Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991, won the Booker Prize in 1974 for her novel The Conservationist (a joint winner, together with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.)
The Setting of The Conservationist is South Africa in the 1970s (the novel is contemporaneous in the sense it was published in 1974). The Apartheid is at its fiercest; the minority whites are enjoying all the privileges, subjugating the majority blacks who are leading the lives of serfs; and in-between the two communities are the Indians, brought to South Africa in the nineteenth century—just as they were taken to the Caribbean—as plantation labourers, but who have, since then, bettered their lot somewhat.
The Conservationist creates for its reader—at a rural farm— a microcosm of the wider South African Society.
At the top of the pecking order is Mehring, a rich, white businessman who has made his fortune in the pig iron industry; he is also on the board of directors of several profit-making enterprises. Mehring buys a farm, half an hour’s drive from the city in which he lives. Mehring is not a farmer; he knows less about farming than I know about horse ballet. He has bought a farm for two reasons: he managed to get a good deal and feels that in due course he will sell the farm making a handsome profit. Secondly the farm is a kind of Shangri-la for Mehring, his asylum from the increasingly wearisome (for him) world of the rich in the city—endless diners and swimming-pool parties on weekends where bored housewives of rich executives gossip and (some of them) make passes at him.
The farm may be an escape route for Mehring, but he is far removed from the lives of the blacks, who have lived on and near the farm for decades, if not longer, and who have worked for some or the other white owner. Mehring has no real understanding of and, therefore, empathy towards the blacks. His attitude towards them veers between amused tolerance and contemptuous suspicion (of their intentions). The blacks on their part treat Mehring as nothing more than a fugacious presence in the history of the land. Mehring is wary of the intentions of the blacks; he is suspicious that they are out to fleece him by concocting non-existent problems and inventing difficulties. In the eyes of the blacks Mehring is the supplanter, who has defrauded them of that which is rightfully theirs by the power of his money. All of this is implied. Gordimer is too clever a writer to spell it all out for the reader.
The local grocery shop is run by a large Indian Muslim family. ‘The India’ (as the black workers on Mehring’s farm refer to the family) has an uneasy relationship both with the blacks and the whites. The Indians know that they have to grease the palms of the white officials for the continuance of their licence. The blacks and Indians, both subdued and exploited by the whites, have no common purpose between them, however, no sense of solidarity or camaraderie—the two communities probably see one another in nothing more than crude generalizations. Mehring’s contempt for the Indians—marginally less than that reserved for the blacks—is commingled with grudging respect for the their grit. Also, Indians are crafty—like the Jews, Mehring thinks, at one point in the novel—and need to be watched more closely.
In her elliptical prose Gordimer sets forth for the reader the racial tensions and inequalities in Apartheid era South Africa. Decades after it was first published, The Conservationist can be said to be of historical interest, depict as it does the life in the now extinct Apartheid in South Africa. It is a prerequisite, one guesses, of any Apartheid era novel—especially by someone like Gordimer who made her reputation with novels that dealt with moral and racial issues in her country in which existed the worst kind of inequality imaginable—that it must contain filthy rich white leading privileged (if empty and ultimately sterile) lives, and the exploited majority, disenfranchised and reduced to leading subhuman existence in their own country. The greatness of such novels also seems to be determined by the big themes and grand—if unequal—oppositions: the high and mighty versus the low and the weak; beautiful versus ugly; a society in turmoil, a culture in crisis; that sort of thing.
The Conservationist has all of the above in abundance. Yet, when you finally reach the last page of this not-easy-to-read novel, if you still have breath left in you, you are left with the nagging doubt that while you have read something important you haven’t loved the novel. You struggle to think what it was that you liked—indeed there was anything you liked—about it.
Is there a plot? Not really. The novel opens with the discovery of a corpse in one of the pastures of Mehring’s farm. It is the corpse of an unknown black man who, most probably, has been murdered in a feud rampant in the community over, most probably, some paltry sum of money (Mehring thinks detachedly). Mehring, who views the death of the black man with the detachment of watching a spider swallowed by the whorl of toilet water, becomes annoyed when the police bury the corpse in his land instead of whisking it away. The corpse resurfaces when, after torrential rains, Mehring’s land gets flooded. As the novel ends the blacks are giving their nameless brethren a decent burial. The blacks—it is implied—have more warmth in their hearts for a nameless corpse than for Mehring who pays them; and with good reasons. The corpse serves the symbolic purpose (I think) of representing the increasingly precarious position of whites in South Africa, hinting that their crimes would not remain buried forever. This symbolism however remains buried in cold, tortuous, at times clunky, and unemotional prose.
The novel has no warmth. That is because Mehring, from whose perspective most of the novel is narrated, is a cold person. With the exception of his mistress (a rich, white, cynical, bored wife of an academic), who has left him and South Africa, Mehring appears to be incapable of having ardent feelings for anyone (and even with her, his thoughts tread a fine line between nostalgia and obsession). The reader is told that Mehring’s wife has left him (probably because when she got into bed with him she had to shoo away the penguins) and now lives in America. Their only son, Terry (who makes periodic appearances in the novel), spends most of his vacation in Namibia with an old German couple whose relationship with Mehring is never made clear. Mehring may be very rich but his is a lonely, isolated and ultimately futile existence (money can’t buy you happiness and all that . . . although you don’t get the feeling that the piss-poor blacks working on Mehring’s farm are happy bunnies either; there aren't many happy people in this novel). Mehring is not an evil man. He thinks that he deserves his wealth which he has earned through hard work. He genuinely believes that he treats the black farmhands—the kindest emotion he can muster up for them is pity—on his farm justly and (within reasonable limits of) generosity, oblivious all along of the inherent inequality and iniquity of the South African society that has enabled him to attain this advantaged position. Introspection is not Mehring’s strong point.
The Conservationist requires serious efforts of concentration. As I plodded through pages after pages of (not particularly riveting) descriptions of Mehring’s farm and countryside, in sentences longer than the English Channel, my concentration began to falter. More than once I came close to accepting defeat and jacking it in. (It took me two weeks to read the novel which has less than 300 pages; by the time I reached the last third of the novel I was a spent force. Would I have spent the two weeks more fruitfully reading Jeffrey Archer who, whatever else he might be accused of, can never be accused of being abstruse; that’s why he will not win the Nobel, but will sell by the basinful at the airports.)
Gordimer’s immersive style makes the reading of the novel more arduous. The dialogues are tricky to follow, not only because it is often not very clear who is speaking to whom, but also because of her penchant (evident in her other novels) of substituting quotation marks with hyphens. From time to time you come across sentences in which hyphens serve their traditional purpose, which gets a bit confusing. Gordimer has a curious reluctance to identify characters by names; instead they are referred to by the pronoun he. It is not always easy to follow who ‘he’ is. Mehring is rarely referred to by anything other than a ‘he’. In the chapter where Mehring’s son Terry comes to visit him, you realise only after you have been one third through the chapter that the ‘he’, this time round, is Mehring’s son. Gordimer’s sentences are truly distracting, not because they have sass or swagger, but because they are like the monotonous ticking of a clock driving you nuts.
Once in a while there are interludes of lucid prose. Like the chapter in which Mehring (at least I think the ‘he’ in this chapter is Mehring) finger**ks a teenage girl of Portuguese extraction in the chair next to him during a long distance flight. (What was that about?) But such passages are far and few between: for most of the time reading The Conservationist is like trying to drive a car through dense fog.
The Conservationist is probably an important novel, a novel that high-brow critics will no doubt describe as a milestone. I didn't enjoy it though. That was because for the most of the novel I struggled to gauge what the hell was going on, and whether there was anything subterranean under the surface, which itself was like a wet road shining and blinding you with the low sun. I think I got what Gordimer was trying to say, here, but didn't like the writing style.
The Conservationist is the third novel of Nadine Gordimer that I have read. Years ago I read My Son’s Story and House Gun. My Son’s Story left me with a headache; House Gun was more interesting. And now I have read The Conservationist, which has left me feeling less than ecstatic. Should I give up on her? (A South African acquaintance said that Gordimer did not represent the best of South African writing, Nobel Prize notwithstanding. However, upon further inquiry it transpired that he had not read a single novel of Gordimer but had heard a clever d**k at University (who probably hadn't read her either) spouting these pearls of wisdom.) I am not prepared to give up on Gordimer just yet. I shall read Julie’s People, Burger’s Daughter, and The Late Bourgeois World. But not for a while.