- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

THE PICKUP
By Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24, 270 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

A car breaks down on a busy Johannesburg street at the end of the 20th century — or is it the beginning of the new millennium? The first words of the novel which opens with this scene contain more than a hint of menace: "Clustered predators round a kill. It's a small car with a young woman inside it." Will we be shown yet another instance of the violence which has become endemic in post-apartheid South Africa? After all, this is Nadine Gordimer, who never flinched from depicting the evils of apartheid-era South Africa. But, no, it is soon apparent that something more imaginative is about to unfold here, as author addresses reader directly:
"A woman in a traffic jam among those that are everyday in the city, any city. You won't remember it, you won't know who she is. But I know from the sight of her I'll find out — as a story — what was going to happen as a result of that commonplace occurrence on the streets; where it was heading her for, and what. Her hands thrown up, open."
Open indeed, for open is what Miss Gordimer is to the not-so-brave new world she contemplates in the wake of the demise of apartheid at home and the end of the Cold War abroad. If South Africa was the focus of her art for the first half century that she practiced it, the wider world is now her oyster and it is heartening to see a writer approaching 80 who can strike out so boldly. For "The Pickup" is Miss Gordimer's best novel in a very long time, perhaps among the best she has ever written. Her virtues as a novelist — a sharp prose style and a flair for acute observation and dissection — are on display again here, as is an energy, a spiritedness of tone, which has been too long absent from her writing.
But the most welcome surprise to readers who have ploughed through the author's last five novels, starting with "July's People" and ending with "The House Gun," is the absence of that deathly combination of bleak subject and jaunty tone that has marred her fiction for the past two decades. Gone, too, are the embarrassingly jejune attempts to load her writing with referential ore in the form of nuggets taken from the esteemed writers of the past and fashionable ones of the present. In "The Pickup," there is a maturity, a mellowness, a calm sureness of style and structure that makes reading this novel a deeply satisfying and enriching experience.
Julie Summers, the protagonist, is a young woman who lives the kind of life in Johannesburg that could easily be led in London or Los Angeles or Sydney: free and easy, laid-back, unchallenging. She has exchanged the affluence in which she grew up (and which her parents still enjoy) for a bohemian existence supported by an undemanding job for an international conglomerate. Into her life, because of her car trouble, comes Abdu, a young illegal immigrant who has a university degree in economics from back home but who is working in Johannesburg as an auto mechanic. "Home" in his case is a small, unspecified Arab nation with a desert climate near larger oil-producing states — Yemen might be a good guess.
A relationship develops between Julie and Abdu, and soon they begin living together at her place. In the ordinary course of events, this may or may not have developed into something more serious than other relationships Julie has had, but Abdu suddenly finds he is about to be deported. Unable to avert this misfortune, Julie insists on going with him; he insists that they must marry if she is to return with him to his homeland and meet his family. And so the novel shifts from Miss Gordimer's familiar territory to what is terra incognita for her and Julie alike. And how beautifully she conveys the strange quality of the desert:
"No seasons of bloom and decay. Just the endless turn of night and day. Out of time: and she is gazing — not over it, taken into it, for it has no measure of space, features that mark distance from here to there. In a film of haze there is no horizon, the pallor of sand, pink-traced, lilac-luminous with its own colour of faint light, has no demarcation from land to air. Sky-haze is indistinguishable from sand-haze. All drifts together, and there is no onlooker; the desert is eternity."
But all is not natural beauty. There is culture shock aplenty, or rather, multiple clashes, not always how or when one might have expected. What is extraordinary about Miss Gordimer's rendition of this is how subtle, shaded, and multifaceted it is. Blessedly, the novel is free from the taint of cultural relativism. The author's allegiance to specific moral values — humanism, feminism, tolerance — is unmistakable, but so is her empathy: There is a total absence of the harshness and rigidity associated with the term "judgmental."
Miss Gordimer clearly has great compassion for those countless people all over the world who are being left out of the benefits of the global economy. Her portrait of Abdu, who has such a passionate desire to join the world of the haves, is profoundly sympathetic, as is her portrait of Julie, whose casual rejection of all that she has always taken for granted provides an illuminating counterpart to her husband's eager quest.
For this is, among other things, a novel about the effects of globalism, of its powerful allure, its false gods, and even its genuine benefits. Miss Gordimer is adept at shining a spotlight on its tentacles as they extend into the remotest reaches of the earth, where fax machines and computers, its lares and penates, have indeed become familiar, even "household" icons. Whether you are in Johannesburg's equivalent of Greenwich Village or a tiny village in the desert, you are still part of the global village.
The novel's conclusion offers no panaceas or even much of a resolution of Julie's and Abdu's quest to integrate themselves successfully into the new world order. There is an interesting twist at the very end, but there is also a deep sense that just as we do not know where the global economy may be taking us, so we cannot predict how Julie and Abdu will fare.
It is a measure of Miss Gordimer's achievement in this book that we leave it satisfied and inspirited despite its rather bleak view of the world as it is currently constituted. She has managed to combine clear-eyed realism with more than a touch of pessimism and to emerge with at least a tentative optimism — quite an alchemical feat. Perhaps this is because she has herself witnessed a kind of miracle in her homeland's emergence from its straitened isolation into full citizenship in the world. Miss Gordimer is under no illusions about the difficulties of that (or, rather, this) world, but her venturesome heroine and hero convey a sense that "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!"

Martin Rubin is a writer living in Pasadena, Calif.



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