The Conservationist

conservationistThe Conservationist
by Nadine Gordimer
1974 / 270 pages
rating: 9 / 20th century

Mehring is a very rich, white,  South African man who has purchased a 400 acre cattle farm in rural South Africa. This is during the days of apartheid and it all makes him think that he is happy – he works in the city, flies to Japan, rests a bit at his crumbling farm, plays with his mistress – life is good – except that he is increasingly isolated in an unfriendly world.

I suppose the title comes from the way in which Mehring wants to “conserve” his world – others,  the leftists, want to conserve the rhinoceros,  but Mehring is not concerned about that.  No one, it seems, wants to preserve black people and their land.  He’s just “conserving’  the status quo.

One day an unknown man, a Bantu,  is found dead on Mehring’s property while Mehring was away and was just simply buried there by the police because it was Sunday.  When Mehring arrives and finds out he is furious about an unknown man being just buried on his land.

Mehring is an outsider in many ways and from almost everything.  He’s not black, he’s not Afrikaner, he’s not an activist –  he doesn’t

gordimerhousereally have a “family” with him – he’s not a part of this world.  He purchased the farm to bring his mistress to and feel free and spiritual and party, rest at – but Mehring doesn’t really work at the farm because he knows nothing about farming. He doesn’t ever really live in the house which never gets fixed up.

The De Beers, Mehring’s neighbors, are typical Boer Afrikaners (farmer white Africans who speak Afrikaans – a mix of Dutch and a sprinkling of French) with huge families and, in those days,  racist attitudes.    “… they cannot conceive of a man without a family of some sort. If he hasn’t got one, they will invent one for him, by compassionate assumption.”  –  love that line –

But that section brought Gordimer some harsh criticism for being anti-Afrikaner:

(original complaint):

There is an Indian family who have their own language and customs although they speak English as needed.   Bismilla has a wife and children and his father to care for while tending the store.  The store is busy but he worries about money, about the police, about the family’s health. They build a wall around the store.

Mehring’s ex-wife has a new family in America, his mistress has a husband and friends somewhere, his son Terry is distancing himself, his co-workers and employees in the city are only that – Mehring is alone in the world, really, but wants to own it – the way he tells Antonia he enjoys buying prostitutes.

Jacobus also has a wide circle of family and connections.  He and Mehring have the traditional master/slave-servant relationship, but when Mehring is gone, Jacobus is in charge and holds the keys and his family knows that.  Jacobus speaks English to an extent as he needs it.

Mehring’s mistress, Antonia, is a married and a leftist-intellectual “type” who argues with him but he likes having a woman like her around – she apparently has an active group of friends.  And Mehring has a son, Terry,  who wants to go to America, who defies him:   – (pg 76) –  Actually,   Terry is showing a sense of social conscience – something Mehring totally lacks.

"I don’t see anything good (crossed out) anything to be gained by  living for nine months as a cropped head with a bunch of loyal    South Africans learning how to be the master race because you’ve  got the guns." (In a letter from Terry.)

Starting with the second “chapter” there are italicized sentences which seem to work as epigraphs but I have a feeling are like the prayers of someone.   An example from page 61 of the Kindle version:

I ask also for children, that this village may have a large population, and that your name may never come to an end.

A chunk of the novel is third person but inside Mehring’s head – what he thinks,  what he reports of Antonia’s thinking, his son’s thinking, Jacobus’ thinking – often ironic.  But the point of view also switches to his son or Jacobus.  Jacobus doesn’t think Mehring lives like a rich man at all – Terry doesn’t think his father is a millionaire.  Antonia says stuff like “If I had your money.”   He believes that “The farm, to justify its existence and that of these who work on it, must be a going concern. Those are the facts.”


South African kraal – little huts where rural blacks live

And then the black man Solomon is attacked, left for dead in the field, but he survives. And the reader finds out how the blacks live – for reals, searching the trash at the “location,” seeing people get knifed,  squatting until they can hopefully get a job on the farm, eating out of the neighbors’ pots.  Forming alliances against each other.

This is a world Mehring knows nothing about – not even much of their language. Meanwhile, Solomon’s attackers, who were wanting a loan repaid, were turned into a spirit by the rumor-mongers, the superstitious and the ignorant and no one ever corrected the children.

At one point a fire ravages the land leaving huge black patches of bareness where the grasses were growing for the cows.  Someone was “careless”?  This brings us to about half-way into the book and I was able to follow the story quite well to this point. But now the text gets very dense with the point of view changing, the situations changing, events piling on each other.

Generally, a flood hits and in part because of the fire damage,  the original dead black man’s body is brought out of his shallow grave to the surface.  The blacks from the kraal give him a proper funeral – like they were family.

I think bottom line the book is about this man, Mehring,  who is becoming more and more isolated in the midst of folks who are connected to life through family.  Everyone has the connections except Mehring – and that’s what was happening to apartheid and it’s supporters in South Africa at the time.  Look out, the fire is coming, the flood is coming, the old injustices will be remembered and dealt with –  that is a kind of hope here – somewhere.  I think there are a lot of allusions and symbolism here,  stuff I didn’t comprehend – it’s dense as well as being difficult to read due to the lack of traditional structure and styling –  Gordimer explains herself in an interview with the Paris Review:

.Gordimer wrote The Conservationist in 1974 and it made a huge impact for exposing (again)  the underpinnings of the systemic racial oppression under apartheid in South Africa.  She lambastes both the rich white capitalists and the white intellectual activists.  Gordimer was skewing herself and her contemporaries. –  And she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in large part because of her political stand in this and other books. (It’s also supposedly the densest and most beautifully written,  I’m not complaining about the award.)

I really took some time googling various South African things – where this takes place, the superstitions, the ways of the Bantu and the Afrikaners.  It was quite interesting – I suspect Gordimer assumed her readers would know what she was referring to – in many cases it wasn’t really that important but in other cases it was – to me anyway.

Wall St. Journal – July 18, 2014.

South Africa history / Afrikaners

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s