Jump and Other Stories, by Nadine Gordimer. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux: 257 pages; $20.00.
"We Started to Go Away, Again": A Review of "Jump and Other Stories"
by Wendy Smith
A friend once told me about a Belgian woman who went on a trip to Africa. While there, she was bitten by some bug or other. An itchy bump appeared on her arm, but she thought nothing of it. Sometime after she arrived home, however, the bite began to itch intensely. The woman scratched compulsively, examining her wound. Hundreds of tiny gnats were creeping from it. The woman had been bitten in Africa and had brought back--not ivory, not fabric, not bones or rocks--but this contagious souvenir. I thought of this story when I read Nobel prize winner Nadine Gordimer's "Jump and Other Stories" and got bit hard by South Africa.
In "What Were You Dreaming?" a "grey-haired woman" and a male visitor from England pick up a hitchhiker. The Englishman has questions, theories, a need to understand a new racial system. The woman explains some of the subtleties of race relations to him. She silently concludes, "Somewhere in the lie of his inflamed hand and arm that on their travels have been plunged in the sun as if in boiling water, there is the place through which the worm he needs to be infected with can find a way into him, so that he may host it and become its survivor, himself surviving through being fed on. Become like her. Complicity is the only understanding." This passage lays open Gordimer's own vision of the role of the artist in South Africa: to unveil her country, to immerse us in it until we are so much a part of it that we understand it. Only then, can we challenge it. Like the grey-haired woman in "What Were You Dreaming?," she wants us to be profoundly affected by the life we see.
Gordimer says, in her essay "The Essential Gesture" (1984) that the writer's "essential gesture as a social being is to take risks they themselves do not know if they would." We ride along; Gordimer drives us through territory, and picks up hitchhikers that her readers might not approach themselves, perhaps like the jogger in "Keeping Fit" who reminds himself, "Don't take any chances keep away from the main road." Since this is a common attitude among most people, it is no wonder, then, that her work has been criticized and banned in South Africa. Who in power there wants to look at, much less feel complicit in oppression, death, starvation? Gordimer, the third South African, and the first white from her country to win a Nobel prize, has been ticking off her white-ruled government for decades. As a result of this kind of denial, three of her novels have been banned, her telephone has been tapped, and she has been followed about by security police.
When the Royal Swedish Academy announced Gordimer's prize, it said, "Gordimer writes with intense immediacy about the extremely complicated personal and social relationships in her environment." It also said that she is politically active in her country (she is vice president of PEN International and executive member of the Congress of South African Writers and of the Anti-Censorship Action Group formed in response to censorship in South Africa, as well as a member of the ANC) but that her writings, instead of being prescriptive or propagandizing give "profound insights into the historical process and help to shape this process."
After pointing out the scenery, not offering commentary, but carefully explaining, Gordimer then somehow looks us in the eye as if waiting for our reaction. Here are the insights awaiting the process.
What we see is subtle movement of frightened animals in the bush. Every story portrays people leaving, departing from old homes, old marriages, old thought patterns; in the untenable world of South Africa, "leaving" could be the word of the decade. South Africa searches for a tentative new, grown out of the molding repression. Gordimer shows us people shuffling for a place in this shifting, upset society. In "My Father Leaves Home," an impoverished Eastern European immigrant finds the old oppression contorted in the new world: he finds power in his whiteness alone. In "The Ultimate Safari," a young girl leaves her village with a small group of displaced others and travels to a refugee camp through a game reserve, a "kind of whole country of animals . . . where white people come to stay and look at the animals." She remarks, "the animals ate, ate all the time. . . and there was nothing for us."
From this simple search for a bare existence, to a story about life after the revolution, to one about the feudal fortresses of privilege, Gordimer's brilliantly autumn-clear book of revelations is beautiful, riveting, and wounding.