Apartheid of the heart

The Pickup

Nadine Gordimer <em>Bloomsbury, 268pp, £16.99</em>

ISDN 0747554277

Nadine Gordimer prides herself on crossing bridges before she comes to them. As good as she is at recording life in contemporary South Africa, she is even better at illuminating the unresolved conflicts that could blight its future. Her boldest and most pessimistic prediction was in July's People, published in the mid-1980s, when the kings of apartheid still looked invincible to everyone but her. The novel is set in a South Africa just emerging from a bloody revolution, where it is no longer safe to be white in the cities, and so a former manservant, July, decides to rescue the decent family for which he once worked. He helps them set up house in his homeland, but the transplant doesn't work; lacking is what their colonising ancestors would have called backbone. They have no faith in the ideology that made them. They don't have the faintest idea what they really believe in. Faced with hardships that their forefathers would have met with fortitude, they crumple.

The South Africa in Gordimer's new novel bears little resemblance to the one she predicted 17 years ago. But the ghosts of July's people are everywhere, haunted by that missing something they can't quite name. This time round, it's a rich white girl named Julie who finds enough courage to go in search of it. The daughter of a well-known business leader, she detests the suburbs of her childhood, spurning many, if not all, its privileges. She now lives in an "outhouse renovated as a cottage", which she sees as a radical departure, but which the archly intrusive Gordimer does not.

Julie is on her way to a trendy cafe the day the battery of her ostentatiously second-hand car goes flat, causing a traffic jam. The mechanic who eventually comes to the rescue is an Arab called Abdu. He tells her she should buy a new car and offers to help her find one. As the search proceeds, he tells her that he has a degree in economics in his unnamed (but decidedly Yemen-like) country of origin. He is working in South Africa illegally, hence the manual labour.

Before long, they are lovers. But then Abdu receives a deportation order and, refusing to go to her well-connected family for help, Julie insists on accompanying him back to his family in the village of his birth. Abdu is as ashamed of his origins as she is of hers. He is not going to be happy until he is established in the west, with enough money left over to rescue his mother. Largely out of respect for his mother and her feelings, he decides he must marry Julie before leaving; he cannot shame her by returning with a "common whore". As for Julie, she has no idea how constrained her life will be as a new wife in a Muslim family in the middle of a desert.

From the moment of their arrival, Abdu is hunting for the nearest exit. If he is not standing in a queue in the Australian embassy, he is applying for entry to Canada or the United States. While his back is turned, Julie falls in love again - with the world her husband is so keen to leave behind.

A star-crossed affair, then. Every "t" is crossed, too. The neatness of the storyline becomes clear only at the very end. As in all Gordimer's best books, there are many other pleasures along the way. In spite of the abundant atmospheric detail, the story moves at a cracking pace. From time to time, the illusion of seamlessness falters. You feel as if you are sitting in a darkened theatre, watching Gordimer rush through a fascinating slide show. There are moments when you wish she'd step back and let you draw your own conclusions about characters and their motives. But, in the end, all that matters is the after-image, the vision of two lost souls who meet not to form a platonic whole, but to walk through each other: she to embrace the third world with her eyes closed, and he to embrace the first. The prognosis for July's people is not good.

Maureen Freely is a writer and critic

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot