The Same Secret
Jean Hannah Edelstein
|Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black
Bloomsbury £14.99, pp192
One might think that the receipt of a Nobel Prize for Literature is a sign that a writer's life's work is complete, and that it is now permissible for the laureate to settle into a state of comfortable literary dotage. But 16 years after receiving her award, Nadine Gordimer demonstrates with her most recent short-story collection that her writing is as contemporary, vital and urgent as it was more than 50 years ago when she first started contributing fiction to the New Yorker
Gordimer is best known for writing about her native South Africa in raw explorations of the painful complexities of identity, race, ethnicity and class that define what it is to be South African. These preoccupations are the dominant themes of Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. While in some cases the quests for identity are transplanted to other milieux, the basic fixation that her multiple narrators have with an elusive sense of self is a familiar thread.
What is fresh, however, is the era: this is the 21st century, and the algorithms are very different from those that define Gordimer's earlier work. Many of the protagonists in the book are weighed down with an evolving sense of identity that is, in significant part, predicated on a overwhelming sense of guilt. It is mixed with the desire, particularly in the case of those who find middle age encroaching, to be excepted or absolved in a new age of political correctness.
Frederick, the protagonist of the titular story - 'of course that's not his real name, you'll soon catch on that I'm writing about myself,' he says, imbuing the narrative with an unsettling layer of fallacy - is a white South African, a biology lecturer. During his Easter holiday he opts to travel to Kimberley, in the north of the country, to try to find traces of his own distant black relatives with whom he has developed an increasing fascination in proportion to his age and semi-isolation; he ponders asking passers-by for DNA samples in order to confirm their connection. But he soon realises the essential futility of his jaunt: 'Once there were blacks, poor devils, wanting to claim white. Now there's a white, poor devil, wanting to claim black. It's the same secret.' Similarly, in 'A Beneficiary', a young woman develops a fixation on her roots, following the death of her mother and the revelation of her true parentage. It is an obsession from which she feels she will only receive release when she meets the man whom she has discovered is her biological father, but it leads to a similarly unsatisfying outcome, underlining the futility of this particular form of justification of one's existence.
And in a short preface to a trio of stories, collectively entitled 'Alternative Endings', Gordimer writes, 'The continuity of existence has to be selectively interrupted by the sense of form which is art... there is choice in the unpredictability of humans; the forms of storytelling are arbitrary. There are alternative endings. I've tried them out here, for myself.' But the conclusions of each of the three stories, depicting different aspects of the mundane and painful vagaries of love, don't feel particularly surprising at all - which is, in itself, a revelation.
Thanks to a mixture of her lofty status and inherent gifts, Gordimer can disdain the sparkling gimmicks now often employed by younger writers to make their stories appeal to literary audiences who are increasingly sceptical of the merits of short fiction. Indeed, the weakest story in this collection is one in which Gordimer nods to this trend, employing an uncharacteristic climactic reveal, turning the plot on a single comment in the last few sentences that cheapens it. She is best when she adheres to what comes more naturally. It is through her spare, exact prose and gift for describing small moments in individual lives that are at once trivial and in possession of broad resonance that Gordimer maintains her status as, quite possibly, the definitive contemporary author of English-language short fiction.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010