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'Present': For Nadine Gordimer, Politics Hit Home

Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Photo courtesy of the author
Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer's trademark characters live for politics, the Struggle. You get the feeling they would be sick to their collective stomachs if they ever even tried to bite into a gourmet cupcake.

And yet, the dilemma of Gordimer's latest novel, No Time Like the Present, is this: that with the end of apartheid and the creation of something like the promised "better life for all" in South Africa, also come the well-deserved rewards of retreating into the private realm, pursuing personal ambition, and even succumbing to the occasional frivolity. Gordimer's characters here live in what they keep referring to as "the Aftermath," which turns out, for them, to be a much more morally ambiguous place than the land of apartheid.

The complex and conflicted main characters in No Time Like the Present are an interracial married couple named Steven Reed and Jabu Gumede. They met as combatants in the fight against apartheid: Steven, who is white, used his professional skills as an industrial chemist to concoct explosives for sabotage operations; Jabulile, the daughter of a Zulu Methodist minister, spent hard time in prison for her activism. When Steve and Jabu first fell in love, their relationship was illegal; now, they're married, and the personal life they fought to enjoy threatens to swallow them up.

The novel follows them over the course of about 20 years as they become parents and achieve professional careers. Steve becomes a university professor, Jabu a lawyer. Along the way, they deliberate between themselves and with a ragtag community of former comrades about the ethics of taking a vacation, sending their kids to private school, and buying a nice house in the suburbs when so many of their fellow citizens still seek shelter "under tin and cardboard."

No Time Like the Present is not so much a novel about "selling out" as it is about sanely navigating around the pitfalls of normalcy; about remaining committed without fossilizing into a zealot. And, as this novel, underscores, there's still plenty of reform needed in South Africa before anyone can fully relax into self-righteousness. Gordimer weaves in topical commentary here about the ongoing AIDS epidemic, the refugee problem and the country's sky-high crime rate. A horrific home invasion all but shoves Steve and Jabu into the decision to immigrate with their kids to Australia.

Like Steve and Jabu and their friends, Gordimer herself refuses to kick back in the La-Z-Boy and let up on the intensity of her social vision and language. So many quick passages in No Time Like the Present convey the jolt of authenticity. Thinking, for instance, about his disappointment in politics, Steve contents himself with the thought that at least his teaching is going well. But Gordimer slyly prods us readers away from sharing Steve's complacency. She writes: "What's called in psychological jargon job satisfaction's a distraction from political disillusion."

Most novels these days don't look further than their front yards for their subject matter, or sometimes just the bottom of the protagonist's shot glass; Gordimer, however, like her great Eastern European contemporary Milan Kundera, sees history, power and a gnawing desire for something secular, yet entwined in every mundane gesture. The personal remains political even when the great political fight has been won.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.