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The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer #Bookerprize

the_conservationistBooks frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist,  a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.

Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who  buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.

We see him in a very different light however.

Mehring feels he bonds with his black labourers when he hands out cigarettes and indulges in good humoured banter. What we see is that his workers largely go about their work regardless of whether he is there to supervise. He thinks he understands how to look after the land but his Boer neighbours view him as merely an amateur, a ‘weekender’ from the city. He considers he is creating value by ensuring his land is productive, but his lover sees a man who pays starvation wages and writes off losses against tax liabilities.
He believes he has developed a physical and emotional affinity with the land.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
But here too he is blind to reality.  Death and violence lie beneath the surface of his idealised rural retreat, emerging quite literally in the form of a man’s body dumped in a shallow grave. As if in protest at the treatment of people like Mehring, the land rebels. Drought, followed by flood, destroy Mehring’s farm.
Such is Mehring’s inability to understand reality that he alienates all around him. His estranged wife has gone to America and he struggles to form a relationship with his liberally-minded teenage son, Terry. Though he’s frequently invited to social gatherings we get the feeling it’s Mehring’s wealth and status that is the attraction, not his personality.

Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring. 

The Conservationist is an intense read and not simply because of Gordimer’s message. It’s the style of narrative that takes time to get used to, with its frequent flashbacks, stream of consciousness monologues and lack of speech tags.  It was hard work, necessitating many stops while I tried to work out whether I was reading a dialogue or unspoken monologue, and where in the sequence of events was this scene taking place. There is really little in the way of action – everything revolves around the farm and the different attitudes towards it exhibited by Mehring and his workers.

I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.

If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.

 

Footnotes

About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.  Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.  Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.

The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.

Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.

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