Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Nadine Gordimer, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Pickup’ by Nadine Gordimer


Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Publishing; 288 pages; 2002.

The prospect of reading Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer used to make me tremble in my boots. But earlier this year I read July’s People and found her style and her subject matter refreshing. I was keen to try more of her work, and when Kinga recently mentioned The Pickup in her Triple Choice Tuesday selection I decided to give this one a whirl.

The dictionary defines “pickup” as: “an instance of approaching someone and engaging in romantic flirtation and courting with the intent to pursue romance, a date, or a sexual encounter”.

In this novel, which begins in South Africa, it’s not really clear who’s picking up who, when Julie, a white woman from a privileged background, starts going out with Abdu, the mechanic who fixes her car. The relationship seems destined to be short-lived because Abdu, who is from an unnamed Middle Eastern country, is an illegal immigrant. But Julie, a PR professional, couldn’t care less about the stigma attached to this new relationship, because she’s determined to carve her own way in life, free from her overbearing father’s money, his expectations and his much younger second wife.

The authorities eventually catch up with Abdu. As his deportation looms, Julie makes a surprising decision: she will marry him and move to his home country that he hates so much.

The bulk of the book is therefore set in an unspecified Islamic country, where poverty is the natural order and the family is the glue which holds society together. To Julie, an only child who’s survived her parent’s divorce, living with a rather large and extended family is not the claustrophobic experience one might expect. She treats this new life as an adventure and adapts surprisingly well. But all the while Abdu is applying for legal asylum in other countries in the hope to provide them both with a better life.

As one by one, his applications are turned down, Abdu’s resentment, frustration and anger builds. Will their relationship stand the strain? Will Julie abandon him and run back to South Africa? Or will Abdu come to terms with the good things in his life rather than searching for something he cannot have?

The Pickup is one of those books that is rich with meaning and motifs, exploring as it does the notion of race, culture and identity. It also examines the divide between East and West, rich and poor, the freedom of movement versus immigration controls. But in Gordimer’s hands these universal issues are handled in an understated way. She merely plants the seeds and it’s you, the reader, who joins the dots and mulls things over and wonders how on earth she has said so much using so few words!

But this is a demanding read, one that requires plenty of space and time to digest properly. Gordimer’s sentence structure is diametrically opposed to the normal rigours of Plain English and takes some time to get used to. This is not a criticism. Indeed, I like that a writer can use the language in such a way that it forces me to change my reading habits: instead of racing through the text, eager to find out what happens next, I took my time and lingered over each sentence, absorbing each one slowly but surely, before moving onto the next one.

There’s no doubt that The Pickup is hard work, but I so enjoyed the story and the issues it throws up it has only made me more determined to explore more of Gordimer’s extensive back catalogue. Suggestions for other titles to try are more than welcome.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Nadine Gordimer, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘July’s People’ by Nadine Gordimer


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.