By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Some people are shocked! shocked! when a housewife in Calcutta buys a clothes washer and feels liberated. They go into mourning when an Amazonian indigene turns up with a transistor radio in hand. Such people will love the opening chapters of "The Pickup," Nadine Gordimer’s brilliant new novel, a tale of clashing—or maybe just intersecting—cultures in Southern Africa. Above all, until the complications and ambiguities set in, they will deeply identify with Julie.
Julie is in full snooty rebellion against the wealthy upper middle class world of her financier father and his young trophy wife—a milieu which, she notes during a visit for Sunday drinks and dinner (with her own dark, handsome Arab trophy in tow) now includes black notables as well as the whites who cling to power in post-apartheid South Africa. Desperate to find relief from materialism and anomie, Julie ignores the evidence that her lover, an illegal immigrant employed as a mechanic in a Johannesburg auto repair shop, actually aspires to success in the rich, industrialized world. Abdu/Ibrahim, it seems, is determined to escape the world Julie falls in love with when she finally gets there: a tiny village on the edge of the desert in an unnamed African country where life seems to follow age old traditional patterns.
By this time, Abdu/Ibrahim has been kicked out of South Africa, and he and Julie are married, since they can't appear in his ancestral village as unwed intimates. As she ingratiates herself with her new in-laws, she tries not to notice that her husband puts all his energy into obtaining a visa that will permit him to be done with village life legally and forever. Of course, Abdu/Ibrahim has been equally incurious about Julie’s rebellion against the life into which she was born and into which, he had hoped, she would inject him. At least the sex has been good.
This is a spare, elegantly written fiction that takes an unflinching look at the dilemmas we face in a world of fluidity and great inequality. I couldn’t help cheering for Julie and for Abdu/Ibrahim. I wanted them to end up happy and fulfilled—and together. But there is no place where such mutuality can happen, unless both are willing to relinquish their clashing versions of the good life and concede that neither modern urban life nor traditional village life spontaneously meets all human needs. Meanwhile, their paths may be diverging, a poignant and convincing end note for a superb work of fiction.
Only when I was still savoring a fiction-lover’s first reading of "The Pickup" did I realize that there had been a very powerful subtext: this novel is a terrific illustration of the dialogue of the deaf that takes place during debates about development and globalization. No one who wants flawless heros/heroines, easy-to-hate villains or simple answers will be comfortable with this book. It’s full of honest ambiguities, gentle (and not so gentle) ironies, intriguing parallels—much too much to examine here! If you’re sick of abstractions and absolutes, if you’re willing to deliver yourself to the imagination, moral depth and intelligence of one of the world’s greatest living novelists who is still totally in touch, pick up "The Pickup."