Thursday, January 12, 2017

Into Africa

“The Ultimate Safari” by Nadine Gordimer

It was Nadine Gordimer herself who recommended to us, to my wife Annie and me, that we stay at Letaba Rest Camp in the heart of Kruger National Park. We had—by some miraculous conspiracy of forces—found ourselves sitting face to face with the world-famous author and her husband, Reinhold Cassirer, one evening in their modest, if eclectically tasteful living room at 7 Frere Road West in Johannesburg, South Africa. The year was 1990, a year that proved a curious window in time for us, as it was not only the year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison on Robben Island, what was surely the death-rattle of the apartheid regime, but was just months before Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, after which point it is unlikely I would have had the chance to meet her at all, let alone in such an frank and convivial way.

It had started at a faculty lunch table in the small cafeteria of the independent school in Manhattan where my wife and I were teaching high school. Lunches in hand, we’d joined a colleague of ours, a woman named Judy Platt. As usual we’d talked of school, of students, when she, knowing how we loved to travel, had asked us what we had planned for the summer vacation, which was due to begin in a matter of weeks. After three successive summers of travelling in South East Asia, we’d told her that were planning to go to southern Africa instead, to South Africa in particular, where we looked forward to staying with a couple we knew in Johannesburg before commencing our travels in the region. “South Africa? I love South Africa!” she’d exclaimed. “One of my best friends lives there, in Jo’burg. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. Her name’s Nadine Gordimer.” I remember gasping at the name. “Heard of her!” I’d cried. “Why, she’s my favorite writer in the world!”

I wasn’t exaggerating. I had fallen in love with her fiction—her short stories and novels—for their heady mixture of acute psychological insight and Chekhovian refinement of language and theme, as well as with the author herself for her morally courageous chronicling of apartheid in its most complex and pernicious forms. Elegant, cosmopolitan, a passionate reader of Gramsci and Proust, she was no ivory tower intellectual, but struggled daily in the trenches themselves, regularly berating the white Nationalist government in essays and editorials and letters to the editor, marching in protests, signing petitions, joining boycotts, and generally doing her best as an active and avid member of the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s long-outlawed African National Congress. 

Facing her there in her own home that evening was nearly too much for me to believe. Together we talked about New York, a city she loved, and about her friend Judy, and we talked about her books, her writing, so that soon  (and with a considerable amount of whiskey) the four of us were conversing and laughing with ease.

After it grew dark, and fearing for our safety at that time of night, she drove us back to our hotel in the once-Bohemian, then run-down, often violent neighborhood of Hillbrow (in fact we were awakened by gunshots that same night). Having made plans for her husband to pick us up tomorrow and show us his art gallery in town, in nearby Rosebank, we thanked her and said our goodbyes.

Surely one of the highlights of that extraordinary evening for me, one I could hardly have anticipated, was the very car in which she’d driven us back to our hotel, a yellow Volkswagen ‘Thing’ (remember those?), which—in what is perhaps my favorite of her novels, July’s People—she used as the model for the Smales family’s car in their escape into the countryside under the care and protection of their servant, July, a vehicle, a symbol of wealth and power and mobility, referred to repeatedly in the story as the ‘yellow bakkie’, so that it had felt to me that night, as she’d driven us back through the dark Johannesburg streets, as if I were riding through the novel itself!

Of all Gordimer’s short stories, surely one of the most poignant for me, for reasons I will explain, is her story “The Ultimate Safari”. Set largely in Kruger National Park, where we spent a few nights upon her recommendation, a wildlife reserve of more than 7,500 square miles in the northeastern part of the country that, by the time we’d arrived in South Africa, had become a treacherous no-man’s land between the Republic of South Africa and the neighboring country of Mozambique, then shattered by a violent civil war that had set tens of thousands of people on the move, each of them desperate to escape the fighting between the South African-sponsored Rhodesian rebel group RENAMO and the Marxist government forces known by the acronym FRELIMO. Gordimer herself secretly sheltered some of these refuges in her own home.
Of course the bitter irony of this, this situation, an irony deftly exploited by Gordimer in this story, is that what this meant for these many desperate Mozambicans was that, in order to escape the country with their lives, they had to cross the vast Kruger Park on foot, a park designed and rigorously maintained by white people so that white people could enjoy the African wildlife—the dense and dangerously congested population of hippos and lions and elephants, of antelopes, jackals, and zebras, of  giraffes, wildebeests, hyenas, and snakes—as it once must have been. As with virtually everything she wrote, it is a deeply humane tale, a story both simply and beautifully told.

My admiration for the works of Nadine Gordimer quickly lead me to seek out the work of other South African writers. I read Alex La Guma, Alan Paton, Bessie Head, Miriam Tlali, Peter Abrahams, J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Dennis Brutus, Olive Shreiner, Zakes Mda, Richard Rive, Elsa Joubert, Breyton Breytenbach, Es’kia Mphahlele, Laurens van der Post, Rian Malan, Zoe Wicomb, and Damon Galgut. While in Johannesburg my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Athol Fugard’s play My Children! My Africa! at the famous and revolutionary Market Theatre, a production directed by none other than the playwright himself. This reading lead me to cast my net even more widely in the years to come, reading the literature of writers throughout the African continent. Here, for your consideration, is a list of some of the African authors I read (so many of them made available to the west by the remarkable Heinemann Press): Naguib Mahfouz, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Sonallah Ibrahim, Amy Djoleto, T. Obinkaram Echew, Narrudin Farah, Mariama Bâ, Ousmane Sembène, Amos Tutuola, Laila Lalami, Ayi Kwei Armah, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Alifa Rifaat, Tsitsi Dnagarembga, Albert Memmi, Yusuf Idris, Tahar Ben Jalloun, Mohamed Choukri, Mongo Beti, Camera Laye, Mia Couto, Assia Djebar, Tayeb Salih, Mongane Wally Serote, Leópold Sédar Senghor, Ali Ghalem, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Abdul Razak Gurnah, and Ben Okri—yes, why not start with Ben Okri’s brilliant novel The Famished Road—the perfect means by which to find your way in.

Here, finally, is Gordimer herself reading her story “The Ultimate Safari” at the 2007 PEN World Voices Festival:

Peter Adam Nash

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