The question of whether black South Africans are better off today than they were during the 46 years of apartheid rule appears to precipitate heated debate. Judging from news reports and the episodes that Nadine Gordimer relates in her latest novel, NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT, new problems have plagued the country since the African National Congress assumed power in 1994. The second post-apartheid president, Thabo Mbeki, spent much of his time in office denying the AIDS epidemic that has so far killed more than a million South Africans. The current President, Jacob Zuma, went on trial twice --- first on accusations of rape (the case was thrown out), and then for allegedly receiving millions of rand in bribes from a French arms dealer (he was acquitted). And the ANC has also been mired in other scandals involving corruption and the use of taxpayer money for luxury products and expensive vacations.
"[I]t’s a pleasure to read a work that is passionate and that deals with important issues.... NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT is a reminder of what fiction can be: complex, committed and thoroughly absorbing."
The characters spend much of the novel, Gordimer’s fifth since winning the Nobel in 1991, discussing the current state of politics in South Africa. Even though the Struggle for freedom (Gordimer capitalizes the word throughout) has been won, the protagonists in this challenging novel are now grappling with a new question: What is modern South Africa, and where do they fit into it? Under apartheid, their identities were clear. Now they find themselves in a country they often don’t recognize, so much so that they question if the free democracy they helped to create is where they belong.
Steven Reed and Jabulile Gumede are married. He is white; she is black. Each fought in the Struggle: he was a guerrilla fighter who used his training in chemistry to help build explosives; she was jailed for three months as a member of the Freedom Fighters. The novel begins in 1994, shortly after the end of apartheid, and concludes with Zuma’s ascendancy to the presidency. Over that time, Steven and Jabu try to settle into a quiet domestic life. He becomes a chemistry professor at a local university, and she earns a law degree and begins work at the Justice Centre, a human rights organization. They buy a house in a Suburb (Gordimer’s capitalization again) and have two children, Sindiswa and Gary Elias.
Over the course of the novel, their lives are interrupted by reminders of the ills that the new political climate didn’t eradicate and may even have spawned. A friend from Steven and Jabu’s neighborhood is the victim of a brutal carjacking. Four black women and one black man, all of them cleaners at Gary Elias’s school, are forced to eat potjiekos --- a pot of stew --- that white students have urinated in. Two men break into Steven and Jabu’s home and attack Wethu, the couple’s household helper, while they are out. The cumulative effect of these events makes Steven contemplate accepting a teaching job in Australia. When they were fighting apartheid, Steven and Jabu knew who they were. Now they aren’t as certain, so they consider leaving the country to find out.
Gordimer devotes much of this novel to an analysis of the current state of politics in South Africa. When Steven and Jabu and their friends get together, most of the conversation is topical: the xenophobia among member nations of the African Union; the apparent contradiction of former ANC fighters who now own property. At times, it feels as if Gordimer cares less about the characters and their personal struggles than about the issues they discuss. The novel would have been stronger if there had been more personality behind the speeches. Any educated person could have spoken much of the dialogue Gordimer has written here.
And yet, what erudite, thoughtful dialogue it is. For all the book’s impersonality, it’s a pleasure to read a work that is passionate and that deals with important issues. At 88, Gordimer is still writing novels that are more vigorous and ambitious than many works by authors a third her age. Whereas many writers create characters who are barely aware of the world outside their apartment, Gordimer gives us characters keenly cognizant of their role in society and the effect that government actions have on their lives. NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT is a reminder of what fiction can be: complex, committed and thoroughly absorbing.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on April 27, 2012
No Time Like the Present