Saturday, July 22, 2017

the last book I read

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer.

Mehring (we never find out his first name, as far as I know) is a middle-aged South African industrialist, a sort of southern hemisphere version of Sherman McCoy from The Bonfire Of The Vanities. Bored of the usual round of parties and desultory sex with bored pampered middle-aged housewives, he impulsively buys a few hundred acres of farmland without any particular idea of what to do with it.

Fortunately the land comes with some native custodians who keep things ticking over on a day-to-day basis, leaving Mehring free to drop in at weekends, stride around his fields pointing at stuff like he owns the place (which of course he does), bring his mistresses along for a bit of adventure and generally play at being the gentleman farmer.

Reality intervenes one day when Jacobus, Mehring's farm foreman, discovers a mysterious dead body in one of the fields. A black man, pretty clearly murdered, but the authorities seem strangely reluctant to get involved, so Mehring and his men end up burying the body where it was found with minimal ceremony.

The timelines are a bit fractured here, so we get a few flashbacks to, among other things, Mehring's relationship with his son, Terry, a floppy-haired barefoot fop who Mehring regards with a mixture of disappointment and suspicion, Mehring's former relationship with Terry's mother, and Mehring's former relationship with a girlfriend whose radical views brought her into conflict with the authorities and resulted in her having to leave the country. It's probably worth pointing out at this point that the book was published in 1974 and therefore represents the old South African apartheid regime, something that seems unimaginably distant now in these Rainbow Nation days.

A series of natural disasters befalls the farm: firstly a drought resulting in some localised fires which destroy some crops, and then later severe flooding which washes away some of the topsoil in the fields and exposes the remains of the murdered man buried there. As Mehring contemplates having to flee the country himself following an ill-advised encounter with a coloured woman (probably, we're invited to assume, a set-up), Jacobus and the other custodians of the farm give the un-named victim a more formal burial.

Like a few other books in this series, the fractured timeline, limited clues as to whose head we're occupying at any given time or when the events being described are supposed to have happened in the overall span of time covered by the book make some demands on the reader, and some might find that unpalatable. I certainly found the other Gordimer I've read, The House Gun, to be a much easier proposition in terms of keeping up with what was going on.

Gordimer can pretty much do what she likes though (or rather could, since she died in 2014), by virtue of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 and the Booker Prize for this book (in 1974, shared with Stanley Middleton's Holiday). A reasonably comprehensive list of Nobel winners featured on this blog can be found here. I would broadly agree with the opinion expressed here, which describes the book as "great writing, but not brilliant reading". It's quite tough going: the fractured narrative voice and timeline keep you working to keep up and as with any book whose narrative circles around in time there's a sense of not much conclusive happening: arguably, a couple of bits of severe weather resulting in some minor inconvenience and not much else.

Obviously the point of this is a meditation on 1970s South Africa, apartheid, and the role of the white man in despoiling the landscape and enslaving the native population. In that sense it's pretty effective, though I must say I enjoyed The House Gun, whose themes are much narrower and more personal, more. The fact that it's taken me over two months to read it should only partly be taken as a reflection of this: it's more a reflection of the limited time I have to read with our current childcare obligations. While having a shit and very occasionally in bed if the boy is asleep are the two main areas of opportunity at the moment, and neither of those allows for significant amounts of time.

The list of Booker-winning books featured here is still relatively small, and comprises (in no particular order, and with no guarantee of comprehensiveness) Midnight's Children, G., The Gathering, Hotel Du Lac, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Sea.

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