Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 160 pages; 1982.
South Africa had been under apartheid rule for some 33 years when Nadine Gordimer‘s July’s People was published in 1981. The book, which imagines what would happen if black South Africans staged a violent uprising against their white minority rulers, was subsequently banned in Gordimer’s native South Africa.
The book is a masterpiece in character study, of showing the power plays between two classes of people and what happens to them when the balance shifts in an unexpected way. It focuses on Bam and Maureen Smales, enlightened white liberals, who are rescued from the ensuing violence by July, the black man who has been their faithful servant for 15 years.
July takes the couple and their three young children back to his village 600kms away, driving their yellow bakkie, a small truck of the type used by affluent white South Africans as a sporting vehicle and which Bam had bought as a treat for his 40th birthday. This vehicle later becomes an important symbol in the power struggle between July and the people he once served. Who holds the keys to it, holds the key to so much more besides.
But I digress… The Smales find themselves living in a one-roomed mud hut that once housed July’s mother. Conditions are so primitive there is no electricity, no running water and even the food on their plates must be harvested from the wild. While Maureen struggles to adjust to her new, drastically altered circumstances, Bam busies himself rigging up a water tank and shooting wild hogs to feed the village. The children readily adapt and make friends easily with their neighbours.
Plot-wise not much seems to happen, because this gently nuanced story progresses by showing how the Smales settle into their new way of life. And while it’s not told from any particular character’s point of view, it is largely through Maureen’s eyes that the reader sees things. Her paranoia feeds the reader’s paranoia, because for most of this book you expect some large drama, some diabolical violence to render the story complete. And yet there is no violence here, because the civil war has happened “off stage” before the story of the Smales’ flight to safety begins. There are just hints of what has occurred, such as this passage about one-third of the way in:
For a long time, no one had really known what was happening outside the area to which his own eyes were witnesses. Riots, arson, occupation of the headquarters of international corporations, bombs in public buildings — the censorship of newspapers, radio and television left rumour and word of mouth as the only sources of information about the chronic state of uprising all over the country. At home, after weeks of rioting out of sight in Soweto, a march on Johannesburg of (variously estimated) fifteen thousand blacks had been stopped at the edge of the business centre at the cost of a (variously estimated) number of lives, black and white.
For such a short novel, there’s a lot to discuss here and I suspect you could read it several times and still not get to the bottom of everything that happens between the characters. It’s a story about shifting loyalties, of trust, of privilege and dominance. And while it never outlines what motivates people to behave in the ways that they do, it certainly highlights that humans are so much more complicated, interesting and less predictable than the stereotypes might have us believe.
July’s People is not an easy read. For a start, Gordimer composes her sentences using an odd structure, so that you’re not sure what she’s referring to until you reach each full stop. Even the dialogue, with its lack of quotation marks and named speakers, can be confusing.
But despite these minor difficulties, the story is a hugely rewarding one, and the ending, which does seem slightly rushed, is filled with such ambiguity it’s hard not to think about it for days afterwards.