Masterly new fiction from the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature
A startling new work: ten fictions, each a revelation of our interior lives, each entering unforeseen contexts of our contemporary world. In the title story, an earthquake exposes both an ocean bed strewn with treasure among the dead and the avarice of the town's survivors. In "The Diamond Mine," a woman recalls her youthful surreptitious sexual initiation, while she and her parents chauffeured a young soldier to his wartime embarkation. The anopleles mosquito brings death to the saunas and other playgrounds of the developed world in "The Emissary." "Mission Statement" is the story of a development agency official's idealism, the ghosts of colonial history, and a love affair with a government official that ends astoundingly. "The Generation Gap" turns the "gap" upside down when a father's bid for freedom shocks his adult children. In "Homage," one of Europe's aliens visits the grave of the politician he was paid to assassinate. In "Karma," Gordimer's inventiveness knows no bounds: in five returns to the earthly life, taking on different ages and genders, a disembodied narrator testifies to unfinished business--critically, wittily--and questions the nature of existence.
As was the case with many South African writers, Gordimer's fiction benefited, ironically enough, from the stark moral contrasts created by apartheid. The nine stories in this collection show Gordimer trying to gain a fictional perspective on the new era, and there are some missteps among them as she employs heavy-handed symbolism and less-than-revelatory social observations ("They had met at a party, the customary first stage in the white middle-class ritual of mating choices"). The title story describes an earthquake that "tipped a continental shelf" and drew back the ocean over a vast expanse, so that the detritus of the past, littered over the ocean floor, has been revealed. In response, people rush down into the former ocean bed and try to pry up treasure, unaware that the ocean, in a great wave, is coming back. In another allegorical story, "Look-Alikes," homeless, unemployed laborers invade a college campus, staking out a campsite in the sports fields, and are joined, sneakily at first, then openly, by the college's sympathetic faculty. "Karma" is a series of emblematic sketches set in various periods between WWII and the present day, which include the stories of Norma, an antiapartheid activist who got caught in a corruption scandal, and Denise, a white baby adopted by a black family in apartheid days, absurdly forbidden by law from marrying her white lover. These vividly imagined characters are among the best in the book, but the story is burdened with an awkward reincarnation conceit that is meant to hold the disparate episodes together. Overall, the stories feel tentative, as though they were straight out of Gordimer's sketch book, and needed a layer of finish.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
August 30, 2004
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Excerpt from Loot by Nadine Gordimer
Once upon our time, there was an earthquake: but this one is the most powerful ever recorded since the invention of the Richter scale made it possible for us to measure apocalyptic warnings.
It tipped a continental shelf. These tremblings often cause floods; this colossus did the reverse, drew back the ocean as a vast breath taken. The most secret level of our world lay revealed: the sea-bedded-wrecked ships, facades of houses, ballroom candelabra, toilet bowl, pirate chest, TV screen, mail-coach, aircraft fuselage, cannon, marble torso, Kalashnikov, metal carapace of a tourist bus-load, baptismal font, automatic dishwasher, computer, swords sheathed in barnacles, coins turned to stone. The astounded gaze raced among these things; the population who had fled from their toppling houses to the maritime hills ran down. Where terrestrial crash and bellow had terrified them, there was naked silence. The saliva of the sea glistened upon these objects; it is given that time does not, never did, exist down here where the materiality of the past and the present as they lie has no chronological order, all is one, all is nothing-or all is possessible at once.
People rushed to take; take, take. This was-when, anytime, sometime-valuable, that might be useful, what was this, well someone will know, that must have belonged to the rich, it's mine now, if you don't grab what's over there someone else will, feet slipped and slithered on seaweed and sank in soggy sand, gasping sea-plants gaped at them, no-one remarked there were no fish, the living inhabitants of this unearth had been swept up and away with the water. The ordinary opportunity of looting shops which was routine to people during the political uprisings was no comparison. Orgiastic joy gave men, women and their children strength to heave out of the slime and sand what they did not know they wanted, quickened their staggering gait as they ranged, and this was more than profiting by happenstance, it was robbing the power of nature before which they had fled helpless. Take, take; while grabbing they were able to forget the wreck of their houses and the loss of time-bound possessions there. They had tattered the silence with their shouts to one another and under these cries like the cries of the absent seagulls they did not hear a distant approach of sound rising as a great wind does. And then the sea came back, engulfed them to add to its treasury.
That is what is known; in television coverage that really had nothing to show but the pewter skin of the depths, in radio interviews with those few infirm, timid or prudent who had not come down from the hills, and in newspaper accounts of bodies that for some reason the sea rejected, washed up down the coast somewhere.
But the writer knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination.
Now listen, there's a man who has wanted a certain object (what) all his life. He has a lot of-things-some of which his eye falls upon often, so he must be fond of, some of which he doesn't notice, deliberately, that he probably shouldn't have acquired but cannot cast off, there's an art nouveau lamp he reads by, and above his bed-head a Japanese print, a Hokusai, `The Great Wave', he doesn't really collect oriental stuff, although if it had been on the wall facing him it might have been more than part of the furnishings, it's been out of sight behind his head for years. All these-things-but not the one.
He's a retired man, long divorced, chosen an old but well-appointed villa in the maritime hills as the site from which to turn his back on the assault of the city. A woman from the village cooks and cleans and doesn't bother him with any other communication.