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SHELF LIFE: Husbands and wives, parents and children

By Sumana Ramanan

11th June 2020

In her dozens of novels and short stories, the South African writer Nadine Gordimer (1923 to 2014) relentlessly explored the intersection of people’s personal lives with their political beliefs and actions. As someone growing up in apartheid South Africa, when one’s race determined almost every aspect of one’s life and the hand of politics lay barely concealed beneath the surface of every personal action, such as where one could live and who one could befriend, this was perhaps inevitable. In two of her novels, one set in the apartheid era and one in the post-apartheid period, an important aspect of the personal dimension involves the relationship between family members – between husbands and wives and parents and children. Both also happened to involve love triangles.

In My Son’s Story (1990), set in the apartheid era, a teenage boy spots his father, Sonny, whose family falls in the racial category of “coloured”, in a movie theatre with a white woman. The father, a school teacher who becomes an important political figure in the anti-apartheid movement, does not know his son knows. As teenagers are wont to do, the son, Will, whom his Anglophile father names after Shakespeare, harshly judges his father, privately scoffing at the public perception of Sonny as a committed family man, in addition to being a courageous revolutionary and brilliant orator. In the end, Gordimer seems to sympathise with Will, because she quietly turns the tables on Sonny. While her husband is busy with his job and political engagements, his devoted and sweet-tempered wife, Aila, anchors the home. But Sonny is so disengaged from home that he does not notice Aila’s transformation. By the end, she is recruited by the rising, more militant wing of the anti-apartheid African National Congress, Umkhonto We Sizwe, as the tactics of resistance change and her husband falls into relative political irrelevance.

In The House Gun (1998), a politically correct upper middle-class couple learns of the shocking news in post-apartheid South Africa that their architect son has been charged with murder, a charge to which he does not deny. The effect of this puts unprecedented stress not only between the parents, Harald and Claudia, and their son, Duncan, but also between husband and wife, who subconsciously search for an answer to their son’s crime in his upbringing. Duncan admits to shooting his friend, Carl, when he catches him making love to his girlfriend, Natalie. It turns out to be a double betrayal because we learn that Duncan was earlier involved with Carl. Although the larger social and political themes, such as the proliferation of guns and crime in the post-apartheid period, and the changing relationship between blacks and whites – Duncan’s lawyer is black – her psychological insights into what parents might go through in such a situation are what make the book compelling. The situation tests not only the parents’ love for their son, but also the strength of their own relationship as each reacts in a different way.

My Son’s Story received more all-round praise than did The House Gun, which some critics found had serious flaws. One critic said it fizzled out in the end into a courtroom drama while another felt Gordimer had not fleshed out Duncan’s character enough for us to understand what led him to something as extreme as murder. But the books still presented powerful portraits into that intense and fraught relationship between husband and wife and parents and children – the first from the son’s viewpoint, reacting to his father’s transgression, and the second from the parents’ perspective, as they cope with their son’s crime.

(SHELF LIFE is a weekly post from the world of books: literature, ideas, reading, writing, publishing, and anything in between.)

(Facebook: Sumana Ramanan, Instagram: sumanaspirit, Twitter: @sumana_ramanan)