The Conversationist by Nadine Gordimer

Review by Nagihan Haliloğlu

In his ‘On Poetry’ Glyn Maxwell informs us that when asked what their favourite landscape is, ‘the children of today, from anywhere on earth’ choose the picture of a savannah, ‘choose it over all other’. Whatever these children are looking at, they are not looking at the swampy vlei on the cover of the Bloomsbury edition of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conversationist. We are not in the savannah that – judging by these children- our ancestral memory seems to be drawing us to. Gordimer’s setting is described as being continuously ravaged by the elements and humans alike- fires, floods and mining. According to Maxwell’s psychologists, one of the reasons the savannah seems more attractive to the human race is that it affords open space and prepares one mentally for the hunt. But even the pleasure of the possible chase is chastened in Gordimer’s account of the land, with the conservationist impulse of Mehring, the anti-hero, the conversationist of the title.

After a three hundred page narrative of shifting tenses and focalizers, in which we are shown, with tired metaphors, time and again, that the farm house owning white Mehring is out of tune with the rhythms of the land, while the black people that work for him will be there long after he’s gone, (with the refrain ‘No one will remember where you are buried’, said once by his British leftist lover, and remembered many more times), there is a metafictional moment in which Gordimer lets us in on the mystery of what has been going on in the passages in which it is not clear whether conversations of the conversationist have actually happened, or whether they are projections in Mehring’s mind:” It may sound crazy- No, put it another way. A funny thing- You don’t have to be a believer in a lot of superstition and nonsense- there’s a difference between thinking to oneself and thinking as a form of conversation, even if there are no answers.”

One of these thinking-as-conversation passages is a phone call that may or may not have happened with his ex-wife: ‘– It’s not Terry who wants to speak to you. I do. – That’s also not impossible at this juncture’, a conversation whose reality is further undermined with ‘It would be crazy to suppose the call might even have been you, but not entirely inconceivable. The sort of thing you would do’. Gordimer believes that this is all within the purview of stream of consciousness, which she conveys with a liberal helping of em dashes. From the very beginning Gordimer tests the age-old belief that dashes reflect fragmented consciousness and view of the world, however, the effectiveness of this stylistic boon is severely tested with excessive usage.

Once one is able to get over the hurdles of (late-)style, Gordimer’s tale is one that nicely reconstructs race and gender politics in South Africa in the apartheid era. Through conversations, Gordimer gives expositions of the various political positions held by the whites, the Boers (who are shown to make a distinctly separate category) and the blacks. The Boer-Anglosaxon divide provides the background for the last confrontation of the novel, in which Mehring feels he has been set up by a Boer girl to be caught in flagrante by the Boer vice squad -another subplot the narrative does not fully unravel.

However the scene does suggest that the interesting foil for Mehring’s self-absorbed white industrialist is the village Boers and not the blacks who, as we are ‘subtly’ told time and again, will inherit everything one day. Mehring is at once repelled and attracted by his Boer neigbours’ life style, described very well in one early scene. He is patronizingly touched when de Beer talks about ‘you people’ assuming that he must have a family with him at the farm house for ‘they cannot conceive of a man without a family of some sort’. When they come to visit him Mehring muses about the children and the womenfolk: ‘She’s a beautiful child as their children often are- where do they get them from?- and she’ll grow up- what do they do to them?- the same sort of vacant turnip as the mother.’ And ‘the elder girl, motherly towards smaller ones as only black or Afrikaans children are’ and without further exposition Gordimer is able to relay the racially inflected class-consciousness of the South African elite.

At other times the narrative exposes us to various discourses without making quite clear where they come from, events and their causes are also more suggested than told. Paragraphs go on for a bit before we know whose perspective we are getting, and the referents of the various ‘he’s are discovered several pages later. One thing this does is to add discursively to the unstable and unsafe physical environment that Gordimer has been depicting from the start. Despite the adulterating effect of the supposedly African local narratives that start off each chapter as some guiding narrative into the plot, the veld and vlei come off as rather difficult and unwelcoming places that hide unwelcome truths. While on the narrative level the exercise of layering the uncanny might have gone too far, some of the palimpsests Gordimer constructs are fundamental elements of the crafty uneasiness conveyed by the novel.

When one of the farm hands is attacked in the night in a pasture, rumour grows quickly that there is ‘something down there’, a spirit. The text has no proof of the existence of the spirit, but it has told the reader several pages earlier that there is indeed a dead body abandoned there somewhere. In a way, by providing only a few moments of lucidity and fewer clear shots of evidence of crime, Gordimer tries to work through suggestion rather than telling, leaving it to our imagination the depths and palimpsests of crimes and violations that the characters and the country she depicts have to contend with.

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