Sunday, April 17, 2011

399. July's People - Nadine Gordimer

History: Published in 1991 Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer wrote this book before the end of apartheid as her prediction of how it would end. The book was notably banned in South Africa after its publication
Plot: The novel is set during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans have violently overturned the system of apartheid. The story follows the Smales, a liberal White South African family who were forced to flee Johannesburg to the native village of their black servant, July.
The novel opens the morning after an exhausting three-day trip through bush country to reach the village. July brings tea for Maureen and Bamford Smale and breakfast for their children, Victor, Gina, and Royce. After experiencing disorientation from the trip, Maureen asks her husband about their vehicle, a small truck called a bakkie. He tells her that July has hidden it.
The Smales find themselves dependent on July, and July's family questions their presence in the village. He explains their situation, telling his mother and wife, Martha, about the violence in the country. They cannot, however, fully believe his account given their past experience with white dominance.
To do something other than listen constantly for news on his radio, Bam Smale builds a water tank for the village. Maureen tries to read a novel, since July will not let her work, but discovers that no fiction can compete with her current situation. She then recalls her girlhood days and remembers walking home from school with her family's black servant, Lydia, who carried Maureen's school case on her head. One day, a photographer took their picture. Years later, Maureen saw the picture in a Life photograph book and for the first time questioned why Lydia was carrying her books.
One night, after Bam unsuccessfully tries socializing with the villagers, Bam and Maureen are startled by July's departure as a passenger in the bakkie. Anxious over losing the vehicle, they argue, blaming each other for their situation. Later, while standing nude in the rain, Maureen sees the bakkie return. She falls asleep that night without telling Bam about the vehicle.
When July comes to their hut the next day, Bam greets him with the inappropriate authority of their former relationship. Apparently ignoring Bam's tone, July tells them he went to the shops for supplies. Though they could, they do not ask him for the keys to the bakkie. July begins to learn how to drive. When they ask him what he will do if caught driving the vehicle, he says he will say he owns it.
Later, Maureen asks Victor to retrieve July (here she mentions that she is menstruating). She returns the bakkie's keys to July. Knowing that she does not want him to keep the keys, he makes her recall his former status as her "boy" when he kept the keys to her house. He also recalls the distrust he sensed from her at the time. Stung by his words, Maureen tries to defend her treatment of him and says their former relationship has ended, that he is no longer a servant. He then shocks her by asking if she is going to pay him this month. He offers the car keys back to her, saying he worked for her for fifteen years because his family needed him to. She then retaliates by mentioning Ellen, his mistress in Johannesburg. Though feeling a hollow victory, Maureen knows July will never forgive her this transgression. He keeps the car keys.
Bam kills two baby warthogs with his small shotgun. Before the hunt, he offers to let July's friend, Daniel, shoot the gun sometime. As he kills the warthogs he realizes just how different his life was and how spoiled they were (he went from shooting birds to warthogs and didn't like the difference in blood and destruction). Bam gives the larger wart-hog to the villagers and keeps the smaller (and more tender) one. Everyone joyfully feasts on the meat, an intoxicating delicacy, and Bam and Maureen make love for the first time since their journey. He wakes up in a daze and thinks the pig's blood is on his penis, then realizes it was his wife's.
The scene shifts to July and his family eating the meat and talking about the Smales. July discounts Martha's worries that the white family will bring trouble. Martha recalls the times without July when he, like most men with families, worked in the city. Like the seasons, the long absences of their husbands have become an expected part of black women's lives.
Gina and her friend, Nyiko, play with newborn kittens, and Maureen scolds them. Later, after they listen for news on the radio, Bam asks Maureen if she found a home for the kittens. She reveals that she has drowned them in a bucket of water.
Maureen tries working with the women in the fields, digging up leaves and roots. Afterward, she goes to see July, who is working on the bakkie. July does not want to hear about the killing on the news and hopes everything "will come back all right." Maureen asks, dumbfounded, if he really wants a return to the ways things were. July asks if hunger compels her to search for spinach with the women; she replies that she goes to pass the time. As always, she feels that the workplace language they speak hinders their ability to communicate.
When July says she should not work with the women, she asks if he fears she will tell his wife about Ellen. He angrily asserts that she can only tell Martha that he has always been a good servant. Maureen, frightened, realizes that the dignity she thought she had always conferred upon him was actually humiliating to him. He informs her that he and the Smales have been summoned to the chief's village. Though July has authority in his village, they still must ask the chief's permission to stay. Maureen struggles with her new subservience to July.
The Smales visit the chief the next morning, afraid that the chief will force them out. The chief asks them why they have come to his nation and asks about events in Johannesburg. He cannot believe that the white government is powerless and that whites are running from Blacks. He says that the black revolutionaries are not from his nation and that the Whites, who would never let him own a gun, will give him guns to aid in the struggle against the black attackers. He tells Bam to bring his gun and teach him how to shoot it.
Outraged by this suggestion, Bam asks if the chief really intends to kill other blacks, saying that the entire black nation is the chief's nation. After further discussion, the chief allows them to stay with Mwawate (July) and says that he will visit them to learn how to shoot Bam's gun.
On the return trip, July explains that the chief talks instead of acts. Furthermore, the chief, who never fought the whites, is too poor and defenseless to fight other blacks. Upon their return to their hut, Maureen and Bam speak in the phrases they had used in their former life, and these phrases cannot adequately describe their current predicament. Bam begins criticizing July's new confidence and his criticisms of the chief. Maureen says that July was talking about himself, that he will not fight for anyone and is risking his life by having the family there. Maureen suggests that they leave, making Bam confront what they both know: they have nowhere to go and no means by which to get there.
With the women, Maureen clumsily cuts grass for the huts. After the cutting, July criticizes Martha for placing the grass bundles in front of the Bam and Maureen's house, where their children will ruin it. They discuss July's past and his times in the city over the last fifteen years. Rejecting July's contention that his family will move to the city once the fighting ends, Martha suggests that he stay in the village. According to Daniel, they will no longer face white restrictions, and, with his city experience, July can run his own shop.
A man brings a battery-operated amplifier to the village and provides them with a night's entertainment, during which many villagers drink heavily. The Smales do not partake in the drinking but return to their hut, where they find their gun missing.
With no police to help him, Bam is impotent in the face of the theft. Maureen feels humiliated for Bam. She leaves to find July, who is by the bakkie. They realize that only Daniel was absent from the party, and Maureen says July must get the gun from him. Daniel, however, has left. After July asserts that the Smales always make trouble for him, Maureen accuses July of stealing small items from her in Johannesburg. Angered, he speaks to her in his own language, and "She understood although she knew no word. Understood everything: what he had had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him. But for himself — to be intelligent, honest, dignified for her was nothing; his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others," his own people. July then informs her that Daniel has joined the revolution. She tells July that he abandoned Ellen and only wants the bakkie so he can feel important, but that, too, will become useless when his gas money runs out.
After Gina goes to play with Nyiko and Bam goes with Victor and Royce to fish, a helicopter with unidentifiable markings flies over the village. Maureen fervently chases the helicopter, and the novel ends with her still running toward it and its unknown occupants, who could be either "saviours or murderers."
Review: The key theme of the novel hangs around perception and mis-understanding of people’s behaviour and their motives . Maureen as July’s former employer has always thought she and her husband were open-minded but as the book continues we see her liberalism put to the test. She always trusted July as a servant, confident that he was always honest with money and their belongings and initially feels grateful to him for rescuing them. However while at July’s house, she discovers objects that used to belong to the Smales. While these are of low value – for example a pair of scissors), an underlying suspicion begins to creep through and she begins to question July’s motives. Is Maureen right to worry about July’s reasons for bringing the family there or is she just being paranoid? Is she as liberal as she thinks or were her values just a facade? As a reader we are brought on the journey really experiencing the situation and relationships.
Opening Line: “You like to have some cup of tea?”
Closing Line: “She runs.”
Quotes: “- And soap? – She was cherishing a big cake of toilet soap, carefully drying it after each use… Soap he had remembered to take from her store-cupboard? His clean clothes smelled of Lifebuoy she bought for them – the servants. He didn’t say; perhaps merely not to boasts his foresight. She was going to ask- and quite saw that she could not.”
Rating: Okay

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