July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer.
July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer. Penguin Books (1982), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 176 pages.
A brilliant novel about a white South African family, forced to leave Johannesburg because of the violence against whites, and their former servant who has rescued them and taken them to his village.
Noble Prize-winner Nadine Gordimer is a South African writer who lived through apartheid and its violent ending. In this novel she explores the psychological changes to both blacks and whites when those who were powerful become totally dependent and those who have been powerless suddenly hold life-and-death influence over their former masters. This subtly political novel is not about ideology or revenge, but about how gaining or losing power and privilege affects us as human beings. More personally, Gordimer is looking at the question of where white liberals like herself fit into the new order. As power continues to shift in the post-colonial world, this is an important question for white liberals like myself to consider.
SPOILERS: Sorry, but I can’t discuss this book with addressing its ending.
For fifteen years, July had been the servant of a prosperous, white family living in the suburbs of Johannesburg. When black rebels attacked the city, he saved their lives by taking them to hide in his own village. The novel opens with July bringing them breakfast tea, “as his kind had always done for their kind.” But the familiarity of that act underlines the immense physical and psychological changes that have taken place. The children adapted first, swept up in the waves of children who roamed the village. The new reality of village life is worse for the adults on whom the novel centers. Maureen realizes what is happening:
She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon and filled her as someone’s breathe fills a balloon shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compare with what she was finding she didn’t know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination.
The sheer physical deprivation of life in the village was overwhelming to both Maureen and Bam. As Gordimer vividly describes, there was no privacy, no ways to keep clean, and dull repetitive food, but the psychological shifts were even more dramatic. The total dependence on the villagers was also disorienting. They had no point of reference for what was happening to them.
Bam and Maureen also changed in how they related with each other. Sexual desire between them had ended and they no longer made love. “Lack of privacy killed desire–if there had been any to feel.” But the rift between them went deeper. “Back there” they had pulled together when trouble threatened. Now Bam had no idea of what Maureen might say or do. She had been raised to be dependent on men and when she saw her husband as helpless, she distanced herself, still wanting him to be the refuge and protector he had been in the past. Briefly she longed “to go over to the man and sink against, embrace him, touch someone recalled, not the one who persisted in his name, occasionally supplying meat, catching fish for the people.”
July’s People is not simply about how the whites respond to change, but also about July and the people of the village. It is never easy to write about those who are outside one’s own frame of references, but Gordimer had been attentive and respectful enough to listen to how black Africans thought and felt before she wrote about them. She is able to skillfully reveal the differences between the mask that July presented as a servant and the person he became once that mask was removed. He went from being polite, accommodating, and servile to showing himself as a village leader. He no longer carried his passbook, but he didn’t dare throw it away. Although he continued to bring them food and fuel, his attitude toward them changed. He made clear in little ways that he was now the one in control. He took the keys to the vehicle in which the group escaped and went off to get supplies without telling his former masters. When Bam’s gun disappeared, he refused to try to find who took it.
July’s wife and mother were polite to Maureen, but they did not befriend her. Instead, they complained to July that the whites could not be as helpless as they seem and that it was dangerous to hide them in their midst. They viewed Maureen as particularly clueless. She had to be taught “the difference between a plant that even a cow knew better than to chew, and the leaves that would make her children strong.”
As Maureen became increasingly desperate, she tried to approach July and create a sexual bond between them. July wanted none of her attention and responded with
the stored-up bitterness of having done her bidding for years.
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.
The book ends with Maureen running away. A helicopter could be heard landing near the village and, although she had no knowledge of whom it contains, she ran toward it.
She runs: trusting herself with all the suppressed trust of a lifetime, alert, like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of young, existing only for their own survival, the enemy of all that would make claims of responsibility. She can hear the beat, beyond those trees, and those, and she runs toward it. She runs.
Gordimer’s prose is dense and full of detail. As much as I loved July’s People, I was sometimes unable to follow what was happening. Perhaps Gordimer was intentionally creating a mood of confusion and uncertainty in her writing. In response, I turned to literary criticism of the book. One of the articles I found was Nancy Topping Bazin’s “White Women, Black Revolutionaries.” In it she discussed the ways in which gender and sex are interwoven with politics and power in this book. Having read Gordimer’s letters, she is able to fill in some of her intention in ending the novel as she did. When a film producer was revising the book to make it into a movie, he pushed her create an ending that would be clearer to audiences. Her response was to show Maureen as hoping that the helicopter contained black rebels and that they would accept her.
As Bazin shows from Gordimer’s letters, the author disdainfully rejected the idea of writing a “feminist” narrative. Maureen did not find internal strength to survive alone or to become friends with the village women. She went from dependency on her husband and then on July to the hope that the helicopter would be “manned” with yet another individual or group who would take care of her. A novel as complex as this one may be interpreted from a variety of perspectives, but I found Bazin’s analysis helpful and valid.
I recommend this fine novel to other readers, especially those interested in colonial and post-colonial issues. If her other novels are as impressive as this one, I see why she was awarded the Noble Prize. I also understand why Kinna @ Kinnareads included it as the only novel by a white writer on her list of most important African women’s books. This is an important book for all of us to read as we try to understand each other across the colonial/post-colonial divide.