Nadine Gordimer has been called South Africa’s “First Lady of Letters,” and she is perhaps that country’s most distinguished living fiction writer. The author of many volumes of collected short stories and novels, in addition to numerous lectures, essays, and other works of nonfiction, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. This international recognition of Gordimer’s work not only confirmed her reputation as an artist, but it also stressed the importance of writing about the effects of apartheid on the people of South Africa. The length of Gordimer’s career—she published her first story when she was thirteen, her first book at twenty-six—has allowed her to document the changes in South African society over the course of several generations.
Throughout her career, Gordimer has insisted that because politics affect all aspects of life, her writing always deals either directly or indirectly with political matters. Moreover, she believes that only the truth can help a good cause. More directly, she believes that her writing deals with the truth, thus she makes no attempt to espouse specific political views regarding South Africa. Taking this view, Gordimer often sees herself as isolated between the external world of politics and the internal world of the individual. Her work reflects this sense of detachment, and Gordimer has been admires by some and criticized by others for it. Likewise, some critics feel that Gordimer does not take a strong enough stand against racism, and others feel that she goes too far. The South African government, for example, has banned several of her works, and sometimes prevents others from being published in paperback, which is the only way many black South Africans could afford her novels.
Gordimer’s fiction has been the subject of much commentary in South Africa over the years. One review of A World of Strangers, Gordimer’s second novel, complains that she writes of “the wider and more dangerous pastures of the sociological novel.” A reviewer of her next novel, Occasion for Loving, which concerns an affair between a white English woman and a black South African man, insists that “the theme and incidents of the story will seem less important than those stretches of interior writing in which the author’s still, small voice is heard above the sounds of ordinary living and the common day.” It is not surprising that the most passionate analysis of Gordimer’s work and the most hostile reactions generally come from other South Africans or ex-Africans. Gordimer’s position, that of the white South African opposing apartheid—a minority within a minority—has led to strong emotions and occasional suppression.
The Atlantic Monthly has called Gordimer “one of the most gifted practitioners of the short story anywhere in English,” and it was her short stories that first led critics to consider her a major writer. Her talent for short fiction has been compared to that of the poet, particularly for her interweaving of event, meaning, and symbol in a short amount of space. Martin Trump also points out that Gordimer depicts how women as well as Africans have suffered from the inequality present in South African society. Racial inequality, since it permeates all facets of life, is always present in her stories, despite the race and social class of her characters.
“The Train from Rhodesia,” one of Gordimer’s early stories, concerns a young couple on a train stopped at a rural station. The young woman is interested in a carved lion an old black man has to sell but claims the price is too high. Her husband bargains with the vendor and obtains the carving for an unfairly low price, causing his wife to feel humiliated and isolated from him. At first, this story may not seem to deal with the racial problems specific to South Africa—after all, oppressed and impoverished people are taken advantage of the world over. But the inequality that permeates South African society is depicted in the shared humiliation of the old black man and the young white woman. Gordimer explained this relationship in an interview: the young woman “suffered from seeing her husband or lover demean himself by falling into this black-white cliche of beating down the African…. She suffered really from seeing herself demeaned through her lover.”
The woman identifies with the black carver and thus rejects, at least for the moment, the typical white world of South Africa. Gordimer achieves this emotional connection in part through symbolism. While she draws distinctions between the white world of the train and the black world of the station, she implies that the black world is more honest. The whites live in a fragile world of their own construction symbolized by the train. Before they buy the blacks’ wares, the whites require them to act “like performing animals, the better to exhibit the fantasy held towards the faces on the train.” Though the black world is filled with “mud huts,” “barefoot children,” and “a garden in which nothing grew,” it is still shown as a place of community. This is in contrast this with the passengers on the train with their “caged faces” and who are “boxed in.” They are willing to donate items to the poor children outside but only those they do not value, such as the chocolate that “wasn’t very nice.”
Such an incident illustrates the unfruitful match between the young man and woman on the train. The couple, presumably on their honeymoon, have been caught up in “the unreality of the last few weeks.” They have bought many animal carvings during their travels, and the young woman wonders how they will fit in at home. The buck, hippos, and elephants (and later, the lion), all ferocious or frightening animals, stand in opposition to the refined world she and her husband inhabit. But after seeing her husband act in such an insensitive, exploitative manner toward the old black man, she knows that nothing she has recently acquired is in harmony with her life and values. Her husband, however, confronted with the dichotomy of the white and black worlds of South African has no problem accepting it.
The emptiness she feels at this realization of the differences between them fills her with a “weariness” ‘ and “tastelessness.” The woman has felt this way before, but she has mistakenly thought”it was something to do with singleness, with being alone and belonging too much to oneself.” The incident at the train station makes her painfully aware that this “void” has been caused by her alliance with her husband, who argues with an impoverished old vendor “for fun.” Yet she does not voice these frustrations to him. Though the woman does not want to have anything to associate with this emptiness, so that “no object, word or sight.. .might recur and so recall the feeling,” it will clearly not be possible to ignore their basic incompatibility in the future. The man’s failure to understand his wife’s unspoken signals reveals their fundamental inability to communicate. Thus, he misses “the occasion for loving.”
In addition to developing the theme of sterile love through her characters’ actions towards one another, Gordimer also uses sexual imagery and symbolism. As the story begins, the train entering the station represents the potential for a healthy relationship. The train represents the man; it “[flares] out…. Creaking, jerking… gasping, the train fills the station.” The woman is the station, whose tracks “[flare] out to let it in.” But, like the doubts that have been lurking in the back of the young woman’s mind, there are hints of the impending division: the train behind the engine is a “dwindling body”; the train calls out “I’m coming” but receives “no answer.” The sexual promise of the relationship is snuffed out by the husband’s purchase of the lion. As the train leaves the station, the young woman then feels the “impotence of anger,” and the “heat of shame [mounts] through her legs.” Finally, the train casts “the station like a skin.” Once again it calls “I’m coming,” and receives no reply. Thus, through this metaphor, Gordimer indicates the young couple’s emotional estrangement.
Gordimer’s reputation as a descriptive writer rests not on her portrayal of details such as eye color or hair color but in the layering of telling details. In the 1980s, Gordimer and photographer David Goldblatt collaborated on two books in which selections from her fiction were accompanied by his pictures. Andrew Vogel Ettin finds these artists to be well matched in their interest of social and physical environments. Goldblatt does not illustrate Gordimer’s words per se but shows the backdrop against which her stories take place. Ettin draws particular attention to the final image of the couple in ‘ “The Train from Rhodesia” as an example of the “expressive power of the physical”: “Smuts blew in grittily, settled on her hands. Her back remained at exactly the same angle, turned against the young man sitting with his hands drooping between his sprawled legs, and the lion, fallen on its side in the corner.” This “caught moment” deserves its place as the pinnacle of the story. It includes many elements central to Gordimer’s fiction: the intrusion of the white world of the train in the black world of the station, the separation of man and woman, and the chance for love destroyed by the racial problems of South Africa.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Nadime Gordimer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.