The 5 stars you see flashing at you are not just any 5 stars. They are the end result of a whole day of deliberation.
I happen to be one of those people who are not stingy with their ratings. If a book manages to bestow equal importance on both the prose and the message contained within in such a way that neither overshadows the other and both meld into a single entity of an unforgettable work of literature/fiction capable of whisking the reader away to a special place, then it can take my 5 stars right away.
But July's People
had me dawdling back and forth between a 4 and a 5 star rating for the longest period of time.
What happens to a middle-class family of white liberals in South Africa fleeing the horrors of a large scale violent agitation started by the blacks in the city? They find a safe haven in their black manservant July's village.
Away from the amenities of an upscale, urban neighborhood in Johannesburg, away from all known civilization, in the heart of the formidable great South African wilderness, among people whose lives are different from their own as chalk is from cheese, Bamford and Maureen Smales and their 3 children become witnesses to the spectacle of humanity, stripped of all its materialistic props.
They become mute spectators to their own struggle for survival in the harshest of conditions and are left with no other option but to fall into the same pattern of weed-gathering, mealie-meal consuming, wart-hog slaying daily activities of the native Africans. They are also forced to accept this drastic role reversal with July, who had so far been at the receiving end of their patronizing 'kindness'
and occasional thoughtfulness.
When July becomes their savior and protector, they finally start to realize how it must have been for July all this time to have been reduced to the status of dependence on a white family, to be considered human but still never judged according to the same criteria used to evaluate a white man's worth.
Thus in the middle of the intractable African countryside, in the constant presence of buzzing mosquitoes and other poisonous bugs and in an environment redolent of decay and rotting animal corpses, all the hitherto insurmountable barriers between Maureen, the mistress, and July, the servant, are dismantled by the tide of circumstances. Maureen and July assume their true roles as mere humans in a symbiotic relationship where the nature of the dependence of one on the other may vary with a change in the scenario.
And herein lies the poignancy of this story which relies much on the Maureen-July equation to lend the plot its true substance.
"We can go to my home - July said it, standing in the living-room where he had never sat down, as he would say 'We can buy a little bit paraffin' when there was a stain to be removed from the floor. That he should have been the one to decide what they should do, that their helplessness, in their own house, should have made it clear to him that he must do this - the sheer unlikeliness was the logic of their position."
"How was she to have known, until she came here, that the special consideration she had shown for his dignity as a man, while he was by definition a servant, would become his humiliation itself, the one thing there was to say between them that had any meaning."
"Of course, 'July' was a name for whites to use; for fifteen years they had not been told what the chief's subject was really called."
"She was unsteady with something that was not anger but a struggle: her inability to enter into a relation of subservience with him that she had never had with Bam."
Oh I could go on quoting such brilliant lines, fraught with underlying implications of life-changing proportions.
Thus, July's People
is not just a fantastic meditation on inter-racial tension but also an attempt at acknowledging the humanity of the ones considered less human.
Gordimer doesn't merely highlight the ambiguity of the South African socio-political situation against the backdrop of the Anti-Apartheid movement or this imperfect intermingling of two cultures so disparate and alien to each other. She also poses a few fundamental questions which go far beyond the limits of a topic like racial discrimination. How do we live together in harmony? How do we come to terms with the differences(social, economic or racial) we perceive in others?
As I write this, I am repeatedly struck by my own inadequacy as a reviewer and the fact that a few measly passages in a review cannot even come close to recording the experience of reading this book. I am fumbling around for the right words to present to the future reader, all the vivid images and the indescribably complex human emotions that Gordimer has stitched together with the gift of her skillful yet subtle story-telling in this narrative.
At times I forgot I was reading this in an air-conditioned room and found myself in Maureen's shoes - having to wash the unhygienic dirty rags she uses in the absence of sanitary napkins to soak up her menstrual blood or squatting down together with the women of July's family and plucking edible vegetables. I could almost imagine myself living the same nightmare as the Smales family in that stifling atmosphere rife with Equatorial heat and humidity and taut with the tension between July's black people and his white employers.
I am letting Ms Gordimer take over from me again-
"On this night alone - Saturday - were the people awake among their sleeping companions, their animals; in the darkness(Drawing away, up from it, in the mind, like an eagle putting distance between his talons and the earth) the firelight of their party was a pocket torch held under the blanket of the universe. Heat and dark began to dissolve and she had to go in. There were no gutters; the soft rain was soundless on the thatch."
"It was the first time there had been rain since they came; the worn thatch darkened and began helplessly to conduct water down its smooth stalks; it dripped and dribbled. Insects crawled and flew in. They were activated by the moisture, broke from the chrysalis of darkness that had kept them in the walls, in the roof. She knew that the lamp attracted them but she kept it on. The flying cockroaches that hit her face were creatures she was familiar with."
And so I give July's People
all the 5 stars. Because Nadine Gordimer excels at what she sets out to do here - dissect the human predicament with precision and deep sympathy, remove layering upon layering of man-made fabrications and reveal the crux of a human relationship as simple and complicated as Maureen and July's.
And if one thinks about it, she has titled this book ingeniously as well. What does she mean by July's people? July's own kith and kin, the anonymous and indistinguishable (to the white people) blacks of his own village? Does she mean July's white people who are also an indispensable part of his existence? Or is she referring to both at the same time? I think she left it as an unanswered question, left it for us to decide who July's people are.
And one has to admit, that it is certainly a question worth pondering.