With the title of this novel, her 16th, Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer once again shows her preternatural capacity to take a slangy catchphrase and make it right to the point. And one that is absolutely appropriate to her novel's milieu and, beyond that, to its subject matter in general. To read "No Time Like the Present" is to plunge into the caldron that is South Africa today, a chaotic now which cannot avoid the dark shadow of a heavy past:
"There was a Pleistocene Age, a Bronze Age, an Iron Age.
"It seemed an Age was over. Surely nothing less than a New Age, when the law is not promulgated on pigment, anyone may live and move and work anywhere in a country commonly theirs. Something with the conventional title 'Constitution' flung this open wide. Only a grandiose vocabulary can contain the meaning for the millions who had none recognized of the rights that go by the word freedom. The consequences are many among the aspects of human relationships that used to be restricted by decree."
Gordimer starts her story with a Johannesburg address called Glengrove Place — "it isn't a glen and there isn't a grove," she writes with characteristic pithiness, "but it has been a place. It was somewhere they could live together, when there wasn't anywhere to do so lawfully."
And so the general situation becomes a specific one, introducing us to her protagonists, an interracial couple, academic Steve and lawyer Jabu. But white Steve is the product of another kind of mixed marriage, a Jewish mother and a Christian father, while in Jabu's family strong ties to the Methodist Church vie with Zulu traditions. Welcome to the brave new world of 21st century South Africa: Gordimer is a dedicated cicerone for the outsider wishing to explore, ready to show off every cultural nuance, hurtle through every social or political crosscurrent.
And is she ever rooted in this chaotic present, still, despite the newfound freedoms, affected by the inevitable specter of past racial segregation. Although she is 88, Gordimer has all the enthusiasm of youth as she celebrates what she sees all around her. Her approach is kaleidoscopic, staccato, sweeping here and there, from urban to rural, reveling in South Africa's newfound rainbow character, its openness to the rest of the African continent, its rightful place in the concert of nations.
But she is alive also to the problems that threaten its stability and its continuing evolution, as her attention lights on problems and serious flaws in society and its leaders, like myriad snaps taken from a cellphone camera, adding up to a kind of verbal imagist collage.
Is her mission, though, to explain or merely present? Sometimes it is hard for the reader to tell. Catchphrases, slogans, names fly by with bewildering rapidity. Page after page is packed with them, like flies on flypaper. Gordimer is so much a part of her society, so avid an observer and participant that they are meat and drink to her. But what about the reader? Even the most seasoned students of South African culture might find themselves at sea, so what about the less informed? At times, they are bound to feel like guests at a party struggling to follow the myriad references in multiple conversations swirling around them — and sometimes over their heads.
And, of course, longtime social observer and skilled novelist that she is, Gordimer puts us, as the novel unfolds, at exactly that sort of social gathering — and in precisely that position.
Artfully done, but can it mask (or compensate for) outbreaks of an abrupt, careless style?
If you lard your text with words from the languages other than English spoken in South Africa (the country has no fewer than 11 official languages!) and local references that convey the texture of South African conversation, shouldn't you build in explanations for those unfamiliar with these terms? Gordimer cannot always be bothered to do so and this leaves too many points hanging loosely.
Steve and Jabu's marriage, with so much that binds them and much that threatens to tear them apart, is at the heart of the novel. Here Gordimer is on familiar territory, and her insights into the complexity of such a union are subtle and insightful on many levels. But the couple has no sea of tranquillity to swim in — it is full of shifting currents and cultural whirlpools. Jabu's Zulu roots and, still more, Steve's attraction to the siren song of all that the wider world has to offer signal danger for them. The novel's denouement is stunning in its abruptness but more powerful precisely for that reason. Her protagonist's final declaration mirrors Gordimer's own unconditional embrace of the here and now in her native land, no matter how challenging it is.
Rubin is the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."