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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 139-158

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Surviving Murder: Oscillation and Triangulation in Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun

Stephen Clingman

II. Authorial Projects

"He, she--twitch of a smile, he got himself up with languor directed at her and went to lift the nearest receiver. Who, she half-heard him say, half-listening to the commentary following the images, Who."

--Nadine Gordimer, The House Gun

These, the opening two sentences of the third paragraph of Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun (1998), introduce a sequence which appears to be, in narrative terms, fairly accessible. The setting, though it begins to stage a moment of shock and incomprehension, is clear. Claudia and Harald Lindgard, secure in their middle-class professions (she as doctor, he as well-placed business executive) as well as secured for physical safety's sake within the confines of their small but comfortable townhouse in Johannesburg, are faced with a sudden and unexpected entry. The caller at the door, whom Harald has risen to question through the intercom before admitting, turns out to be Julian, a friend of their son Duncan, who has arrived at their home to tell them that someone has been shot and that Duncan has been arrested for the killing. The couple has been interrupted while watching evening news of disasters elsewhere (the television images Claudia is still half-following in her mind), to hear an [End Page 139] account of a sudden and intimate disaster close at hand. The remainder of the novel is an investigation of what the fact of this murder means in the lives of those who surround it, not least in the lives of Harald and Claudia, who must come to terms with it. The immediate and disturbing effect is one of dislocation. The couple, perfectly ensconced in their relationship and respective identities, find themselves occupying a different place within their place, knowing suddenly and without preparation some of the realities that, for instance, have attended the lives of black South Africans. They experience a loss of authority; a certain helplessness in the face of fate; a struggle between speechlessness and speech as they confront a different picture of their lives and legacy; and dependence on the help and power of others. Most directly they depend on Hamilton Motsamai, the lawyer they hire to represent Duncan, who, having risen from the world of impoverishment and exile, is now the figure of wealth and authority whose presence and voice they must come to trust.

On one level it appears to be a reversal, but reversal is not simply what this novel is about. In many ways, on the contrary, it is an attempt to see beyond reversal, and how and why this occurs is of some larger significance. The House Gun is not a novel that tackles its postapartheid setting directly, in the sense that one might consider it a social or political work. Indeed, in focusing on a murder mystery, it may seem to have turned away from the characteristic issues that have preoccupied Gordimer in her previous fiction--the presentiments of historical revolution in The Conservationist, the response to the Soweto Revolt of Burger's Daughter, the overt setting of the politically apocalyptic moment of July's People, the explorations of transition in My Son's Story. Instead, The House Gun is much quieter, more intimate, more introspective, and it might appear that Gordimer has at last been freed from the constraints of writing within and against the context of apartheid to explore a wholly different genre. The fact that the book is on one level a murder mystery, even a thriller of sorts, may account for its wider appeal among Gordimer's novels. But in its very intimacy, its turning away, it may also be turning toward something. What that something might be, how it is constituted, will be the task of this article to address.

For a preliminary indication, it is worth noticing again those two sentences and asking certain questions that at first might seem insubstantial. In what style, or...


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