For a long time South Africa was a place where a white minority saw itself in the right to exclude the vast coloured majority from power and even to determine the lives of its members in a way that nobody with working brains was likely to endure willingly, but in the end segregation and institutionalised discrimination couldn’t last even there. Thanks to the influence of Nelson Mandela and other moderate political activists the country saw a peaceful transition from the Apartheid regime to a democratic system based on equal rights for all her citizens. None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1991, shows some of the dramatic changes during this difficult period and their influence on the daily lives of South Africans.
Nadine Gorimer was born in Springs, Transvaal, Union of South Africa, in November 1923. Having been mainly home-taught and thus rather isolated during her childhood, she turned to writing early. Already at the age of 15 years her first short story for children appeared in a newspaper and as a sixteen-year-old she made her literary debut in adult fiction. The author’s first novel, The Lying Days, came out in 1953. For the moral and racial issues that the author dealt with critically in her work, the Apartheid regime banned novels like A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), Burger's Daughter (1979), and July's People (1981). Others of her important works published before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 are Occasion for Loving (1963), A Guest of Honour (1970), and The Conservationist (1974). None to Accompany Me (1994), The House Gun (1998), The Pickup (2001), and Get a Life (2005) count among the most notable novels of her late years. In addition to her novels the author brought out a great number of short story collections and essays. Nadine Gordimer died in Johannesburg, South Africa, in July 2014.
The scene of None to Accompany Me is Johannesburg in South Africa where Vera and Bennet “Ben” Stark live in an old house that had been part of the divorce agreement with her first husband. When the latter had returned from World War II, she had already had a lover, Ben, whom she married immediately after the divorce… and betrayed with her ex-husband once never knowing if her son Ivan was her first husband’s or Ben’s really. When Nelson Mandela is released from prison in 1990 and the Apartheid regime falls, Vera and Ben have been married for over forty years, happily married although Ben built his life around Vera sacrificing even his dream of being a sculptor and although in her forties Vera had an affair with a man fifteen or more years her junior. The couple has a son, Ivan, and a daughter, Annie. Ever since Vera resumed work after maternity leave, she has been a lawyer with the Legal Foundation and fighting for the rights of coloured clients although discriminating laws hampered her efforts a lot. The end of Apartheid brings new challenges with black communities claiming back the lands of their ancestors from white farmers like Tertius Odendaal who aren’t even willing to talk to them. By and by long-time political exiles like Sibongile “Sally” and Didymus “Didy” Maqoma, who used to be friends with the Starks, return to South Africa to seize the opportunity to create a just South Africa. In the climate of political uncertainty violence spreads across the country. On a deserted road on the way back from a fieldtrip, Vera Stark and her assistant are assaulted and robbed. She is wounded in the leg by a bullet and he is shot into the chest, but survives at first and dies later from unexpected complications. On the political field Sally Maqoma becomes a rising star, while her husband who had been the real activist of the couple is reduced to a role in the background. At the same time Vera Stark gets a chance to work on the new constitution and becomes even more absorbed into her work leaving her husband to himself with his failed business. Slowly her former client, Zeph Rapulana, who was a squatter-camp leader and belongs now to the new black middle-class, is taking the place of her best friend, confident and adviser.
Like real life None to Accompany Me interweaves the personal fates of its characters with events and atmosphere surrounding them. The setting is South Africa in the early 1990s. As is (or should be) generally known, the period is one of dramatic change on the political level, but also the lives of the Starks, the Maqomas and people like them are taking a new direction. There’s nothing extraordinary about the characters portrayed in the novel, not about anything they do, nor about anything that happens to them. They are average people coping best they can with the new situation. Vera Stark as the female protagonist of the third-person narrative also finds herself re-evaluating her marriage and discovering how shadows of the past like her first husband and her lover Otto Abarbanel fit in. She realises that the ultimate intimacy with a man that she yearns for is impossible and that being the beloved centre and only purpose of another person is a burden that she doesn’t want to carry any longer. She wants to be alone and on her own with none to accompany her – thus the title. The author tells the story of her protagonists representing South African people with such great narrative skill that it absorbs the reader right away. Characters, moods and events feel entirely drawn from real life although they are fiction embedded in historical facts. The language of Nadine Gordimer is rich in powerful images and easy to read although she uses several idiomatic expressions from her country (at least I believe that it’s for this reason that I didn’t know them). Also her clear and critical mind, which made that several of her books were banned by the Apartheid regime for a time, is obvious in every line.
Overall I enjoyed reading None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer very much. It surely isn’t the novel for which the author is best known, but it makes see despite all that the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1991 didn’t go into the wrong direction. In any case it’s another excellent book to which I gladly dedicated a post and which I recommend warmly.
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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!