Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Book review: My Son's Story, Nadine Gordimer (1990)

No idea where I got this, but it used to belong to Woollahra Municipal Library, so perhaps I bought it at a charity sale. The retail price was $19.95 and someone involved in its sale wrote “Fic” and “$2” on the first page of the volume. In another hand there is “13 Jan 1996” written (presumably, to mark when the book was acquired by the library). The pages, many of them, are creased at the corners where people have bent the paper to mark their place. The edges of the pages are foxed due to the touch of fingers and palms, their oils coming off on the paper and making it turn brown, over time, in patches. The plastic cover is intact and no pages are missing, so the thing is perfectly serviceable if a trifle worn.

The novel itself is fresh though. It is an ensemble piece with five main characters – Will, the son, Baby, the daughter, Aila, the mother, Sonny, the father, and Hannah Plowman, the father’s mistress. The story is focalised through the characters of Sonny and Will, but Will’s feelings toward his father struck me, in some ways, as a touch inauthentic because too uniform over time. The plot chugs along nicely within narrow confines but the novel refuses to breed feelings of claustrophobia due to its breadth of scope, borrowing, as it does, from stories of emancipation of black South Africans. Reading, I ranged over acres of luscious poetry with, protruding into the narrative, insights into the nature of a particular kind of struggle. Present at other points are botanical imports: jacaranda from South America and wattle from Australia.

The writing is fine though the meta-narrative apparatus is a bit ad hoc. There are no such feints in J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ (1999), which surely borrows themes from ‘My Son’s Story’. The first elections with universal suffrage took place in 1994 and both novels embed elements of romance and the politics of personal relationships within a broader landscape of communal existence characterised by race relations. What, these writers ask, is the mark of a good man? How does the political become personal, and vice versa? What are the precise delineations of this graph of emotions and sentiment?

Subtle questions indeed. Gordimer, like Coetzee, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but she has been largely overlooked in recent decades, and this, it seems to me, is a pity. ‘My Son’s Story’ demonstrates a degree of accomplishment that warrants the regard of the international community. If she was good enough to win accolades in 1991, she can still be read with pleasure.

I was reminded of the novel after Facebook inserted a new emoji in its post response menu. Now, in addition to "like", “sadface", “heart”, “angry", “surprise”, and "laughter" you can hug a heart. I saw the notice about this change in my feed one day at the beginning of the month. Haven't yet used the feature, but it fits in with the tone of much online communication, which by turns is saccharine and aggressive. Sentimentality, as Nadine Gordimer notes in her novel, is the reverse of thuggery.

‘My Son’s Story’ also suggests that flawed individuals can achieve things in their lives, and that tolerance begins at home, but the novel is far more allusive in its machinations than such a pat summary allows. And if one chose to ask why it might be important to consider the opinions of a white South African woman who was born in 1923, an answer could be that Gordimer saw what happened and so stands as witness. Her ideas about the nature of political struggle must be relevant to a 21st century reader because she asks us to look at the horizon; to not always fix our gaze on immediate things.

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