University of New South Wales
But the novel is not just about a specific crime and its specific punishment (and the Dostoevskyan parallels are signalled throughout in quotations from The Idiot and in the references to Duncan's lover as Natalie/Nastasya): as Gordimer has suggested in another interview about the book: "It takes place in a particular time, in a particular city....There are huge changes in the lives of blacks as well [as whites] and even though one would think this is just release and freedom, it brings its problems." The unspoken but clearly-present backdrop to the narrative is the process whereby the whole society is on trial: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. André Brink has suggested that "[t]rying to understand the new South Africa without the TRC would be futile" and Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the Commission as "South Africa's attempt to come to terms with her often horrendous past". Antjie Krog expresses the effect of the Commission even more vividly in her chilling account of its proceedings entitled Country of my Skull: "When the TRC started last year, I realized instinctively: if you cut yourself off from the process, you will wake up in a foreign country -- a country that you don't know and that you will never understand." This is echoed in Gordimer's text when the narration describes the law court where Duncan, son of the middle-class professional couple, Claudia and Harald Lindgard, is on trial, as a place smelling of "a foreign country to which they were deported" (7). In tackling questions about justice, truth, and coming to terms with the past in the more private, intimate and self-contained space of a middle-class white family whose son has been accused of committing a murder, Gordimer is presenting a kind of microcosm of the wider political process of remembering, forgetting and reconciling that was being played out in the Commisson hearings. The violence that was sponsored by the apartheid state infected personal relationships in its aftermath, and moral questions of retribution and punishment affect not just the body politic but individuals therein. Coming to terms with forgiveness, guilt and responsibility is part of the process of "recovering" from the disease of apartheid, and forging a new state in which black and white can form more equal relationships. What, Gordimer seems to be asking, are the links between these vast, almost inconceivable acts of political violence and the more private acts of violence arising out of personal relationships within families or communities? How can we read the notion of guilt and punishment in a society which is pledged to forgive and forget in order to move on? How does the enormity of the crime of apartheid and other crimes of the past affect the way so-called "ordinary" crime is viewed? How does post-apartheid South Africa in its attempt to become a more compassionate society face the moral dilemma, for example, of enforcing the death penalty for murder?
But, as in this conversation Antjie Krog records she overheard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, even this process of recovering from apartheid is not always an equal one; she heard someone saying: "What makes me angry is that whites are privatizing their feelings... they hide in their suburbs, they hide behind their own court interdicts and legal representatives. The pain of blacks is being dumped into the country more or less like a commodity article..." (quoted in Country of my Skull: 161). It is no coincidence that Gordimer's couple, the Lindgards, are described as having moved to "this townhouse complex with... security-monitored entrance" (3) and that it is the "buzz of the intercom" that alerts them to the presence of a visitor. Here the white middle-class family believes it has been shielded from such violent intrusions, until Duncan's friend brings the message of violence into their carefully-cushioned existence. What happens, Gordimer asks, when a whole society has become used to having guns inside the house as 'protection'. How does this affect relationships and 'crimes of passion'? On a wider level are questions of truth and justice. What happens when your own history comes back to haunt you, when the structures you have put in place for your own protection are shown to be the source of your own destruction? It is what André Brink calls this "tense interaction between private and public" in Gordimer's work that forms the basis for the complex exploration of private and public crime and punishment in The House Gun.
Harald says, as Duncan's trial progresses, that "Justice is a performance" (240). The need for public confession of a crime, the need to be seen to be cleansing the wounds of the past, to be performing forgiveness and repentance, was an aspect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that did not meet with universal approval. Breytenbach, for example, in Dogheart describes the Commissioners as "dogs of God" and refers to "the inquisition called the TRC ... so that memory may be excavated, shaped, initiated and corrected where needed to serve as backbone to the new history of the new nation. Our earth is full of skeletons." On the other hand, the process of excavation and recovery enacted by the proceedings of the Commission is referred to by its Chairman, Archbishop Tutu, in the following terms:
Unlike Coetzee's novel, where the much wider concept of "dis-grace" is explored, and where his character, David Lurie, distinguishes between a performative "plea of guilty" and inner "repentance" suggesting that "repentance belongs to...another universe of discourse" (Disgrace: p.58), Gordimer's emphasis is on the private and public shame of parents. What is interesting about Gordimer's novel is that it is precisely this "outing" of the very private details of their son's relationships and his homosexuality that the parents have to come to terms with; and how middle-class politeness and their need to allow him his privacy has, in fact, created a gap between them. As Gordimer has said of the novel: "It's about how children know their parents and how parents know their children" (Salon Interview: p.3). The whole idea of family relationships changes: what one felt one knew, one doesn't. This gap affects the relationship between Claudia and Harald, too: if one doesn't know the son, how can one know the husband/wife? After the initial pages of the text where the husband and wife's dialogue is indicated by "he, she" as if there is no real difference between them, this sense of distance between them immediately asserts itself during their first experience of the Court at Duncan's hearing. Harald stands back for Claudia "with the politeness of a stranger" and, in turn, "[s]he gave the stiff smile with which one greets somebody one isn't sure one knows" (7). Uncertainty and the need to rethink what had been taken for granted uncover hidden streams of violence and desire beneath the veneer of the ordinariness of suburbia: they are "two creatures caught in the headlights of catastrophe" (128).
The other aspect of this catastrophe is the need to take responsibility for it. Each of the parents wishes to assume or escape culpability by looking back at Duncan's childhood to trace which of them may be blamed: "something vulnerable, incriminating to either, might be revealed. Someone must be to blame" (66). Each, in turn, reacts differently: For Harald, this event suddenly links him to other violent events in the world, "his own life no longer outside but within the paramaters of disaster. The news was his news" (28) whereas for Claudia, "private disaster means to drop out of the world" (28). Each, too, is forced to reassess his/her habitual frameworks for making sense of the world: Harald his religion, Claudia her humanism, linked with scientific rationalism; he as a company director, she as a doctor. For once, they are ill-equipped to fix things (early on in the narration, it has been suggested of Claudia that "if something's broken she can gauge whether it ever can be put together again" (4)) and both must open "a new calendar" (5) with which to measure time, as the need for them to re-identify their own son forces them to reassess their entire past to make sense of their present trauma. It is no great leap of imagination to see this couple, then, while they are clearly represented as specific individuals in a realistically-drawn environment, as also being emblematic of an entire society faced with coming to terms with hidden crimes and exposures, a process that involves a re-examination of the most basic of moral and ethical principles.
There is clearly a political aspect of the text which, with Gordimer's customary irony and self-irony, draws attention to the ease with which certain South Africans could, like the Lindgards, claim ignorance of such crimes and try to segregate themselves from danger. In the disruption of their middle-class white suburban existence, their comfort zone, Harald observes that they now belonged "to the other side of privilege" (127), comparing their changed status to the "forced removals of the old regime, no chance of remaining where they had been" (127). What is important about this spatial metaphor of placelessness is that it draws attention to the ways in which their previous privilege had, in fact, cushioned them from being part of the wider society which had enacted "such cruelty ... in the name of that State they had lived in" (126). While the capitalization of the word "State" implies a national identity, there is also the suggestion that it is a state of mind, indeed, a state of oblivious ignorance. The violence and violations had been no concern of theirs, "none of it had anything to do with them" (126). Their forced personal experience of crime and violence has forced them into acknowledging common humanity with those from whose lives they had always been able to maintain distance. As Claudia realises when treating a black woman whose son is in jail:
Linked with this loss of security of tenure is their increasing dependence on those from "the Other Side" of privilege, in particular, Hamilton Motsamai, the black Advocate who is defending Duncan. This reversal of power is expressed in the narration as an ironic failure of the old structures of discourse in these "changed times": "The black man will act, speak for them. They have become those who cannot speak, act, for themselves" (89). Like the familiar "institutional domain" of Claudia's clinic with its "steaming sterilizer [and] with its battery of precise instruments for every task" (12) in which black nurses have to translate for her the patients' words not available in English "to express what they felt disordered within them" (12), she and Harald now need a translator to grant them access to "justice".
The trope of disease is an important one in the text. In addition to its more obvious link with Claudia's profession, it provides a sense of the body politic needing to be cured as in Bishop Tutu's previously-quoted metaphor of "no healing without truth". It is no coincidence that the seat of the Constitutional Court which is, just prior to Duncan's trial, to decide on the abolition or retention of the Death Penalty is the Old Fever Hospital. Gordimer draws attention to this imagery of disease by suggesting that the Hospital "will house the antithesis of the confusion and disorientation of the fevered mind" (131) in its decision to choose "health not sickness, life not death" (132) by abolishing the death penalty. When Harald wonders "where people with infectious diseases go now", Claudia replies that inoculation prevents such epidemics. She continues:
While rejecting the "collective phenonemon" of violence (143) as an excuse for Duncan's act, Harald also recognises the "common hell of all who are associated with it" (143). In trying to understand this personal act, both Harald and Claudia connect it to wider political and societal violence, State violence which "under the old, past regime had habituated its victims to it ... People had forgotten there was any other way" (50). Similarly, in trying to retrace any possible source for Duncan's violent act, Claudia connects it with the "brutalizing experience" of his army training where he was "taught to kill" by firing at targets which, Clauda reminds Harald, were "in the shape of human beings" (67). Harald wonders whether the present-day violence (listing car hijackings, taxi wars, and Duncan's own crime of passion) is the aftermath of the "inhumanity of the old regime's assault upon body and mind", a habit of dehumanisation and cruelty that is the present legacy of a violent past. Perhaps, he suggests, quoting from Herman Broch's The Sleepwalkers, this is a neccesary transition for the new generation to "the rising glare of freedom" (142), Gordimer's familiar "interregnum".
The trope of the house gun itself must be read in the light of this idea of communal or collective violence and communal responsibility: a culture of violence which filters down to the individual. Like a house pet, the house gun is described by Duncan (when we briefly get a view of his version of events about halfway through the novel) as "always somewhere about" (151). The judge, too, in his summing-up at Duncan's murder trial, implicates the wider responsibility of a violent society when he says:
But while this novel does not suggest any easy answers or moral certainties, it seems that Gordimer tries hard to construct an upbeat ending. For both Harald and Claudia "out of something terrible something new" (279) has emerged and they find a new way of living in the new South Africa, no longer cocooned in their own ignorance, and agreeing to take some reponsibility for Natalie's baby, even though the father is not necessarily Duncan. Duncan is given the final words of the novel: his seven years in prison giving him time to read Homer'sThe Odyssey and to muse on the idea of violence as a "repetition we don't seem able to break" (294), yet concludes with the words: "I've had to find a way to bring life and death together" (294). What the reader is inevitably left with, though, is a reminder of J. M. Coetzee's uncharacteristically unambivalent assessment of apartheid: "The whites of South Africa participated, in various degrees, actively or passively, in an audacious and well-planned crime against Africa." While, as the novel itself declares, it is "not a detective story" (16), in its exploration of crime and punishment Gordimer's The House Gun links the issues of violence, guilt and responsibility to turn the spotlight on those "liberal-minded" whites who were not racist but had stood by while the crime of apartheid was perpetrated, not wishing to risk losing their privileged place within that society. That there is the possibility of recovery is suggested in the cautious optimism of the ending; and by the novel's figuring of complex new relationships and moral dilemmas in a society trying to simultaneously come to terms with the past, deal with present trauma and construct a positive moral and ethical climate for its future.
 Breyten Breytenbach. Dogheart: A Memoir. New York, San Diego and London: Harcour Brace & Company, 1999. Hereafter cited in the text.
 J. M. Coetzee. Disgrace. London: Secker & Warburg, 1999. Hereafter cited in the text.
 Nadine Gordimer. The House Gun. London: Bloomsbury, 1998, p.7. All subsequent references are to this edition and appear in the text.
 Donald Paul. "A Conversation with Nadine Gordimer" Boston Phoenix. "Weekly Wire", http://weeklywire.com/ww/01-05-98/boston_books_3.html.
 Dwight Garner. Salon. Interview with Nadine Gordimer on "Table Talk": http://www.salonmagazine.com/books/int/1998/03/c0v_si_09int.html.
 Both these quotations appear on the dust jacket of Antjie Krog's Country of my Skull.
 Antjie Krog. Country of my Skull. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998, p.131. All subsequent references are to this edition and appear in the text.
 André Brink. "The Heart of the Novel" Leadership. 17-2, 1998, pp.84-88 and 87.
 Breyten Breytenbach. Dogheart: A Memoir. New York, San Diego and London: Harcour Brace & Company, 1999, p.21.
 Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South African report.
 J. M. Coetzee in David Attwell (ed.). Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992, p.342.
Attwell, David (ed.). Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Breytenbach, Breyten. Dogheart: A Memoir. New York, San Diego and London: Harcour Brace & Company, 1999.
Brink, André. "The Heart of the Novel" Leadership. 17-2, 1998, pp.84-88.
Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. London: Secker & Warburg, 1999.
Garner, Dwight. Salon. Interview with Nadine Gordimer on "Table Talk": http://www.salonmagazine.com/books/int/1998/03/c0v_si_09int.html.
Gordimer, Nadine. The House Gun. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
Krog, Antjie. Country of my Skull. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.
Paul, Donald. "A Conversation with Nadine Gordimer" Boston Phoenix. "Weekly Wire": http://weeklywire.com/ww/01-05-98/boston_books_3.html.
Dr Sue Kossew is a Lecturer in the School of English, University of New South Wales. She lectures in post-colonial and contemporary women's literatures. Her main research interest is South African literature and her publications include the books Pen and Power: A Post-colonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and André Brink. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996 and Critical Essays on J. M. Coetzee. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998, which she edited. She is currently working on a book which analyses South African and Australian women writers.
|Paper presented at the African Studies Association of Australasia & the Pacific 22nd Annual & International Conference (Perth, 1999)|
New African Perspectives: Africa, Australasia, & the Wider World at the end of the twentieth century