A conversation with Nadine Gordimer
by Donald Paul
Q: Of your previous novels, you once said that the society you wrote
about was based upon a lie. In The House Gun, it is not based upon lies
but upon confessions of the truth -- Duncan is guilty from the start and admits
it. Does his confession reflect more complex issues of today's South Africa,
where issues of right and wrong are now more ambiguous?
A: I don't think we are living a lie now, especially at this very time
when we are going through the most extraordinary and painful digging up of the
truth. Every day the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] and the Amnesty
Commission have the most extraordinary things come out of them, so that the
complexity of human beings, the complexity of their reactions to different
pressures on their personal lives and their political and working lives, and
the constant shift in their morality is exposed.
Q: And also a shift in their reality?
A: Yes, if you take the principles of the people who are applying for
amnesty. If you commit a crime the way Duncan does in my book, that has nothing
to do with a political belief. It is a personal animus that you have. If you go
for amnesty, you have to prove that what you did -- the murder, the abduction,
whatever was done -- was done because of the ideals which you held for a
political structure or party.
Q: Do you think the TRC is fulfilling its charter?
A: My own feeling is that the TRC is really remarkable because the
victims do seem to get something out of it. Some feel that they don't, but I've
been to a couple of hearings, and you can see the kind of catharsis that
occurs, especially for people whose names didn't get into the paper -- the
humble people, if you like to call them that. Nobody ever listened to them
before, when they lost sons, daughters, and husbands. Now you've got a whole
group of prominent people who are listening to you, and it provides
Q: The TRC has provided a way for politicians and ordinary people to
come to grips with the past. How does the artist, the writer today, pass
through this period of the past?
A: You know, the press has been called to answer for their role in the
days of apartheid and are reluctant to respond, but I can't see how that
applies to poets and playwrights and writers. I do think that, on the whole,
creative writers -- a dubious term -- really were the cultural armies of the
liberation struggle. We all did what we had to do. Some didn't -- but, by and
large, in our humble way, we did something. Now, it is too soon to see whether
they are coming to grips with the freedom of being able to roam about and not
have to take up an offensive or defensive position. It's very early for this,
of course, because writers are not journalists. They don't have a deadline but
a mandate of transforming the experience of what they see around them. This
goes through a process before it leads to fiction, but it is happening, and one
can see people moving into these areas -- for instance, the more
Q: It seems that the social violence of your early novels has come
"home" in that violence is now exactly that: more personal.
A: That's a strange thing with books, because when I began to write
The House Gun, I was interested in the triangle between Harald, Claudia,
and Duncan and the people who acted round it, so to speak. But as I began to
write it, I began to realize it had something to do with the climate of
violence that we feel so strongly about us, and not just in our country. It is
a characteristic of big-city life everywhere.
Q: You chose to figuratively lock away Duncan, your
A: Yes, he comes in after about 200 pages, after we have had everyone's
view of him, and that is what I really wanted to do. To me that emphasizes the
mystery that he was, even to the people closest to him.
Q: Again, does this reflect, on the personal level, our liabilities
not only for the past but, now, for the acts of our children?
A: There is one common experience most of us have: we have been
children and have suffered from our parents' not understanding us -- and,
indeed, they didn't. Then the position is reversed, and you are the parent, and
so you occupy both roles in your life. I think they are both mysterious, and I
have been exploring this my whole life -- you don't ever really know anybody
completely. A person, the persona, is made up of many different views and
experiences of that person's life. It is not only your experience, it is also
how others experience you.
Q: This comes back to the questions of ambiguity in our lives.
The House Gun focuses on the actual courtroom drama and how people
-- Duncan's parents -- react to the justice system. At one point, Harald,
a moral figure, feels so desperate he wants to "just get him off."
A: I became more and more interested in the shift of [Claudia's and
Harald's] attitudes to what had happened and their different attempts to
reflect that. They move from being hostile to each other about how their son,
Duncan, turned out -- blaming each other and asking "Who did what?" -- to
clinging together in a terrible state when they feel almost disgusted by their
son and want to reject him. So there is this strange kind of bond, and their
bond is a sort of ancillary to their strained relationship with Duncan. Novels
become novels within novels.
Q: You seem to have moved from the public domain of apartheid to
the private dominion of alienation.
A: It's difficult to say, because if you look at None to Accompany
Me, then you can call it a novel of the time of transition. It's very
personal, but her [Vera Stark's] life is bound up very strongly with the old
apartheid regime and with the freedom to live the way she's always wanted to. I
think I always move back and forth in these two domains, especially in the
earlier novels such as The Conservationist [Viking, 1983]. I see,
without any conscious effort, that I am naturally affected by the time in which
I am writing the book. The climate of violence seems to seep through, like some
kind of stain, so that it forms the connection of their lives.
Q: What are you doing at the moment?
A: What I have been doing is making a documentary film. And it's the
clumsiest business in the world. I am used to having just my piece of paper,
but with film everything is subject to everybody. It is a documentary about
Johannesburg and Berlin, two cities where tremendous social engineering
experiments were attempted, and which both ended within a month of each other
-- the Wall came down, and, in South Africa, most of the leaders of the
struggle for freedom were released or returned from exile and a big rally was
held in Johannesburg, the first without police. My son is a filmmaker and we
decided we would try to depict this. We are living through extreme and painful