In the summer of 1983, Nadine Gordimer, who was to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, was interviewed by the Paris Review. Like all Paris Review interviews, hers too was long and exhaustive. For admirers of Gordimer like me, it provided a vivid picture of the woman behind the writing. There were details there about her Jewish grandfather who left Lithuania to settle in a small town in South Africa as a watch repairer; about her parents who had made good, and about her lonely childhood during which she had read, voraciously, whatever came to hand.
The family details were engrossing enough; but of greater interest was what this fine, light-handed writer had to say about her practice of the art of fiction. Her view of her work was refreshingly clear-eyed. She knew who she was and what she wanted to be – a fully engaged writer. As she grew up, she had discovered the injustice of apartheid and made its impingement on the loves, hates and the very personalities of her people the subject of her work. Those who remained untouched by the human degradation around them, had no place in her fiction. In a biting passage in the Paris Review interview, she brought home to the interviewer, the universal character of this class of people. “You go into one of the big stores here and you can see these extremely well-dressed, often rather dissatisfied-looking, even sad-looking middle-aged women, rich, trying on a dozen pairs of shoes; and you can see they’re sitting there for the morning. And it’s a terribly agonising decision, but maybe the heel should be a little higher or maybe… should I get two pairs? And a few blocks away it’s appalling to see in what poverty and misery other people are living in this city, New York.”
Replace New York with Mumbai and the picture remains unchanged.
As a fervent champion of justice and freedom, Gordimer stood shoulder to shoulder with Nelson Mandela in the fight to overthrow apartheid; but she was much too honest not to see how the politics of identity was affecting the quality of black writing. “In South Africa, among young blacks who are writing – it’s difficult for them to admit it, but they know this – they have to submit to an absolute orthodoxy within black consciousness. The poem or the story or the novel must follow a certain line – it’s a kind of party line even though what is in question is not a political party… For example, nobleness of character in blacks must be shown. It’s pretty much frowned upon if there’s a white character who is human… That’s fine as a weapon of propaganda in the struggle, which is what such writing is, primarily. But the real writers are victims of this, because as soon as they stray from one or two clearly defined story lines, they’re regarded as – traitors.” Something similar has happened to the fine writers of our own Dalit movement.
In 2000, Gordimer’s intellectual honesty was severely challenged by her loyalty to her old African National Congress colleague, President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor. By this year South Africa had more people with HIV than any other nation. Yet Mbeki refused to allow HIV drugs to be distributed to South Africans because he claimed AIDS wasn’t caused by a viral infection but by the collapse of the immune system due to poverty. For years Gordimer could not bring herself to criticise Mbeki publicly for this damaging theory. But in 2004 she redeemed herself. She invited 20 of the finest story-tellers of the world to contribute a story each, free of charge, to Telling Tales, an anthology she was editing. The royalties of the book were to go to South Africa’s leading AIDS activist group, Treatment Action Campaign.
The first Gordimer book I read was the 94-page political novella, The Late Bourgeois World (1966), later banned by the Censorship Board of South Africa. Her other two banned novels were Burger’s Daughter and the Booker Prize-winning The Conservationist. The last Gordimer story I read was the grimly titled The Ultimate Safari from Telling Tales, in which a bright young girl recounts her experience of fleeing from war-torn Mozambique through South Africa’s tourist attraction, the Kruger Park, to the other side, to live homeless in a tent for refugees.
On Sunday, Gordimer died in her sleep. Her death was of a piece with her life and writing – quiet and without ado.