A Very Long Engagement
No Time Like the Present
“Barack Obama is both black and white,” commented Nadine Gordimer in an interview in 2008, shortly after the American president’s election to office: “in his own blood and in his DNA, he brings the two together.” Gordimer explores this idea in her most recent novel, No Time Like the Present, which is centered around a mixed race couple—Jabu, black wife; Steve, white husband—living in post-apartheid South Africa.
She was black, he was white. That was all that mattered. All that was identity then. Simple as the black letters on this white page. It was in those two identities that they transgressed.
Though the novel is firmly set in the titular present (numerous references to political events position the novel between 2005 and 2009), consciousness of the country’s dark segregationist history haunts its protagonists. Both were active participants in the pre-1994 campaign against the apartheid regime, so we might suppose that they would relish the freedom which they fought for and within which they can openly enjoy their relationship. However, the novel is one of disillusionment, in which the corrupt politicians and class inequalities that pervade 21st-century South Africa force Jabu and Steve to realize that, with the solution of one problem, a host of others arise.
The marriage of black and white operates as a symbol around which the novel’s events revolve. The novel opens with the couple’s move to a “Suburban” (Gordimer capitalizes the word throughout) neighbourhood where they live comfortably, with a black servant, amongst their fellow, once communist, “comrades”. This introduces another of the novel’s central concerns: the class divides that are entrenched in a society built on 300 years of inequality. These politically engaged revolutionaries—Steve was involved in military resistance, Jabu was imprisoned as a dissident for many years—suddenly find themselves enjoying a middle class lifestyle while 25.5% of the population are unemployed, 12% are illiterate, 11% are HIV positive with limited access to antiretrovirals, and so on. The novel’s pages are scattered with such statistics, presenting a distinctly bleak picture of South Africa. It’s power originates in its representation of Jabu and Steve as politically conscious citizens whose post-apartheid desire for domestic comfort—a “normal” life—seems to inspire a reluctance to continue campaigning for social transformation. With the victorious overthrow of apartheid, their revolutionary energies dwindle in the face of new challenges. The conflict between the quest for social and economic equality and the revolutionary fatigue that Steve and Jabu experience is the paradox on which the novel turns.
The implications of this deadlock are related in Gordimer’s now highly distinctive writing style (this is her 15th novel in the last 60 years, during which she has also published 20 collections of short stories). Her limited use of punctuation—she employs only hyphens, commas, full stops, and the very occasional question mark—is combined with an awkward grammatical style that slips in and out of her characters’ speech and thoughts, blurring any rigid outlines in a sort of literary miscegenation. Readers at first find themselves working hard to distinguish who is speaking and when, what is thought and what is speech, and re-reading the stutteringly inserted adjectives to comprehend what is being communicated. But as the novel progresses, the struggle to make sense of the jarring narrative style gives way to acceptance. Awkwardness is transfigured into a continuous flow as immersion gently enables the reader to accept the text’s ambiguity. This ambiguity is heightened by plotlines that never come to fruition. There are episodes of pregnancy, race crimes, adultery, prospective emigration, and robbery. But although the novel is distinctly chronological—one can date each of these episodes fairly accurately if one relates them to the political goings-on that are carefully inserted into the narrative—these potential plots never culminate in the climaxes which they seem to demand. They rise into the text and wash away into the bleak syntax with which Gordimer presents 21st-century South Africa.
The political events of the novel centre largely on Jacob Zuma. On 6 December 2005 Zuma was officially accused of raping his deceased friend’s daughter, whom he knew to be HIV positive. The trial culminated with the Johannesburg High Court’s dismissal of the charges in May 2006. Despite this high-profile and controversial decision, Zuma went on to become South African president, as the leader of the African National Congress, in 2009. After becoming president he was embroiled in a long-running legal battle over allegations of racketeering and corruption that resulted in the conviction of his financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, for fraud. In keeping with the novel’s extrapolation of individual circumstances into broader social commentary, Zuma operates for Gordimer as a symbol of the problems of contemporary South Africa. Zuma’s retention of power highlights the durability of the corruption against which Gordimer has pitted herself throughout the whole of her literary career.
However, despite these interrogations of the present, Gordimer’s title comes to bear on the text by its repeated return to the past. She is keen to demonstrate a deep historical awareness, stressing that the social difficulties with which the novel is concerned are direct outgrowths of the region’s past. The complex legacy of South Africa’s history and its social problems drive Jabu and Steve, who spent much of their young lives fighting to bring down the apartheid regime, to plan to emigrate to Australia. Though Gordimer’s protagonists never refer to it in these terms, the plan is constantly described by the narrator as “the cop-out”, a device which expresses the subconscious anxieties of Steve and Jabu without giving them direct articulation. But Gordimer is faithful to the characters that she has created, and before they have left South Africa, Steve begins to question Australia’s colonial history and the inequalities that pervade its society. In attempting to leave the political and social turmoil of South Africa behind them, Steve and Jabu try to escape their political and historical consciousness. But any such attempt, Gordimer suggests, will necessarily fail—Steve and Jabu chose a life of political engagement and, despite their turn to domestic comfort and family life, this past cannot be easily discarded.
Gordimer’s interrogation of guilt, disillusionment, society, and politics through the story of a mixed-race couple living in post-apartheid South Africa results in a superb treatise that refuses to settle into any polarity of opinions. If the novel reaches any conclusion, it is that nothing is as “simple as the black letters on this white page”—everything, in fact, is grey. Gordimer’s novel remains faithful to her project of relentless political engagement, critique, and challenge, a project that has always been at the core of her literary career.
Dominic Davies is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.