Having read and loved A World of Strangers, one of Gordimer’s first novels, last year I decided to cue for a couple of hours and go to a theatre to listen to her presenting her new collection of short stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. She is a very lively and witty old lady who genuinly loves Italy (she said that it resembles Africa because we live much in the streets, which I think is a compliment). In spite of that, I didn’t enjoy Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black as much as A World of Strangers, which is quite an old book, having been first published in 1958. Perhaps it’s because post-apartheid South Africa is difficult to tell in stories (and in fact only one story was, partly, about “the black issue”), but I was a bit disappointed with it. Anyway, I thought that it would be great to read one of her old novels, in order to know more about South Africa during the apartheid, which is something that Nadine Gordimer can describe very well.
In July’s People, Nadine Gordimer tells us of an uncommon family in 1980s’ South Africa: rich and liberal, the Smales are not racist, even though they enjoy the luxuries they have. For them it was normal to have black servants living in the house and to allow them to go back to their villages once every few years. They never treated July badly and insisted that he didn’t use the word “master” with them. When they are forced to leave their well-furnished seven-room house to leave inside a hut made with mud, they have difficulties to adjust to the new life. When July says that, back there, with their wine glasses and the clothes in the cupboards, they looked different, he underlines that the main difference between them is not he colour of the skin but the money, and therefore the lifestyle they are used to. In the village they are forced to live like everybody else, their privileges being erased by the loss of their house and their money. When July takes the key of the yellow bakkie, the Smales’ car, the last privilege is gone: he takes the power from them and becomes their “master”. It is unclear if July did it on purpose or not, since he is quite an ambigous character. Another symbol of Bam’s power is his gun, which gets stolen and changes the relations of power and the ways of communication between the Smales and the black people of the village. This underlines how much the question of who has the power in South Africa was related to the possession of tools, such as weapons, technology or a better education.
If the Smales in their big house could convince themselves that they were not racist, in the village it is somehow different and their prejudice feelings come out every now and then (for example when Bam asks Maureen if she couldn’t have asked a black woman to kill the kittens, as if a black person is more suited for the job). Frustrated by the fact that they are helpless and restricted to a village where they don’t know anybody, they become nervous and begin to wonder if this is how black people have always felt about South Africa, their own country. Even though Maureen is supposed to have a better relationship with July than her husband Bam, she is the one who is more stressed by the change of habits: she cannot adjust to the life in the village, whereas Bam tries to become part of the community. As a consequence, Maureen’s relationship with July is broken: there are awkward silences and misunderstandings between them. The ending is ambiguous: a helicopter is heard and Maureen runs towards it, even though she doesn’t now if it brings saviours or murderers. The good thing about July’s People is that the relationship between black people and their white upper-class masters is not stereotyped. The characters don’t have clear-cut opinions on the racial issues of South Africa: you have to understand their opinions on apartheid and on the condition of black people through small clues in the novel. In A World of Strangers, on the contrary, the characters are quite strongly pro or agaisnt apartheid, maybe too much. In spite of this flaw I liked that book best, maybe because the relationships between the characters were easier to understand. With July’s People you are never completely sure that you have understood everything: for example, is it only my imagination or were there some sexual undertones in July and Maureen’s conversations?