Monday, May 13, 2013

July's People - Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer (1923-)

The narrative begins in chaos. Jumping from past and present, weaving between characters' thoughts and memories. As South African apartheid begins to unravel, the tenuous societal structure collapses, as does the identity of Maureen and Bam Smales. The tension and unrest turns to riots, the Smales have fled with their faithful servant of 15 years, July, to his home in the bush. As the family is displaced, with only seconds to flee and without time to pack, Bam grabs a gun while his wife grabs a few coveted rolls of toilet paper and in their chosen items they begin to reveal their prejudices. For Bam, the assumption is that July's people could be dangerous. The gun not only provides a sense of protection, but as he is stripped of his authority it asserts a sense of power that he is otherwise incapable of possessing. For Maureen, the assumption is that July's people are primitive and dirty. As she tries to retain a sense of order, a sense of the way things were, she is caught in the interstices between the reality of their new existence and her perception of who she is.

Both Maureen and Bam would have previously considered themselves liberals. They weren't racist or prejudiced. This war, this uprising, it wasn't their fight. They didn't profess to belong to the superior race, or rather they didn't proselytize their superiority. "They had fled the fighting in the streets, the danger for their children, the necessity to defend their lives in the names of ideals they didn't share in a destroyed white society they didn't believe in..." They treated their servants with respect, if not dignity...and yet here in the bush, surrounded by deprivation, slowly their world is turned upside down and they realize that their role as "master," now taken away, has left a vapid hole and exposed a subterranean prejudice they must fight and contend with as they try to come to terms with the ambiguities of their new life in their isolated surroundings.

For their safety the Smales must remain in the village, and they find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being completely dependent on July for their survival. July takes the car and disappears and for the first time Bam and Maureen are untethered. They are no longer masters of their sole possession and only means of  escape. When July returns, bringing them supplies, they are unable to assert their authority and are powerless to impose their will. For the first time it is July who makes decisions and determines their needs. Bam, stripped of his authority, unable to provide for his family is completely emasculated. He attempts to regain his footing, and with the "white man's face, the old, sardonic, controlled challenge of the patron" he demands to know where and why July took their car. But the threats fall flat. July was out, attending to their needs as he had for the last 15 years. Although they could ask him to return the keys of the car, they don't, and July slowly begins to wear the mantle of authority they have so recently been stripped of.

Maureen attempts to retrieve the keys from July. She wants him to give them to her without having to ask for them. She tells July she wants the rubber floor mat from the car and puts outs her hand, not a request, but an assumption. When she realizes she must give them back, she wanders toward July's hut and waits for him to come to her for their tete a tete.

"When he appeared he was merely coming over to her, unhurried, on a sunny day. Nothing sullen or resentful about him; her little triumph in getting him to come turned over inside her with a throb and showed the meanness of something hidden under a stone."

She asks him whether or not they treated him well, she needs his affirmation, she needs to hear that they gave him everything that he needed, that they treated him fairly, but instead he begins to expose the traces of meanness that have existed all along in the mistrustful glances. He has been their "boy" whether or not they acknowledge the fact. Maureen, hurt by the biting truth of his remarks, threatens to expose his unfaithfulness to his wife. But while her victory gives her a small sense of empowerment, it strips what little is left of her own dignity.

What bothers the Smales most isn't July's independence, but the uncovering and exposing of a version of racism they never expected to find. The version that pays servants always and on time, but refuses to allow the luxury of their own sitting room for fear it will always be crowded with unwanted visitors. The version that provides their servant with a bedroom apartment, but only a single chair to further discourage guests. The version that controls every aspect of July's life as a rite, a subtle almost invisible form of ownership. As they struggle to come to terms with these oscillating emotions they regard each other with disgust.

The subtle brilliance of this book is that rather than having a family of racists learn the value and humanity of the natives they are are forced to live among, instead a family of liberals must contend with the demons of racism heretofore unexpected, leaving them conscious stricken and unfamiliar.

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