This volume is part of a new series of novels, plays and stories at GCSE/Key Stage 4 level, designed to meet the needs of the National Curriculum syllabus. Each text includes an introduction, pre-reading activities, notes and coursework activities. Also provided is a section on the process of writing, often compiled by the author.
'But the transport of a novel, the false awareness of being in another time, place and life that was the pleasure of reading. for her, was not possible. She was in another time. place and consciousness; it pressed in upon her as someone's breath fills a balloon shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compete with what she was finding what she did not know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination. They had nothing.'
So this book, written in 1981 set in South Africa is one in which apartheid and the revoltionary uprising of blacks is the backcloth for an adventure that has the white family and black servant role reversed - but in the hands of Nadine Gordimer it is so much more.
However little happens as far as the story goes and the author focuses on the interactions between the characters and the shifting balance of who now has the superior skin colour to pass in the new society.
barbel; whisker like organ near the mouth of a fish.
bilharzia; parasitic worm disease caught from bathing in fresh water.
This book works on several levels, and I'm sure a single reading doesn't do it justice. It is written in an odd style, with no fixed point-of-view and very heavy with dialog. The dialog is often on the English of a non-native speaker who uses only as much English as is necessary, answered with English deliberately dumbed down. These style elements made the narrative forever shifting, as though the reader wasn't sure what had been said, and certainly wasn't sure what would come next. Often, I'd criticize an author for lack of clarity, but this was clearly deliberate and it had a chilling effect. It echoed the alienation and oddness that the characters were experiencing, and it created a helpless and dehumanizing mood.
The copy I had clearly belonged to someone who was reading it for a college course. Odd passages were underlined, and there were notes like "watch how her relationship with July and Bam changes." Clearly, many people read it for the subtle changes within the relationships. Very few novels depict as intricate and uncomfortable relationships as this.
Possible spoilers ahead, but not big spoilers.
For me, the descriptions snuck up on me and hit me on the head. The whites were living in intolerable conditions, but these conditions were every day for July's village. What the whites owned was constantly being devalued, and the children were fitting in, but also not understanding the village expectations. They'd steal what to them was junk and damage what to them was just leaves, but to the village was building supplies. Bam, the white father, was constantly listening to the radio for news, and the radio fades away. Then Gordimer describes Maureen's naked breasts in the one room house they all share. Her breasts weren't erotic, but bare with the humiliation of the nakedness of a concentration camp. I can't find the exact passage, and my paraphrase doesn't do it justice, but with that simple description Gordimer raises the question, how can two peoples, many well-meaning, have come to the point of attempted genocide.
The book touches very deep themes of human relations, power over others, and the uncertainty of "an intermediate state". July's motives are never revealed, so you feel a bit uneasy throughout it.
This book was unbelievably difficult to read. I've read philosophy textbooks which open up more easily. Nearly every sentence catches the reader off guard with its structure and is loaded with meanings. Many of the metaphores are a bit hard to digest, and sometimes it doesn't seem worth the effort to figure it out.
Anyway, it made me think, challenged and rewarded me at times, so I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't be handing out Nobel prizes for this kind of literature.
The Smales, a white middle-class family living in a big city in South Africa, have a black servant whom they call July (because they cannot pronounce his real name). After the black citizens of South Africa stage an uprising, July takes the Smales family to his village to shelter them.
Through this reversal of situations, Gordimer offers a meditation on the nature of power, and how changes in power can be disorienting, whatever the actor's intentions. Prior to the hostilities, the Smales family consider themselves "liberal," and they treat July to small treats and favors that many of their contemporaries do not afford their black servants. Once the situation is reversed, July's treatment of the Smales echoes their treatment of them, and for the Smales--and in particular, the mother, Maureen--this reversal leaves them with an inability to judge the true nature of things.
Neither July nor the Smales act with any apparent malice, and if they are not without prejudice, they all consciously act to avoid displays of it. Gordimer's ultimate point seems to be that outlook doesn't matter; power affects relationships, regardless of a person's intentions or desires otherwise.
In short, July's People is enlightening on both a historical and a thematic level, and I intend to explore more of Gordimer's work in the near future.
The story is told mostly from the point of view of Maureen, the wife and mother of the white family - and it's really impressive how tightly the narrative makes her perspective our perspective, including her casual and ingrained assumptions of simplicity and inferiority of her servant July and his indigenous townspeople. She's not meant to be a villain, nor does the story get told in a way that pats itself on the back for an "unreliable narrator" trope. It's just that Maureen is human, has been blind to her own cultural assumptions up to this point because it was advantageous for her to be so, and she doesn't quite know how to deal with the shock of confronting anything but what she's always known. July's motives in taking in her family are unclear, and as they're mostly cut off from communications, the family faces anxiety about whether the systems in place still even support their societal place at the top. But, pragmatically, that doesn't even matter, does it? The limitations of Maureen's sympathy and understanding, casual rather than overtly cruel, both reflects and contributes to injustice in a greater way than she can understand, and I as a reader was really uncomfortable (to the great credit to the author!) inhabiting her worldview and the systemic injustice encoded within.
For years, it has been what is called a "deteriorating situation." Now it is war. All over South Africa, cities are battlegrounds, and radio and television stations are under siege. Bam and Maureen Smales take up their servant July's suggestion and drive with their children to his remote home village. For fifteen years, July has been the decently treated black servant, totally dependent on them. Now, he becomes their host, their savior, and their keeper. Suddenly facing a hunted life of bare subsistence, owing their survival to July, the Smales are forced to look at him and at one another in an entirely new light. They find life utterly changed and harboring different dread and hope for each individual.
This is a story about the turmoil of apartheid in South Africa. One white family is rescued by their black servant and taken to his home village. You get a glimpse at how the power has changed between these two different groups of people. I found the book very well-written and easy to read and understand. The vivid descriptions set the mood and atmosphere and you feel everything the characters are feeling. The book is a little outdated (written in 1981) and this did not really happen but it is a haunting premise. I would highly recommend this book to those who want to learn about apartheid in South Africa.