A standard element in the critical iconography of white South African fiction has been the establishment of a binary opposition between its two dominant writers. According to this model, now received and perpetuated all-too-easily, Nadine Gordimer is the traditional, realist writer, concerned primarily with social issues, while J. M. Coetzee is the postmodern writer of metafiction whose politics—if it exists—is that of the textual. The opposition (as such things do) often contains an implicit hierarchy: in our post-everything world (now postapartheid too) the politics of the text appears more meaningful than the other kind. [End Page 906]
It is in the nature of such oppositions to be misleading. Any serious consideration of Gordimer’s work—in novels such as The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter, or July’s People—could hardly rest on simple notions of “realism” or “tradition.” But Dominic Head, in his critical study, Nadine Gordimer, goes further: his attempt is to show that an attention to textuality and textual politics, as we now understand it within the canons and criteria of postmodernism, has been a cumulatively strengthening presence in Gordimer’s writing throughout.
It is a valuable and intelligent proposition, especially in the wake of the apartheid era. In such a perspective, it would seem, the writerly dimensions of Gordimer’s work, so long sublimated by critics to political needs, can be set free from their confines and seen in their own true liberated light. In his opening chapter, Head suggests how this is to be achieved: his focus will be on Gordimer’s complex cultural relation both to her South African setting and the traditions of the European novels; on the micropolitics of the body; and on the politics of space—both social and textual—rather than on a history based on time. To that extent, his perspective chimes with much current work in the postcolonial field, which in the absence of any evident sense of the future has been quite willing to occupy itself with spatial relations.
How, in effect, does it work out? Unevenly, has to be the answer. On one level there are minor quibbles, errors of fact (the numbers of accused in the Treason and Rivonia Trials, why the Umkhonto weSizwe bombs of 16 December 1961 were not “terrorist”) as well as fiction (unless I am much mistaken, Cathy Burger in Burger’s Daughter is not “coloured”). There is sometimes an unsettling propensity to summarize previous analysis in the abstract and collectively (homogenizing the discussion on liberalism in A World of Strangers) or to reinvent distant wheels (Mehring’s stream of consciousness in The Conservationist vis-à-vis modernism and Lukács).
But most of that does not bear on the central impetus of Head’s account, which has its own virtues and internal tensions. His most useful contribution is to introduce the Foucauldean concept of “heterotopia”—sites of difference and resistance—which allows us to reconceive the situation of Gordimer’s characters and of Gordimer herself in relation to a geopolitics of identity and the body. His rendition of Toby’s narrative presence in A World of Strangers will provide thought for future criticism. Head spends much time on the concept of [End Page 907] intertextuality in The Late Bourgeois World, A Guest of Honour, and The Conservationist, and, while much of this is productive, there is sometimes a strangely monofocal and reductive feel for a postmodernist. Does the notion of “contradiction” in A Guest of Honour come to Gordimer only from Fanon? Or—we might reverse the question—what in these novels is not intertextual? (The answer might be: quite a lot.) In The Conservationist, there is the hypostatization of Zulu culture in too literal a form as a political/cultural resource when at the least it is likely that many of the farmworkers are not even Zulu and clear that Gordimer’s fluent use is gestural and symbolic. Often there is a tendency to think of African culture or identity as a single, unitary thing.
This is a propensity which carries over elsewhere: in Burger’s Daughter we are told that...