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Have you experienced this: you hear or read about an author in the media and know at once that their works of fiction would appeal to you, but somehow you never get around to reading them and whenever the name pops up you feel something resembling pangs of conscience?
Well, I´ve felt like this with Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer (born 1923), according to Seamus Heany ´one of the guerrillas of imagination´, honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Over half a century, Gordimer has written thirteen novels, over two hundred short stories, and several volumes of essays which have been translated into more than thirty languages. She´s been called the ´Geiger counter of apartheid and of the movements of people across the crust of South Africa´. At last I decided to do something for the peace of my mind and ordered The Pickup (published in 2001) from amazon, why this one and not one of her other novels I can´t say.
We get to know Julie Summers, a 29-year-old white South African woman who works for a media company organising tours for pop-groups, she´s cut the contacts with her parents, she´s ashamed of them but why she´s so rigid I haven´t really understood, her father is a big fish of SA business, her divorced mother lives in California, both have new partners. Julie has left The Suburbs (always written with capital letters) where people of her background live in magnificent villas enjoying the good life. This does not mean they´re reactionaries wishing back the old times, they do mix with people of different ethnic backgrounds - in case they´ve moved up to their own financial level. She, however, dwells in a modest one-room house, drives a second-hand
car and spends her spare time in the EL-AY Café with The Table (again always capital letters), a group of friends who are her ersatz family.
One day her car breaks down and has to be pushed to a garage, a young mechanic, dark-skinned and foreign-looking, an Indian or an Arab?, takes care of it. The beginning of the novel is told from Julie´s point of view, we get the impression that she picks the man up, later the perspective changes and we learn that the man is equally interested in a relationship for completely different motives, though. She´s one of the modern South Africans who make a point of not being prejudiced, she´s attracted by the man, his different ethnic background and the fact that he works as a ´grease-monkey´ don´t disturb her. The Table approves of him, so all is well or is it?
Abdu (not his real name) is an illegal immigrant from a poor feudal Arab state where he graduated in economics but seeing no chance of realising his aims in life, namely to move up, to earn enough money to live a decent life, he emigrated. He was expulsed from some European countries where he worked illegally and two years before the story starts he got a letter to leave SA, he didn´t, though, but went into hiding working and living in the garage where Julie has found him.
They have no common background, no past, no future together, they only live in the present, but this doesn´t last long, a second letter arrives informing him that he has to leave SA in a fortnight. Everyone at The Table in the EL-AY Café has an advice, but no one has a solution. Abdu urges Julie to get into contact with her father, if anyone knows the right people it´s him, but she stubbornly refuses, instead she turns to her uncle (the father she´d like to have) who helps her get an appointment with a top lawyer, if there´s a hole, he´ll find it, but there is none. Bribery is out of the question, the times they have a-changed in SA, a quick marriage after the arrival of the fatal letter senseless.
I could leave you here, I've introduced you to the main protagonists, you´ve understood that the plot is tightening, I`ve aroused your curiosity (hopefully) and you can now start guessing what the rest of the novel may be about. But no, the letter arrives on page 52 (of 268), I have to take you a bit further. Abdu asks Julie where he can get a cheap airline ticket for the flight home and she buys TWO! He´s dumbstruck, shocked by he decision to accompany him to his desolate desert state where women have no rights and life is miserable, he hasn´t emigrated for nothing. Doesn´t he love her? He doesn´t allow himself to answer this question, he doesn´t commit himself completely, he can´t, he is still nowhere, hasn´t reached anything.
Julie is adamant, however, and wavers only for a short time when he tells her that they must get married before departing, it´s enough to return as a loser to his family and out of the question he return with a lover.
What she finds once arrived is worse than anything she has imagined, the heat, the sandstorms, the house, the family, the food, the language, does Abdu, now turned back into the Ibrahim Ibn Musa he was before emigrating help her to adapt? Not a bit, he works in his uncle´s garage in the morning and spends the rest of the day in the capital where he works his contacts for a visa to emigrate again, to Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, it doesn´t matter.
When Julie and Ibrahim arrive at his family´s house, we´ve reached only the middle of the novel, so this stage of their relationship forms the main body of the book. I´ve refrained from peeping at the last pages, with some difficulty I must confess, I was very curious, I guessed this way and that way but couldn´t think of a convincing ending. I can tell you the author took me by surprise! Even days after finishing the book I was pondering about the ending, surprising it may be but it is convincing after all and also illuminates what happened before.
The Pickup is a love story raising the topic if unconditioned love is possible and if so, if it can survive change. ´Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds . . .´(I hope you´ve done your homework!) It is about home and emigration, belonging and leaving, being incredibly rich and just as incredibly poor, friends (The Table) and extended family, enlightened emancipated women and suppressed ones, the search for identity and the knowledge about one´s place. I´m glad I´ve read the novel, so much food for thought, I like and recommend it.
I´m not sure, though, if I´ll read another novel by Nadine Gordimer. Not living in GB I haven´t got the possibility of thumbing through a book and reading some lines, I can only order ´blind´. I found the style difficult to get used to, now I don´t know if Gordimer used it for this novel only or if this is her usual style, it doesn´t flow elegantly, there´s a breathlessness in the telling for which I can´t find a justification. Readers whose mother tongue is English may not agree, don´t feel put off by a foreigner´s opinion.
Stunning review of a book that would appeal to me ... funnily enough, I married an educated Arab chap who worked in a restaurant; was desperate to gain UK citizenship and originated from a very poor (by Western standards) town in Algeria!!
patriciat 08.09.2005 08:25
Not one I've heard of before, sounds quite tempting, if only to find out how it all ends. Pat.t x
In Nadine Gordimer's novel The Pickup, a casual encounter between a wealthy suburban white ... more
girl and an educated but poor Arab man in a garage in contemporary Cape Town sets in motion unimagined consequences. Abdu, the "garage man", is in fact Ibrahim ibn Musa, an illegal immigrant with a degree in economics from a benighted African country. Conscience-stricken Julie Summers seeks escape from the narrowed horizons of her privileged background in the newly democratic, non-racial South Africa. Julie and Ibrahim enter into an intense relationship--their sexual desire the only shared experience that mediates their cultural difference. When the authorities catch up with Ibrahim and his repatriation to his own economically ravaged desert country can no longer be avoided, Julie takes a step that amazes her friends, family and above all herself. Leaving the sheltered alternatives of her liberal background she follows Ibrahim. In a small sand-swept town engulfed by desert, Julie struggles to fit in among the women of Ibrahim's Moslem family, negotiating the cultural minefield her presence produces. Working tirelessly to try and arrange their departure, Ibrahim wonders if Julie will ever come to learn the reality of the world that he has encountered in countless immigration offices--where he has had to "swallow the reflux of evidence that privilege can never be brought to understanding of reality, of what matters, the dignity of survival against principles". The Pickup returns to Gordimer's familiar theme of the possibilities of personal redemption through immersion in the politically alien and culturally other. Perhaps more interesting than the oft-repeated Gordimer riff on white femininity at a loss as to what to do with itself is her (properly tentative) exploration of Ibrahim's own search for redemption and transformation through what he regards as the benefits of Westernised culture and the economic liberties of capitalism. Gordimer may seem to stray a long way from her familiar terrain of Sou