- - Friday, June 29, 2012

NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT
By Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 421 pages

Every once in a while, you begin to read a book and suddenly realize you are experiencing greatness. This is such a book. In a way, it should come as no surprise. Nadine Gordimer is, arguably, South Africa’s greatest living novelist. Some readers would vote, deservedly, for J.M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. But she had won it a dozen years earlier, at which time the presenter said, “through her magnificent epic writing [she] has - in the words of Alfred Nobel - ‘been of very great benefit to humanity.’ “

“No Time Like the Present” is the current manifestation of that great benefit. Jabulile Gumede, called Jabu, is married to Steven Reed. She’s black, he’s white, and their two children are “of mixed race.” They met in the struggle, when they were both revolutionaries in the fight against apartheid. He was an industrial chemist who made explosives for sabotage, and she, the daughter of a Zulu Methodist minster and headmaster of a prestigious school, had been imprisoned for her activism.

When they became interracial lovers, it was against the law; under the new order, their marriage is legal, if still uncommon. But that struggle is over, and the new struggle is finding outhow to adjust to freedom in post-Apartheid South Africa. It’s a complex world, with the past and the uncertain future pulling them, especially Jabu, at the same time. They live in an apartment, but as the book opens they move to a suburb, thereafter called the Suburb, to join some of their “comrades” who have preceded them.

She has been a teacher, and a very good one, but takes a correspondence course in the law and becomes a very good lawyer. Steve finds a post teaching chemistry at a prestigious university, and they move carefully into a new and different existence, which now includes a son, Gary Elias, joining his elder sister Sindiswa. It’s a very new world, and adjusting to it is not easy because the country is having severe birth pangs.

Ms. Gordimer has set this novel, with its fictitious characters, right in the middle of real life. The great Nelson Mandela has come and gone, and the new president, Thabo Mbeki, is being challenged by Jacob Zuma, but a highly publicized rape charge against him damages his chances, which makes this about six or seven years ago.

How Jabu and Steve, and their former comrades, adjust to this and to their new half-life in suburbs, and to their transformation from committed revolutionaries to unsettled suburbanites, provides a rich background for the novelist’s art. And there are few, if any, writers today who can match Nadine Gordimer at this task.

Two important events provide the personal conflicts that intertwinewith the political. On an academic junket to England, Steve has a brief affair that looms over the rest of the book like a specter. How does his “sin” compare with the one with which Mr. Zuma is charged, the reader wonders. Jabu does not learn of her husband’s infidelity, but she does uncover a packet of newspaper clippings about Australia, and this introduces the second, and greater, conflict.

Steve wants a new life, not just for him but for the whole family, and Jabu agrees, out of love and duty, and they make their lengthy preparations for this sea change. Once this element is introduced, the novel shifts from exposition to reportorial narratives plus long passages of conversation, which, frankly, can be hard to follow.

Ms. Gordimer does not use quote marks, and the speaker is often not revealed until one or two sentences later. And information is given elliptically. For example: Jonathan called, the son Ryan, he’s going to emigrate. He’s accepted at the university my Cape Town man suggested. Lucky boy. … Going to study, you mean. That’s not emigration. … But you know. It was the idea? He’ll be qualified to join a firm, the UK, the USA. … The footfalls and voices of son and daughter arguing their way in, Gary Elias already calling … Wha’d’ you want me for?…

Yet, for all of this the meaning and the people spring to life on every page, and we know them as living, breathing human beings with real problems. They are not the real problems faced by Jabu and Steve in the Struggle, but they are real nonetheless. For what it may be worth, Nadine Gordimer knows this story on a personal level. Her character Steve Reed has a Christian father and a Jewish mother; in the author’s case it was the other way around. A very early and very strong opponent of apartheid, she was one of the first people Nelson Mandela wanted to see when he was released from prison after 27 years. “No Time Like the Present” is the author’s 15th novel. It goes up on a long shelf: 11 short-story collections and seven books of essays. Born in 1923, she wrote her first book in 1949. May she never stop.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.