There seem to be fewer and fewer political novels written today. And those that are tend to be satires or focus on the political machinations of those in charge.
Into this literary desert comes Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, whose books chronicle the struggles of South Africans during and now following apartheid.
Her new novel is set in the recent past, up to late 2009, as the country was preparing to host the World Cup of soccer in 2010. As in her other novels, Gordimer addresses political realities through the experiences of ordinary individuals rather than politicians.
In “No Time Like the Present,” we enter the lives of Steven Reed and Jabulile Gumede, a “mixed” couple (he’s white; she’s black). Both were active in the struggle against apartheid. Each served time in prison and they carried on a secret affair when racist laws forbade interracial sexual relations.
Now, in the new South Africa, they are married with two children. They move into a suburban enclave with their comrades, former freedom fighters. Jabu retrains as a lawyer, and Steve, who worked as an industrial chemist in a paint factory used for making bombs, gets a job teaching chemistry in a university.
Gordimer brings these and other characters to life with her terse, unsentimental prose. Her writing can be poetic: “A motorbike ripped the street like a sheet of paper roughly torn.” It can also express profundity: “What was between them had nothing to do with consistency in life. A reality outside reality. Just real in itself.”
Gordimer includes in her novel real characters, most of whom will be unfamiliar to American readers. There is Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, and Julias Malema, former youth leader of the African National Congress. She exposes the extensive poverty and political corruption that has gripped South Africa in recent years, where workers are “paid a wage the price of a cabinet minister’s cigars.”
She describes a South Africa where whites make up 12 percent of the population but still dominate the economy, while “the black majority which overcame also produces those who join the white class and take freedom as the advance to corruption and distancing from the majority living jobless between shacks and toilet buckets.”
Gordimer addresses many subjects, from the chemical compounds for making bombs to the circumcision practices of various groups. She paints a plethora of characters with a detailed brush. And she follows the dictum of one of her characters, that poetry is “the revolution against all limits of the ordinary.”
The political realities in South Africa are complex, and so is Gordimer’s book. It sometimes reads like notes taken in haste. Such complexity will put off many readers, who may struggle to get through this novel.
But readers who do will be rewarded with a better grasp not only of South Africa but of the complexities of the human condition, which dances between striving for its dreams of justice and falling on its face in frustration.