Saturday, December 4, 2021

Review of Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun

 A house gun. If it hadn't been there how could you defend yourself, in this city, against losing your hi-fi equipment, your television set and computer, your watch and rings, against being gagged, raped, knifed. If it hadn't been there the man on the sofa would not be under the ground of the city.

Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun begins with Harold and Claudia, an upper-middle class white couple in post-apartheid South Africa, getting an urgent message from their son’s friend. As is natural, they fear bad news, and the news is bad, but not in the way they expected. They discover that their son has been arrested and held responsible for a murder. The House Gun explores their state of mind as they process this information and go through their son's trial, in the process exploring the psychology of their son, each other, and themselves.

The House Gun is unlike any other novel I have read, in terms of the aloofness it maintains from its central characters. This would put off a lot of readers. But despite this being my first encounter with Nadine Gordimer’s writings, I suspect that this detachment from her characters is deliberate. After all, Harold and Claudia themselves lead a life detached from any outsiders -- including each other -- living by the unsaid motto that that they “never belonged in the public expression of private opinions”. Claudia is an atheist and a doctor, someone who attaches significance to the close physical contact she has with her patients on a day to day basis. Harold is a catholic, and a corporate executive. He is also “what is known as a great reader, which means a searcher after something that is ambitiously called the truth; both conditional concepts he would be the first, amusedly, to concede”. 

Harold and Claudia are liberal from afar. Which means that in theory, they support equality, are open to people making their own choices, and try not to be racist. But they are prey to their conditioned instincts. Hence they take a skeptical view when their son hires a black lawyer. This is not racist, they say - or rather, they think, for this is a novel that operates purely on a psychological level. They justify this, as one would : “We don't have to attribute that doubt to racist prejudice, because it is a fact, incontrovertible fact, that due to refusal prejudices in the old regimes, black lawyers have had far less expertise than white lawyers, and experience is what counts. They've had fewer chances to prove themselves; it's their disadvantage, and you would not be showing racial prejudice in seeing that disadvantage as yours, if entrusting defense to most of them.” As they discover more about their son, we learn more about the prejudices they still hold. Liberalism from afar is great, but how hard is it to be progressive when it involves your own children? 

Nadine Gordimer’s writing is as precise as a swiss watch. Even the professions of the characters are meant to convey their characteristics. But the same precision contributes to the book’s aloofness, making it difficult to relate to any of the characters. This is a shame, since some of these characters exhibit a great potential to be explored in much more depth. Personally, this book made, and continues to make, me ruminate on a lot of themes - what it means to be truly liberal, remnants of racial tensions in post-apartheid South Africa, gun violence, parenting, capital punishment, possessiveness in a romantic relationship (“He closes his hands on what he wants so tightly that he kills it”), and marriage. I enjoyed the book, but I would be cautious in recommending it to everyone.

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