The Other Side of the Story
In South Africa, two parents struggle to understand how their son could commit murder.
By Donald Paul
THE HOUSE GUN, by Nadine Gordimer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 294 pages, $24.
JANUARY 5, 1998: Nadine Gordimer -- white South African, political activist, novelist, and Nobel Prize winner -- has always focused on the social issues that force people together, and explored the tensions that twist and buckle their lives. Her last novel, None to Accompany Me (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), delved into the lives of two couples -- one black, one white -- in a South Africa facing enormous changes. A critic once described it as the essential story of South Africa that had been waiting for an author, and she herself says, "You could call it a novel of the time of transition." The protagonists, two women named Vera Stark and Sibongile Maqoma, play the roles usually assigned to men; they are successful breadwinners, and in their shadows their husbands take shelter.
The House Gun, in a sense, picks up the nation's story some years later; here, Gordimer explores the realm of violence, particularly domestic violence. Harald and Claudia Lindgard have adapted to the transition of a Democratic South Africa by selling the family home and moving to a "townhouse complex with grounds maintained and security-monitored entrance." Their son, Duncan, an architect, has taken the family dog (no pets allowed in the Lingards' townhouse) to live with him in a cottage on the grounds of a large suburban home he shares with a group of young urban professionals, black and white.
Claudia works as a doctor with a private clinic; Harald sits on the board of a large insurance company. Gordimer's use of language, the shifts in who thinks and says what, captures the tight circle of their long-shared life. Into this comes, one Friday evening, a friend of their son with the news that Duncan has shot and killed one of the housemates with -- it turns out -- the house gun, a possession simultaneously outrageous and banal, as common as a house cat. Duncan now waits in jail and does not want his parents to see him until Monday. From here the language changes, and Gordimer begins to provide perspectives gleaned from each parent -- Harald's recollections of school as he enters the prison, Claudia's pragmatic, almost clinical attitude.
Gordimer builds a composite picture of Duncan as seen by his parents, who must rely on memories, shared and personal; on found diaries; on the collage of impressions from his friends; on the testament of his lover, whose infidelity becomes part of the legal defense; and, ultimately, from the sophisticated black lawyer who defends their son, Hamilton Motsamai, "a man who has mastered everything, all contradictions that were imposed upon him by the past." Gordimer's technique layers facts with shreds of truth, and from this Duncan never emerges; he remains an enigma, even after we finally hear his own voice, some two-thirds of the way into the novel. The Lingards, forced into examining that ill-defined world of adult children and parents, realize not how little they know, but how much they don't. Harald, a man immersed in religion and literature, seems surprised when he comes across Duncan's diary and finds therein a quote from Dostoyevsky. As a doctor, Claudia "stands on the other side of the divide from those who cause [pain]. The divide of the ultimate, between death and life." And now she stands on the other side from her son.
How does a father acknowledge his son's ability to kill, to enter that "labyrinth of violence . . . along with men who robbed and knifed a man"? And how does a mother reconcile the revulsion she feels for a murderer when he is her son and she has become a betrayer of the "covenant [we] made with him"? Gordimer's writing is as hard and relentless as a sheer rock face: traversing this terrain, every word must be grasped, the way a climber on a smooth mountain surface must search for a grip.
The author once said that details are what convey truth and connect narrative. By this she meant that the reader comes to understand her characters and their thoughts through a process of accretion, through the gathering of nuances. The House Gun remains true to this vision. But the accretion seems meager, the sense of ambivalence overwhelming, the factual conclusion too inevitable and, more chilling, too nihilistic: that violence, or the option of violence, comes readily and unthinkingly in a society equipped to defend itself.
Donald Paul is a freelance editor and writer in Cape Town, South Africa.
From The House Gun
The gun is in court. It has become Exhibit 1. A draught of curiosity bends the companions in the public forward to try and catch a glimpse of it.
A conversation with Nadine Gordimer
by Donald PaulQ: Of your previous novels, you once said that the society you wrote about was based upon a lie. In The House Gun, it is not based upon lies but upon confessions of the truth -- Duncan is guilty from the start and admits it. Does his confession reflect more complex issues of today's South Africa, where issues of right and wrong are now more ambiguous?
A: I don't think we are living a lie now, especially at this very time when we are going through the most extraordinary and painful digging up of the truth. Every day the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] and the Amnesty Commission have the most extraordinary things come out of them, so that the complexity of human beings, the complexity of their reactions to different pressures on their personal lives and their political and working lives, and the constant shift in their morality is exposed.
Q: And also a shift in their reality?
A: Yes, if you take the principles of the people who are applying for amnesty. If you commit a crime the way Duncan does in my book, that has nothing to do with a political belief. It is a personal animus that you have. If you go for amnesty, you have to prove that what you did -- the murder, the abduction, whatever was done -- was done because of the ideals which you held for a political structure or party.
Q: Do you think the TRC is fulfilling its charter?
A: My own feeling is that the TRC is really remarkable because the victims do seem to get something out of it. Some feel that they don't, but I've been to a couple of hearings, and you can see the kind of catharsis that occurs, especially for people whose names didn't get into the paper -- the humble people, if you like to call them that. Nobody ever listened to them before, when they lost sons, daughters, and husbands. Now you've got a whole group of prominent people who are listening to you, and it provides catharsis.
Q: The TRC has provided a way for politicians and ordinary people to come to grips with the past. How does the artist, the writer today, pass through this period of the past?
A: You know, the press has been called to answer for their role in the days of apartheid and are reluctant to respond, but I can't see how that applies to poets and playwrights and writers. I do think that, on the whole, creative writers -- a dubious term -- really were the cultural armies of the liberation struggle. We all did what we had to do. Some didn't -- but, by and large, in our humble way, we did something. Now, it is too soon to see whether they are coming to grips with the freedom of being able to roam about and not have to take up an offensive or defensive position. It's very early for this, of course, because writers are not journalists. They don't have a deadline but a mandate of transforming the experience of what they see around them. This goes through a process before it leads to fiction, but it is happening, and one can see people moving into these areas -- for instance, the more personal.
Q: It seems that the social violence of your early novels has come "home" in that violence is now exactly that: more personal.
A: That's a strange thing with books, because when I began to write The House Gun, I was interested in the triangle between Harald, Claudia, and Duncan and the people who acted round it, so to speak. But as I began to write it, I began to realize it had something to do with the climate of violence that we feel so strongly about us, and not just in our country. It is a characteristic of big-city life everywhere.
Q: You chose to figuratively lock away Duncan, your protagonist.
A: Yes, he comes in after about 200 pages, after we have had everyone's view of him, and that is what I really wanted to do. To me that emphasizes the mystery that he was, even to the people closest to him.
Q: Again, does this reflect, on the personal level, our liabilities not only for the past but, now, for the acts of our children?
A: There is one common experience most of us have: we have been children and have suffered from our parents' not understanding us -- and, indeed, they didn't. Then the position is reversed, and you are the parent, and so you occupy both roles in your life. I think they are both mysterious, and I have been exploring this my whole life -- you don't ever really know anybody completely. A person, the persona, is made up of many different views and experiences of that person's life. It is not only your experience, it is also how others experience you.
Q: This comes back to the questions of ambiguity in our lives. The House Gun focuses on the actual courtroom drama and how people -- Duncan's parents -- react to the justice system. At one point, Harald, a moral figure, feels so desperate he wants to "just get him off."
A: I became more and more interested in the shift of [Claudia's and Harald's] attitudes to what had happened and their different attempts to reflect that. They move from being hostile to each other about how their son, Duncan, turned out -- blaming each other and asking "Who did what?" -- to clinging together in a terrible state when they feel almost disgusted by their son and want to reject him. So there is this strange kind of bond, and their bond is a sort of ancillary to their strained relationship with Duncan. Novels become novels within novels.
Q: You seem to have moved from the public domain of apartheid to the private dominion of alienation.
A: It's difficult to say, because if you look at None to Accompany Me, then you can call it a novel of the time of transition. It's very personal, but her [Vera Stark's] life is bound up very strongly with the old apartheid regime and with the freedom to live the way she's always wanted to. I think I always move back and forth in these two domains, especially in the earlier novels such as The Conservationist [Viking, 1983]. I see, without any conscious effort, that I am naturally affected by the time in which I am writing the book. The climate of violence seems to seep through, like some kind of stain, so that it forms the connection of their lives.
Q: What are you doing at the moment?
A: What I have been doing is making a documentary film. And it's the
clumsiest business in the world. I am used to having just my piece of paper,
but with film everything is subject to everybody. It is a documentary about
Johannesburg and Berlin, two cities where tremendous social engineering
experiments were attempted, and which both ended within a month of each other
-- the Wall came down, and, in South Africa, most of the leaders of the
struggle for freedom were released or returned from exile and a big rally was
held in Johannesburg, the first without police. My son is a filmmaker and we
decided we would try to depict this. We are living through extreme and painful
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