Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"My Son's Story" by Nadine Gordimer

Johannesburg in the Times of Apartheid

If you are visiting from the class project on Nadine Gordimer, you are very welcome here-feel free to leave any comments or questions you may have-Jan 13, 2011

My  Son's Story (1990, 277 pages) is my first venture into the very large corpus of Nadine Gordimer.   Gordimer (1923-) was born in Johannesburg South Africa in a time of institutionalized legally mandated white supremacy.    Citizens were legally classified as either pure white, black or colored by the government. (Indians were also treated as a separate class of citizen.)   Where one could live was determined by your race.   Where you could go to school was determined by this.  In most areas, only whites were allowed to use the libraries, for example.   The wealth of the country was concentrated in the hands of whites.    Here is a good summery of the history of racial relations in South Africa (from

"Racial segregation in South Africa began in colonial times, but apartheid as an official policy was introduced following the general election of 1948. New legislation classified inhabitants into racial groups ("black", "white", "coloured", and "Indian"), and residential areas were segregated by means of forced removals. From 1958, Blacks were deprived of their citizenship, legally becoming citizens of one of ten tribally based self-governing homelands called bantustans, four of which became nominally independent states. The government segregated education, medical care, and other public services, and provided black people with services inferior to those of whites.

Apartheid sparked significant internal resistance and violence as well as a long trade embargo against South Africa.[1] A series of popular uprisings and protests were met with the banning of opposition and imprisoning of anti-apartheid leaders. As unrest spread and became more violent, state organizations responded with increasing repression and state-sponsored violence."

My Son's Story is set in the decade prior to the beginning of the end of apartheid (1990) as a state policy.   It details in a masterful way the effects of growing up mixed in this enviornment.    A very big part of the evil of the policy is the harm it does to the souls of those raised under it as Gordimer shows us brilliantly in My Son's Story.

There are five characters that matter in this novel.   Sonny, a mixed race political activist and the father of late teen age Will and his slightly older daughter Baby.   He is married to Aila who is a beautiful, very mature almost gently regal woman.   One day Will sees his father at the movies with a white woman, a blond named Hannah who his father met through his political contacts.   (Hannah is mentioned as blond over and over - maybe this is a bit heavy handed on the part of Gordimer).    The son is shocked.   He begins to feel hatred as well as jealousy toward his father as he too wishes to be with a blond woman rather than the sort of woman society feels he should have.   The first woman for whom he has a sexual desire is a woman his father is committing adultery with.   Hannah is not at all a bad person.   She is very involved in the struggle for human rights in South Africa and is solicitous about Sonny's family.   Sonny (Gordimer does point out for us the irony of calling a mature man in a position of leadership  "Sonny" and sees the proliferation of such names as one of the insidious effects of state policies) feels deep guilt over his unfaithfulness to his wife.    He wants a white woman so badly he will risk everything to be with Hannah.

My Son's Story does a wonderful job detailing the small intimacies that make up a good marriage.   Sonny has a very good wife and a very good marriage.   Sonny is also a deep reader of Shakespeare and Kafka.   Sonny's daughter Baby is a bit rebellious but nothing real bad.   I noticed as the action of the novel changed the prose style changed.   In a great set piece in which Gordimer describes a riot the tone and the syntax of the prose comes to unite with the plot action to make us feel we are in the middle of the riot.    Sonny does come across as a man who totally on his own has internalized much of Shakespeare.   As we read his thoughts we think what he might have been.    We see the many ways in which apartheid effects the characters.   Baby begins to act out in a way calculated to offend those in the community who admire her mother as a beautiful and dignified person of mixed blood.   Will and others in the work continually speak of tribal blacks as dangerous and undisciplined.   Much of  the self esteem of the son comes from looking down on blacks.    Some will question the exact motives of Hannah as we are not taken very deeply into her psyche.  

There is a lot in My Son's Story.    There is a very knowing portrait of the growth of intimacy in a marriage.   We see how the father's adultery affects his children and his wife as well as his commitment to the movement.   We see the inside of courts and prisons.    To me My Son's Story is a work of small gem-like   observations and fine subtle nuances.   I felt a powerful intelligence behind this work.    I learned, among other things, how labor policy under apartheid was behind to a large extent the spread of aids in South Africa.    In the three figures of Alia, Hannah and Baby we have a commentary on women in this society.    At some point one must wonder if the gentle refinement of Alia is really the result of her parents raising her to be a person very unlike the stereotypical notion of a nonwhite woman.   Maybe she is bound by this.    There is a very subtle suggestion that Alia may have her own affair also but we are left to decide if she did or not on our own.    Baby is acting out.   In her late teenage years she is dancing in the streets in skin tight clothes and shorts to music very unacceptable to her parents.   

There are interesting and exciting things that happen in the plot line.   At times Gordimer does seem a bit heavy handed in being sure we do not miss things.    She received the Nobel Prize in 1991.   She is very active in human rights organizations.    It should be noted that some in South Africa  see her as paternalistic and condescending in her treatment of blacks both in her work and in her social activities.

I am glad I read My Son's Story.   Maybe it is a bit heavy handed once or twice but it is beautifully written and a very high intellect shines through the book.  

I see this as a suitable read for the Women Unbound Challenge given its treatment of the three women.    We see how a marriage is ruined by the binds of race.   Sonny would never have cheated on his wife with Hannah if she were not white.    Baby breaks away from her father and partially asserts herself also but to explain that would be a spoiler.    

Mel u


Aarti said...

I've never heard of this one, but it sounds great. It reminds that I've actually been wanting to read The Power of One. I saw and LOVED that movie about apartheid.

Suko said...

"Beautifully written"

"a work of small gem-like observations and fine subtle nuances"

"A very high intellect shines through the book"

"powerful intelligence behind this work"

My Son's Story sounds like a must-read!

Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

I haven't read any Gordimer yet. I'd really love to try her.

ds said...

I'm a big fan of Gordimer, and of this book. You have captured it beautifully. Well done, Mel!

Mel u said...

Aarti-I will look for that movie and book-thanks for the idea

Suko-thanks as always

Mrs B-I hope you will try it

Ds-thnaks-any idea on what my second Gordimer should be?

Jenners said...

What a wonderful and thoughtful review.

Mel u said...

Jenners-thanks and thank you for visiting my blog-I hope you will be back-your challenge looks like it is getting a lot of readers

mahi said...

couldnt agree more. what a well written book!

@parridhlantern said...

This does sound like an interesting read on an area of history slightly pushed under the carpet. Was the reasoning for the heavy handedness because she was highlighting an agenda, do you think.

Mel u said...

Parrish Lantern-yes I think she is pushing an agenda-thanks as always for your comment-

T said...

I just read this book. Good review, but I disagree with your treatment of Hannah. I don't think it was simply her race that attracted Sonny. It was also their participation in the movement, their interest in literature (Kafka btw, not Keats). He finds a sort of intimacy with her that he did not have with Aila. Her race is certainly a big factor, but not the only factor; Gordimer's work is far more nuanced than that. Also, I think you've discounted Will a little bit. He's struggling to find consistency in a time of change, make sense of his crushed home, understand what it means to struggle against one's environment. I think the most interesting parts of the book is Will's perspective on human agency. You did a great job capturing the beauty of the work.

Mel u said...

T-you make some very good points and of course within the defacto limits of a blog post one can not go into everything-I think Sonny would not have started an affair with the other woman were she not white, I think he was able to establish more intimacy with her because he somehow gave her more "credit" because of her race than he did his own wife. I did find, as have others, Gordimer to be a little heavy handed beating us with this but I am open to the possibility I need to read more of her work one day-

Unknown said...

How I can apply Edward said orientalism on that novel my son's story by Nadine gordimer