Flawed plot undermines strong characters in Gordimers latest
NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT. By Nadine Gordimer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 421 pages. $27.
Nadine Gordimer’s latest novel is a close-up look at the post-apartheid “Struggle” of a black-white couple in contemporary South Africa.
Through the experiences of freedom fighters Steven Reed and Jabulile Gumede in “the Suburb” and in their professional lives, Gordimer addresses the hottest issues of the day: the poverty that afflicts most of the country’s black population; the immigration from Africa’s worse-off nations and the brain drain out; the corruption of Struggle veterans such as President Jacob Zuma; and the question of whether, some two decades after white rule ended, things are really getting any better.
Gordimer hits those flashpoints hard and sometimes writes beautifully in highlighting them, as might be expected from the 1991 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
On one occasion, Gumede shrugs off a hawker on the way out of the supermarket only to learn the man is a former pupil of her father, a school headmaster in their KwaZulu homeland. Yet “really literate, numerate ... all he can do to feed himself is try to sell straw brooms he says Zimbabwe refugee women make.”
He is one of millions unemployed due to lack of higher education or available jobs in the developing economy. And Gumede, a lawyer, feels guilty.
But while “No Time Like the Present” offers a window into what it’s like to be a thinking middle-class person in today’s South Africa, it falls short on other scores. On a basic level, it’s tough to get through. And there’s no real reward for sticking with it.
Gordimer spills a lot of ink recounting newsy conversations between her characters, and non-South Africans would struggle to keep up with the details of all the political machinations.
Those characters are well-developed and there is progression in their lives, but ultimately, the plot seems without purpose. The moments of high drama are either shortchanged or have little effect on the rest of the story.
For instance, on both occasions South Africa’s infamous poverty-motivated violence crops up, the incidents merely fulfill that expectation and don’t do much more.
There’s some galvanizing of the other characters but mostly everyone goes on as before. A very well set-up illicit romance makes for exciting reading but nothing really comes of it.
And the rest of the time, Steve and Jabu are just earnestly dealing with the society they fought to free while considering leaving it behind.
“The Struggle’s not over,” Gordimer, 88, laments. In other words, apartheid’s officially history, but political freedom has not meant economic uplift for the vast majority of her countrymen.
Unfortunately, “No Time Like The Present” is also a struggle, and its title reminds us there are other books more deserving of a read.
Reviewer Brendan Kearney, Boeing and technology reporter for The Post and Courier