"Ranks as one of Gordimer's best novels…It transcends politics and aims at a meaning higher than human striving."---The Philadelphia Inquirer

When Julie Summers's car breaks down on a street in Cape Town, a young Arab mechanic comes to her aid. Their attraction to each other is immediate. Julia, the daughter of a powerful businessman, is trying to escape a privileged background she despises. Abdu, an educated but poor illegal immigrant, is desperate to evade deportation. The consequences of this chance meeting are unpredictable and intense, as each person's notions of the other are overturned. Set in the social mix of post-apartheid South Africa and an unnamed Arab country, Nadine Gordimer's The Pickup "is a masterpiece of creative empathy...a gripping tale of contemporary anguish and unexpected desire, and it also opens the Arab world to unusually nuanced perception" (Edward W. Said).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250024046
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 02/05/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,149,591
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) was a Nobel Prize winner whose novels include the Booker Prize-winning The Conservationist, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning The Pickup, and No Time Like the Present. Gordimer’s short story collections include Loot and Jump and Other Stories. She also published literary and political essay collections such as Living in Hope and History.

Gordimer was a vice president of PEN International and an executive member of the Congress of South African Writers. She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain and a Commandeur of l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France).

Read an Excerpt

Clustered predators round a kill. It's a small car with a young woman inside it. The battery has failed and taxis, cars, minibuses, vans, motorcycles butt and challenge one another, reproach and curse her, a traffic mob mounting its own confusion. Get going. Stupid bloody woman. Idikazana lomlungu, le! She throws up hands, palms open, in surrender. They continue to jostle and blare their impatience. She gets out of her car and faces them. One of the unemployed black men who beg by waving vehicles into parking bays sidles his way deftly through fenders, signals with his head—Oka-ay, Oka-ay go inside, go!—and mimes control of the steering wheel. Another like him appears, and they push her and her car into a loading bay. The street hustles on. They stand, looking musingly beyond her while she fumbles for her purse. An expert's quick glance at what she has put in his hand assures the street boss that it is more than adequate. She doesn't know how to thank them enough, etc. He hitches his body to get the money stowed in trousers cut to fit somebody else and smiles with his attention on the lookout for the next vehicle seeking a place to park. A woman wearing a towel as a shawl, enthroned on a fruit-box before her stock of hair combs, razor blades, pumice stones, woollen caps and headache powders, yells out to him what must be a teasing remark in a language the young woman doesn't understand.

There. You've seen. I've seen. The gesture. A woman in a traffic 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 the sight of her I'll find out—as a story—what was going to happen as the consequence of that commonplace embarrassment on the streets; where it was 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 be by the laws and traditions of her parents' generation. Breaking up in bars and cafes the inhibitions of the past has always been 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, whoever turned up. The L.A. Café. Maybe most people in the street throngs didn't know the capitals stood for Los Angeles; saw them as some short version of the name of a proprietor, as the old-style Greek corner shop would carry the name of Stavros or Kimon. EL-AY. Whoever owned the café thought the chosen name offered the inspiration of an imagined life-style to habitués, matching it with their own; probably he confused Los Angeles with San Francisco. The name of his café was a statement. A place for the young; but also one where old survivors of the quarter's past, ageing Hippies and Leftist Jews, grandfathers and grandmothers of the 1920s immigration who had not become prosperous bourgeois, could sit over a single coffee. Crazed peasants wandered from the rural areas gabbled and begged in the gutters outside. Hair from a barber's pavement booth blew the human felt of African hair onto the terrace. Prostitutes from Congo and Senegal sat at tables with the confidence of beauty queens.

Hi Julie—as usual, beckoned. Her welcomers saw a graceful neck and face, naturally pale, reddened with emotion of some sort. Black and white, they fussed about her: Hi Julie, relax, what's up with you. There were two of her friends from university days, a journalist out of work who house-sat for absent owners, a couple who painted banners for rallies and pop 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 from the hanger-on with a shining bald pate and a cape of grey locks falling from behind his ears; still unpublished but recognized from childhood as a poet and philosopher, by his mother.

—Nothing gives a white male more of a kick than humiliating a woman driver.—

—Sexual stimulant for yahoos—

—Someone else shouted something . . . like Idikaza . . . mlungu . . . What's that, 'white bitch', isn't it?—Her question to 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 wave from the wrist she left them to take the necessary practical step.

She feels hot gassy breath. Steel snouts and flashing teeth-grilles at her face. Inside her something struggles against them. Her heart summons her like a fist under her ribs, gasps rise within her up to her collar-bones. She is walking along the street, that's all, it's nothing. Walking round a block to a garage. It's nothing, it was nothing, it's over. Shudder. A traffic jam.

There's the garage, as they said. As she walked in she saw its ordinariness, a landing on normality: vehicles as helpless, harmless victims upon hydraulic lifts, tools on benches, water dispenser, plastic cups and take-away food boxes, radio chattering, a man lying on his back half-under the belly of a car. There were two others preoccupied at some noisy machinery and they signalled her over to him. The legs and lower body wriggled down at the sound of her apologetic voice and the man emerged. He was young, in his greasy work-clothes, long hands oil-slicked at the dangle from long arms; he wasn't one of them—the white man speaking Afrikaans to the black man at the machine—but glossy dark-haired with black eyes blueish-shadowed. He listened to her without any reassuring attention or remark. She waited a moment in his silence.

So could you send someone to have a look . . . the car's round the corner.

He stared at his hands. Just a minute while I clean up.

He carried a bulky handleless bag with a new battery and tools and it was awkward to walk beside him through the streets with people dodging around them, but she did not like to walk ahead of the garage man as if he were some sort of servant. In silence, he got the car going and drove back to the workshop with her as his passenger.

There's still some—I don't know—in the ignition. Your car will stall again, I think.

Then I'd better leave it with you. I suppose it needs a general service, anyway.

When was the last time?

She was culpable, smiling, I don't remember.

How long?

I suppose I just drive until something goes wrong.

He nodded slowly, did not speak: of course, that's your way.

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 was needed. When she called and asked by name for the mechanic who had taken charge of her car she was told he was out but it was certain the car was still under repair. This didn't matter, there was her father's third car at her disposal, a handsome old Rover he'd bought at a Sotheby's auction and had refurbished, then seldom used. It was a car from The Suburbs, of a kind that wouldn't be ventured down in the quarter of the EL-AY Café When it was parked there under the admiring care of a well-tipped street man, people stood around to gaze at it, a denizen from another world, affluence as distant as space. She was not over-concerned that it would be stolen—it was too unique to be easy to get away with undetected, and too grandly obsolete to be a profitable source of parts, if broken up. She was only uncomfortable at the idea of its exposure—and hers, as its family occupant—before her friends. She did not live in The Suburbs, where she had grown up, but in a series of backyard cottages adapted from servants' quarters or in modest apartments of the kind they favoured, or had to, being unable to afford anything better. On the Sunday when she came to dose on therapeutic mineral water and coffee with the friends after a night at a club in Soweto where one of them was blowing the trumpet, she found three happy children and a baby in arms sitting on the gleaming bonnet and playing with the silver statuette of Mercury that was its figurehead. Her father just might have been amused by this new game on his vintage plaything, but she did not relate it because it wouldn't do to reveal to his young wife that the car was being driven around in unsuitable places—that one was vigilant in protection of his possessions.

In the week that followed—she had not yet bothered to call the garage again—when she got out of her father's car there was the mechanic, in the street, turned looking at it.

That's a car . . . Excuse me. As if he had accosted someone he did not know.

It's not mine! She claimed her identity: I'd like to have my own old one back! And laughed.

He seemed to recall who this was among clients under whose 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. How old? What is the model?

I've really no idea. It's borrowed, I don't own it, that's for sure.

I never saw one before—only in a photo.

They used to be made in England ages ago, before either of us was born. You love cars? Even though you work with their insides all day?

'Love'—I don't say. That is something different. It's just it'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 the whatever-it-is you have to get from the agent? Sounds as if it'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: the evidence gathered that she could afford to.

She lobbed the accusation back to him. Why should I when 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. Something can fail that can kill you. I can't see (he seemed to reject a word, probably that came to him from another language—he paused uncertainly)—know to stop that, in my work.

And if I were driving a new car, someone else on the road could fail in some way, and that could kill me—so?

That would be your fate, but you would not have—what do 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 her friends believed, anyway, as part of making the worth of their lives. Why don't we have coffee—if you're free?

I'm on lunch. He pulled down the corners of his mouth undecidedly, then smiled for the first time. It was the glimpse of something attractive withheld in the man, escaped now in the image of good teeth set off by clearly delineated lips under a moustache black as his eyes. Most likely of Indian or Cape Malay background; like her, a local of this country in which they were born descendant of immigrants in one era or another—in her case from Suffolk and County Cork, as in his from Gujerat or the East Indies.

EL-AY Café.

The friends probably at their usual table inside. She didn't look, and made for a corner of the terrace.

In casual encounters people—men and women, yes, avoiding any other subject that may be misunderstood, compromising—tell each other what they do: which means what work is theirs, not how they engage their being in other ways. A big word had been brought up from what was withheld in this man—'fate'—but it was simple to evade its intimate implications of belief, after all, steer these to the public subject: the occupations by which she, 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 the same generation they'd share the understanding of 'bread' as money rather than a loaf. Nevertheless she found herself speaking rather shyly, respectful of the obvious differences in 'fate' between them: she in her father's (having lied by omission about this) Rover, he trapped beneath her small jalopy.

What I do, what you do. That's about the only subject available.

I don't know how exactly these things work out. I wanted to be a lawyer, really, I had these great ambitions when I was at school — there was a lawyer aunt in the family, I once went to hear her cross-examine in that wonderful black pleated gown 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 — but you also meet some awful people and you have to be nice to them. Sycophantic. I won't stick to it for long. She stopped short of: I don't know what I want to do, if that means what I want to be. That was a lead into the confessional, even if the ethic 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 if this were a measured process. Perhaps he wasn't going to speak again: it was patronizing, after all, this making free encounters out of other people's lives, a show of your conviction of their equal worth, interest, catching the garage mechanic in the net, EL-AY Café When he had taken a last swallow and put down the cup he'd get up and say thank you and go — so she had to think of something to say, quickly, to mend, justify, the pickup.

What about you?

It was the wrong thing—there! She'd done it, it came out god-awful as Showing Interest, and she thought she heard him take a breath in order to deal with it, with her; but he only put out his hand for the sugar-bowl, she hastened to hand it to him, he helped himself to another spoonful for the dregs in his cup. He would keep silent if he wanted to, he could 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. You have no country.

Isn't this our country. That's a statement, from her.

For you.

Oh I thought you were—like me—this's home, but it's good to get out of it. I was in America for a year—some other country 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 avoided now.

He named a country she had barely heard of. One of those partitioned by colonial powers on their departure, or seceded from federations cobbled together to fill vacuums of powerlessness against the regrouping of those old colonial powers under acronyms that still brand-name the world for themselves. One of those countries where you can't tell religion apart from politics, their forms of persecution from the persecution of poverty, as the reason for getting out and going wherever they'll let you in.

Things were bad there. Not really knowing what she was talking about.

Were, are.

But you're all right, here? Are you?

Now he neatly replaced cup in saucer, placed spoon, and did 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..

Published in First edition, 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Reading Group Guide


Q> Why does Julie stay in Ibrahim's country?

Q> Why is Abdu/Ibrahim afraid to bring Julie to his country?

Q> What does the desert signify for Julie? What does it signify for Ibrahim?

Q> What does Julie's "elegant suitcase" represent to Ibrahim?

Q> Why is neither Julie nor Ibrahim's country ever identified by name?

Q> Why does Julie later think that during her time with Abdu/Ibrahim in her homeland, they "were playing at reality; it was a doll's house, the cottage"? (p. 164)

Q> In Arabic, the name "Abdu" literally means "servant" (and is often an abbreviated form of "Abdullah," meaning "servant of God"). Why does Ibrahim choose this name for himself while living in Julie's country?

Q> In what sense, if any, do Julie and Ibrahim love each other?

Q> In what ways is Julie's relationship with Ibrahim an expression of her true self? In what ways is it, as Ibrahim often believes, merely another one of her "adventures"? Are those the only two options?

Q> Why does Julie come to feel closer to Ibrahim's family than to her own?

Q> Why does Gordimer title this novel The Pickup?

For Further Reflection

Q> Is it possible to entirely escape the effects of family on one's identity?

Q> Is living in a way that is truest to oneself necessarily in conflict with responsibility to others?

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The Pickup 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
kaionvin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Really a pretentious poo-pah that delivers pretty much exactly what the summary says it will. The detached way in which Gordimer treats her characters really doesn't flesh them out beyond the statements that she's making about imperialism/upper-middle-class/racism/culture-clash/Islamic-feminism/etc and that really undermines any insights it might offer.Especially painful is the style- there's no quotation marks and the prose consists almost entirely of egregious examples of run-on sentences. Rather than letting the reader infer or examine any situation objectively, the prose makes sure to tell you exactly what this says about society or how the characters are humanly flawed (or often, delusional).There are some good things buried in here. I like the somewhat grace note the female protagonist ends on finding a place for herself in another land (where her husband still reaches to the greener grass on the other side). But overall, a really belabored attempt. Rating: 2/5 stars
LaBibliophille on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Nadine Gordimer is one of the pre-eminent writers of our time. She has published at least 30 novels. At the age of 85, she is still writing. Her style is spare and detached. We are not overloaded with unnecessary details, and are not manipulated to feel the emotions the writer deems important. The Pickup remains true to Gordimer¿s unique style.Gordimer has lived her entire life in South Africa: before, and during, the era of apartheid, and afterwards. The shadow of those years continues to affect all the characters and their personal interactions.In The Pickup a young woman named Julie has car trouble. She becomes involved with the mechanic from the garage. He is an Arab Muslim, from a poor country in Africa which is never named. As an illegal immigrant to South Africa, he uses an assumed name and tries to live under the radar. Julie is from a wealthy ¿European¿ (aka white) family. As the relationship between Julie and Abdu develops, he becomes more noticed in the community. Eventually, he received a notice that he is to be deported.We learn much more about Julie and her family as she attempts to use her connections to allow Abdu to stay in the country. When she is unsuccessful, they marry quickly and she returns with him to his country. As Julie adjusts to life in a poor Arab village on the edge of the desert, Abdu tries to obtain visas to emigrate legally to any developed nation.This novel is beautifully written. It subtly raises a number of issues that important in the world today, without hitting us over the head with gory details or solutions to those problems. Once again, a great effort from a fine writer.
flydodofly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Two people, connected by attraction and convenience, share a year or two of their lives and during that time become more or less aware how great the differences between them really are, and how grave the misunderstandings. Strengthened by the harsh environment , their disparities sharpen out and develop, to finally separate them. In the end, they both have what they wanted, but at a cost of losing each other. Their path together ends.The writing style was difficult to read at times, it felt like stumbling and tripping onto itself, but that may have been an instrument, to heighten the language and cultural differences between the two.
miyurose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Truth be told, I really didn¿t like this story. On a couple of levels.First, the plot. I found Julie to be utterly insufferable. Every decision she makes is not real, it¿s just another way for her to do exactly what everyone else doesn¿t want her to do. At nearly 30, she¿s way too old for the teenage rebellion. She and her "friends" at the cafe live their entire lives trying to meet some sort of moral code that they think makes them superior to everyone else while they are completely unappreciative of what they do have. Her relationship with Abdu is just a way for her to take her rebellion to its outer limits. Abdu¿s family in the "Arab village" (more on that later) is infinitely more interesting than Julie or any of her friends. My only consolation is that Abdu also finds her insufferable from time to time.I realize this assessment is entirely personal. People with these sorts of airs and pretensions get on my last nerve.Second, the writing. Gordimer does her very best to make you need to read every passage at least twice to figure out what she is trying to say. It got to the point that I felt like I was watching a movie through a vaseline smeared screen; you have to squint to see what¿s going on. And then there¿s the matter of this "unnamed Arab village". The author is very determined that this "unnamed village" be mysterious and a stand-in for the average Arab village, but then she drops a clue that told me within 2 minutes of googling that they¿re in Morocco. So if you want it to be unnamed and representative, why drop that clue? I don¿t get it. And then there¿s the brief side plot of Julie¿s uncle being unjustly accused of sexual harassment. It had absolutely zero effect on the plot, so it felt like the author just wanted to make the point that "Hey! Some women lie about sexual harassment!"Every drawn out, metaphoric passage felt like the author poking me in the eye and saying "Ha ha! I¿m sooooo much smarter than you." What could be an interesting story about the nature of immigration is buried under all this¿affectation. It wasn¿t even a good love story.So yeah. Thumbs down. One of the longest short books I¿ve ever read. Only finished it because it was for my book club.
mjmbecky on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Pickup was an easily accessible story to fall into. In little to no time, I found that Julie became a character that I felt familiar and at home with. Although engaged in a love story with an Arab Muslim man who grew up worlds apart in social standing, Julie somehow easily overlooked the structures put in place to separate them. Not once did I look at the couple and think, "Wow, this is odd," or "I wonder if Julie or Abdu feel out of place." In fact, I found Julie's complete lack of tension towards their relationship very interesting. The author really seemed to create a character that responded to her world the way we have idealized; Julie seemed to be unaffected by the judgments of society.Although I sometimes thought the quirky non-tension of the first half of the book to be odd, I enjoyed the suspension of conflict for our characters. There were observations made by Julie that showed that she recognized that Abdu was "different" for her, but not that she ever judged him or herself for those differences. It wasn't until they moved back to his desert home that an unseen tension crept in. This time, it seemed to be Abdu judging what they had together, fearing how Julie would face his harsh life and seeing it through her eyes.Racial and social tensions are present in The Pickup, but not in the explicit ways one would normally expect. There is a subtlety and softness in the stress that builds in the relationship between upper-class Julie and the immigrant Abdu, indicative of a control over language by the author. It is obvious that the two characters love one another, but not in an outrageous, over-the-top passionate way. The steady treading forward movement of the novel was delightful and one that was intriguing to explore with our two characters. Love was present and pressing forward, challenged as in all relationships, but by different forces.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.