This new novel from the Nobel Prize-winner continues Gordimer's chronicle of the evolution of her native South Africa. Here in the U.S. we get very little news about other countries. As newspapers have restructured, dismantling their overseas desks, we are forced to go out on the internet to read foreign newspapers or turn to novels such as this one for details about what is going on.
Steve and Jabu met as activists during the Struggle and married despite misogyny laws. Now, in post-reconciliation South Africa, their interracial marriage is accepted, and both have found places within society's structure, Steve as a professor and Jabu as first a teacher and then a lawyer. With so many choices now available, they debate where to live, what schools are best for their children, how engaged they should continue to be in political activism.
While the couple maintains relationships, albeit sometimes strained, with their families and with new friends, their former comrades-in-arms continue to make up their primary community. The trust forged in guerilla combat carries more weight even than blood. The group gathers at one person's house or another for a suburban barbecue and endless discussion of their country's political doings. This is a country in the process of recreating itself, so arguments and false steps abound.
The aftermath of revolution is always a curious time. Will the rebels put down their guns and create a government? Will power-grabbing guerillas-turned-politicians forget their ideals? Or will a Terror ensue following by a Reaction?
In her race to transcribe the shifting tides of political thought and corrupt behavior in this brave, new world, Gordimer sacrifices her characters and their story. Dispensing with scenes that might slow and deepen the story, she tells us straight out what Steve and Jabu think and feel, briskly rapping out dialogue between the comrades that explicates the minutiae of the news. The result is a voice that is distant and impersonal, and characters who seem little more than puppets set up to exemplify the author's arguments.
Gordimer's prose has always been difficult but it is sometimes almost impenetrable here. Repetitive, rambling, weirdly punctuated: it could have used an editor's hand. I've enjoyed other books by Gordimer, but not this one. Despite my curiosity about how various cultures within the country are handling South Africa's transition and my prior familiarity with at least the broad strokes of its government's changes, the endless political discussions—mostly in the form of expository dialogue—bored me. The arguments could have used more story around them to support and personalise them, as Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath, using the story of the Joads to bring home to the reader the unjust treatment of the Okies. Steve and Jabu's story is too thin, too lightly sketched to serve that function here.
No Time Like the Present raises important and interesting questions. As an historical document, this book is invaluable. As a novel, though, not so much. What stories of Gordimer's have you liked?