No Time Like the Present
By Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
432 pages, $32
Reviewed by Robert Morris
Nadine Gordimer’s new novel No Time Like the Present will challenge most readers. The gnarled, twisted syntax never relents and often frustrates. No page turns without work; this is not a Dickens or Franzen novel: “Over the seasonal get-together drinks at house or church pool in the Suburb it’s not the comrades’ academic who turns within the holiday mood to interrupt . . .” But Gordimer has her reasons, explaining that “South African English [has] inflections which come from the way the language is used by the Babel of citizens, isiZulu, Setswana, Sepedi, isiXhosa, Afrikaans” as well as Hindi, Greek and Yiddish . Yet the difficult prose and hard work needed to wade through it does not reward the reader. Instead, it just creates a layer of indefatigable resistance to engaging with the plot that follows a married couple, Jabulile Gumede and Steven Reed as they pursue their careers.
The novel begins in post-apartheid South Africa, a time rife with conflict that many authors have exploited for content – for example, J. M. Coetzee in his novel Disgrace, which follows a disgraced university professor as he navigates his newly fallen existence through sexual, political, and racial tension as he moves back and forth across the urban/rural divide. Coetzee’s novel succeeds; Gordimer’s does not. While the same motifs and tensions arise, her novel loses the personal in the political. Characters function as vessels for political ideologies and identities (divorced from a person – as in a gay or black person). For example, Steve, like Coetzee’s character, is a white, a university professor, son of a secular Christian and Jewish mother. His wife, Jabulile, is Zulu, black, a lawyer, and the daughter of a Methodist preacher. Both fought for the Umkhonto, the armed wing of the African National Congress, to end apartheid. They consider themselves comrades in the (communist) Struggle, always capitalized. Gordimer introduces these details as summary rather than as scene; she simply informs the reader in an avalanche of identity data that occurs in the first thirty pages. Worse, the reader, whom Gordimer has already buried, than has to contend with even more identity data as Gordimer introduces peripheral characters: a brother who has reclaimed his Jewish heritage and another who is homosexual; yet, for these two peripheral characters, their Jewishness and homosexuality are what is important, and they offer nothing to the plot. Of course, every character in a novel, and in life, will have politics, ethnicity, identity but in Gordimer’s novel the characters do not feel real, or at best they feel secondary to their skin color, sexuality, religion.
With characters buried beneath language, identity markers and politics, the novel’s interpersonal conflict has no dramatic force and doesn’t propel the plot; instead, conflict between ideologies provides narrative energy, however listless (for it seems unattached to any ‘real’ person). What is personal remains unresolved, with plot lines seemingly abandoned. This causes the novel to read like a political tract: it promulgates rather narrates. And while No Time Like the Present certainly reveals some of the contemporary conflicts of South Africa, it remains blind to the idiosyncratic individuals who actually fight them.
Robert Morris is a Victoria resident and UVic student