19 OCTOBER 1991, Page 43

Irrecoverably dark, without all hope of day

Hilary Mantel

JUMP AND OTHER STORIES by Nadine Gordimer Bloomsbury, £13.99, pp.257 Now that Nadine Gordimer has been awarded a Nobel Prize, it will be harder than ever to separate the author and her work. Still, we must try. Last year, when My Son's Story was ushered to judgment before a (beatifically harmonious) Booker committee, the present writer appeared as witness for the prosecution, adducing in evidence sentences so lofty of purpose and so innocent of the principles of con- struction that they frequently collapsed like Gothic vaults on the heads of the wor- shippers. She may be holy, but can she write?

South African writers exact a pious response; we forgive Coetzee's The Age of Iron its time-worn metaphor of a cancerous society, and for the promise of gold we will sieve the 800 pages of Andre Brink's An Act of Terror. When the author's single subject is her suffering society, who is the reader to ask not to suffer too? If you cannot read Gordimer's Burger's Daughter, no doubt the fault lies in you. What do you want? Wit? Diversion? A glimmer of hope? You should be ashamed of your- self.

This is Nadine Gordimer's ninth collection of stories. They are as trenchant and committed as her novels, but show her to better advantage as a writer. In The Ultimate Safari the narrator is a starving child, a refugee from Mozambique, fleeing through the Kruger game reserve while the scent of meat drifts from tourist camp-fires and the vultures go about their efficient work. Sentences are stripped down, simplified; the same is true of Amnesty, where the narrator is a young black woman — 'I had passed my Standard 8 and I was working in the farm school' — picking up her life with a husband changed by his imprisonment on Robben Island.

Once Upon A Time has the outward form of a fairy story; its setting is a suburb where life is conducted behind electronic gates, blue sky is glimpsed through burglar bars, and the trills of security alarms compete by night with the sound of the cicadas. As we tour the streets in the author's company, her language rises to a magnificent crescendo of scorn; we view the attempts at reconciling the aesthetics of prison architecture with the Spanish Villa style (spikes painted pink) and with the 'For God's sake, stop being so negative.'

plaster urns of neo-classical façades (12-inch spikes finned like zig-zags of lightning and painted pure white).

Our particular family chooses to protect itself behind 'dragon's teeth', topping the garden walls with a coil of serrated metal from which

there would be no way out, or a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of flesh.

Elsewhere, a didactic purpose is thinly masked; too often Gordimer's characters, keenly self-aware, think in manifestos and talk like tracts. In What Were You Dream- ing?, a South African woman is inducting a bemused Englishman into the country's complexities; he drives, the author (we feel) is in the passenger seat, and there is a coloured hitch-hiker in the back. As they travel

she gives him another of the little history lessons she has been supplying along the way,

and exhorts him to

think of the function of charity in the class struggles in your own country in the 19th century.

The settings do sometimes move away from southern Africa, but usually the sub- jects are plucked from the daily slaughter and the nightly news:

Vengeance for holy wars, land annexation, invasions, imprisonments, cross-border raids, territorial disputes, bombings, sinkings, kidnappings. . .

Gordimer's handling of these horrors is formal, distant, abstract. Her protagonists — whether they are victims or the wielders of power, or whether in the course of the story they change places — are unnamed. Born of pity and polemic, they are viewed with a war photographer's eye; both the mood and thc manner of this collection remind one of Lifetimes Under Apartheid, Gordimer's collaboration with the photo- grapher David Goldblatt. Single sharp images pierce the gloom, but do not dissipate it. Each action is examined for its minatory connotations. Perhaps most of us have at one time or another scribbled a telephone number on a wrist; when a Gordimer character does this, we are directed to think of the brand on the arm of a concentration camp inmate.

These stories have complexity and resonance, sometimes grandeur. They also have a transparency; they are written to translate, to mean something to everyone. All of them are worth reading and re- reading. But it is not true that, as one critic claimed last year,

If you were never to read any other literature about South Africa, Gordimer's work would be enough.

Has anything changed in that country over the last couple of years? Many readers will think so. But Nadine Gordimer inhabits an inner country where hope is still an offence.