Friday, March 11, 2016

More than he ever wanted to know...

The cover of my copy.
Nadine Gordimer died in 2014 at the age of 90, 
and she accomplished much in those years.
This book, released in 1990, is her ninth novel. 
Gordimer lived in South Africa and was 
deeply committed to protesting Apartheid. (Good for her!)
The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to her in 1991, 
with the Swedish Academy explicitly citing this publication as 
"ingenious and revealing and at the same time enthralling."

While I am always thrilled to see an author publicly recognized for their talent and skill, it is especially gratifying when they have used their abilities to advocate for 
positive social change, e.g. the abolishment of Apartheid. It makes my heart soar!
Though I did not personally find this to be a particularly "enthralling" read, I felt Gordimer did an excellent job of depicting the political oppression of Apartheid in South Africa at the time without necessarily 'beating the reader over the head.'  Though there is one scene where Sonny and Hannah must run for their lives as the police are firing into a crowd of protesters they've helped gather together. My heart was racing as I read! I initially felt Gordimer's writing style was not to my liking, and that may be true, but I plan to read The Conservationist, joint winner of the Man Booker prize in 1974, as a comparison. I realize that the overall tone and emphasis of this book may simply have made it seem a bit dry and dull to me. For it is that same subtle low-key atmosphere Gordimer creates that juxtaposes so well with the emotional dissonance experienced by Will, his mother, Aila, and his sister, Baby. For he, as a devoted son, is unwittingly drawn into his father's web of deceit as a co-conspirator, leaving him to feel as if he is unwillingly betraying his own mother every minute of every day. As a good and devoted child, Will believes he is conscientiously providing the secure emotional foundation for his mother's life in the wake of his father's physical and emotional absence. Ironically, it was his father's reputation as a leader of the protest movement against Apartheid that provided him with easy excuses to spend days/weekends/evenings with 'the other woman,' Hannah. 
Robert Coles wrote of this work in the New York Times:
"The heart and soul of this brilliantly suggestive and knowing novel 
is its courageous exploration of such matter, 
of the conceits and deceits that inform the lives not only of ordinary people 
but those whom the rest of us invest with such majesty and awe."
This reminded me of Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and so many other leaders who have been icons in the battle for human rights and yet, do not uphold some of what I consider to be the basic tenets of 'civility' in their personal lives, such as fidelity within a marriage/committed long-term relationship. In my opinion, their personal lives in no way taint their public accomplishments, but I do find the dichotomy interesting--they are quite successful at encouraging respect for all in their public life, but seemingly incapable of respecting their own partner enough to remain faithful in a monogamous relationship. To me, that seems self-contradictory. Though I also realize this is very much a personally sensitive issue for me--being a faithful spouse--or not. With that said, one of the people I consider to be a very good friend, a "soul sister" in so many ways, has told me of some of her extramarital affairs and I am able to accept that and still love her for the person she is. Life is complicated and interesting, is it not? Especially with regard to interpersonal relationships! Perhaps my own spouse's betrayal was so heartrending for me because although I had been extremely unhappy in my own marriage for over a decade, I had NEVER once allowed myself to abandon my commitment to 'my family,' the basis of which I considered to be my marriage relationship. Of course, I was also completely consumed with raising three children, completing my education, and reentering the workforce. (Whew!) Obviously, although I had felt on several occasions I was presented with the opportunity to further develop a relationship with another man, as a strictly pragmatic consideration, I lacked the time or energy!! Though ultimately, I admit, I wouldn't allow myself to seriously consider the possibility. And in reading of Sonny's double life with two women, I realized I was incapable of dealing with the duplicity, lies, and guilt I imagined would result. I found it easy to totally immerse myself in life and thereby avoid looking beyond the confines of my marriage for a relationship... Ah, so...back to the book! 

I could understand Sonny's attraction to Hannah on so many levels. Perhaps first and foremost, it was "illegal" for a white and black to have an intimate relationship, much as it was "illegal" for Sonny to have moved his family into a white neighborhood. He was always pushing the limits. Will describes his discovery while skipping out on studying for exams and going to the movies in a distant white neighborhood:
  There was my father; the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, 
not he me. (3)
This sunflower is
symbolic of Sonny's
 betrayal; it is the
'little' things...
Sonny is with Hannah, who had visited Will's home...more than once. It was while Sonny was in detention that Hannah would visit Will, his sister, Baby, and his mother, Aila, ostensibly as a representative of an international human rights organization sent to monitor political detentions and trials, to assist people like Sonny and his family. They never asked anything of her since Aila was able to scrape by financially in Sonny's absence. Sonny was no longer able to work as a teacher due to his breach in leading his black students across the invisible racial boundary of the veld and into white territory. South Africa's Department of Education wouldn't allow him to be hired anywhere in the country to teach again. It was at this juncture that he became a full-time protester, speaking all around to rally people to protest Apartheid in whatever way they could. Sonny became a heroic force for human rights within his local region, particularly after serving detention. Following his detention and trial, he and Hannah became a couple and though they believed they had hidden all this very well from both the human rights leaders and the authorities...I seriously doubt they were able to do so; too many people were quite willing to spy on everyone else and 'snitch' to the authorities in an attempt to garner favor.

At first I thought perhaps Hannah's attraction for Sonny was mainly that she was 'forbidden' to him as a white woman to a black man, but I believe their shared efforts for and interest in the civil rights fight and sex with no strings attached represented much of his enjoyment within this relationship. When he was with her, "sexual happiness and political commitment were one." However, this relationship also develops as do most, to the point that you want to share your connectedness with the world. 
...there grew in him, in her--he knew it was against all sense and reason--a defiant desire 
to be seen to belong together. To show each other off. They didn't admit it, but knew it was there, as they knew everything about one another while in their chosen isolation. (72)
Sonny admits to himself that this benefit of being seen with him in public belongs solely to Aila and his children. He appears to resent that. But what does his deception do to his family? Will is constantly paranoid and imagining (or not?) deceit within everyone's actions. Then Baby cuts her wrists trying to kill herself, and as Will and Aila discuss this tragic event, he realizes that she knows, and that Baby's motivation was her own knowledge of their father's betrayal. Will is bewildered by these realizations. He thought he was the only one who knew the truth about his father, but he learns this is not privileged knowledge among them--they all know! Sonny is nowhere to be found immediately after they discover Baby's bloody body on Saturday and when he does finally arrive home Sunday night, following a weekend spent with Hannah in the country, all he can manage to say is, "Will there be scars?" Will hoped the realization that his favorite child could have died and he would not have been there until late the next day would force his father to confess and return 'home' to his family, but it seemed the opposite was true. He only spent more time away. And there were the times when both Aila and Hannah would be forced together at a social gathering. Sonny would hear them both speaking...
...he possessed both at once. The exaltation was the reverse of his fear of Aila finding out.
  Later, alone, desolated, shamed, he understood. He sought, even contrived, 
ways of appearing with his wife in houses where his other woman would be a guest. 
  The sexual excitement of bringing the two women together 
entered him as a tincture, curling cloudy in a glass of water. (93)
As you might imagine, I don't get it. Though perhaps Gordimer was demonstrating the strong sexual identity of African men still persistent in the 1990's in South Africa? Then he would send Will on errands to Hannah's place. At this point, I'm thinking...really?!? What an ass! Will finally decided this was to show off his virility--his manliness, if you will--to his son. 
  The old bull still owns the cows, he's still capable of serving his harem, 
  my mother and his blonde. (95)  
I can see a man believing this and reveling in his "power" among women. Yikes! This totally grosses me out! But Gordimer is good at revealing her characters' innermost feelings and beliefs. 

Poor Will is eventually betrayed by everyone, it seems. Baby runs off to another country with a revolutionary! Immediately after this news, Will graduates...
  I gained three distinctions and a university pass...
[and] [t]hey're more proud of Baby than of me. (131)
I felt so very sorry for Will. The lack of acknowledgement of his achievements was so disheartening. And then, for him, the ultimate betrayal of his own mother. Will is eventually left to care for himself and his father who is again detained. Hannah moves on to accept a prestigious position elsewhere, and Will? Well, Will becomes what his father had always wanted him to become...a writer. I find this last cover image so symbolic of Will's story overall--he never really had an innocent childhood. His father destroyed any hope of that for him on the fateful 'cinema' day. And Will could symbolize any child whose personal life is in ruins for the want of just one parent who does not sacrifice themselves and their son for a "good cause." 

Overall, this book felt depressing to me, though it was well written. 
Gordimer does an excellent job of depicting the bereavement left behind when parents abandon their emotional/spiritual commitment to family for the betterment of a cause--     human rights and the abolition of Apartheid in this case. 
I guess the common person never really considers the personal sacrifice 
such leaders make within their own lives, though I don't believe all or even the majority abandon their principles/personal morals to the extreme that Sonny did...
at least I fervently hope not. 
And then Aila leaves and her own secret life is revealed to Will in the aftermath.
Poor Will! Never anyone's 'favorite' and expendable for 'the good of the cause.'
This was a rather haunting read and I'm glad to have read it, 
though it left me feeling somewhat bereft, which I believe was Gordimer's intent...

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