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The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

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.



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.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

20 thoughts on “The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

  • South Africa is one of the most culturally mish-mashed places I can think of, and until Trevor Noah came on the scene, I don’t think Americans thought much about it. There’s a filmmaker from South Africa whose films comment on these dynamics you describe using anthropomorphic beings, name aliens and a robot. I have this idea that South African is a bellwether, but I’m not sure how to read it.

    • Who is Trevor Noah? (she says with totally baffled look) …..

      • Here’s the new host of The Daily Show, which used to be hosted by John Stewart. He also a stand-up comedian and wrote the memoir Born a Crime.

        • Ah well unless I get to the USA sometime i doubt I will come across him

  • I’ve only read one novel by Gordimer and it was for a class (July’s People, I think it was). She’s one of those writers that I’ve always felt I “should” read more of, but am just not drawn to.

    • i will likely read something else by her but not in the immediate future….

  • The only Gordimer that I’ve read was July’s People. It isn’t a book that you enjoy, but it is an extremely well written and effective novel. If you feel like tackling her again then I strongly recommend it.

    • I’ve heard of that one – off to look it up now and potentially add to my wishlist

  • In December I read her 1963 novel, Occasion For Loving. I do love her writing but she demands a lot from her readers.

    • i’ve not read anything else by her so haven’t any basis of comparison but yes this was not a book you could read quickly

  • Thank you for the mention! It must have been a special experience to read it in SA, with the accents of the speakers all around you wherever you went:)

    • What was sad though was how little some attitudes had changed despite the ending of apartheid

      • Oh yes, we’ve got some of those over here now, they couldn’t wait to leave SA once Mandela was released and of course they brought their pernicious ideas with them.

        • Sorry to hear that. It will likely take many generations for a change of attitude

  • I’ve read a few Nadine Gordimer’s but not this one which I think my reading group read when I was living in the USA. My mother’s reading group read it and I think the opinions were mixed. I loved her collection of short stories, Six feet of the country. I read it in the mid 1980s and it has stuck with me.

    • I think that was one of her most famous collections. I’m not likely to read it though since i just can’t get on with short stories no matter how good the writer

      • A shame Karen! It’s fantastic! Still you can lead a horse to water… Just joking… Oh, and trying to win more people over to the short side.

  • I’ve had this tbr for years, perhaps 2018 will be the year I read it. You make it sound exactly how I expected it to be, I had a feeling it might be a challenge. I very much enjoyed The Lying Days when I read it however.


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