Loot and Other Stories

by Nadine Gordimer
ISBN: 0143015133

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A Review of: Loot and Other Stories
by Michelle Ariss

"The short story is a fragmented and restless form, a matter of hit or miss, and it is perhaps for this reason that it suits modern consciousness - which seems best expressed as flashes of fearful insight alternating with near-hypnotic states of indifference."

(Nadine Gordimer, 1999)

"It is surely the morality of fiction that is being questioned by those who accuse the writer of looting the character of living personages."

(Nadine Gordimer, 1995)

In the grand debate concerning literature as a work of art or "art, working"-to adapt Toni Morrison's statement in a recent CBC television interview-one need look no further than Loot and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer to show that it can be both. "Her true concerns reach beyond issues of the time to test the limits of human relationships and of language itself," writes Per Wstberg, and "her territory has always been the border between private emotions and external forces." This latest collection of ten short stories by the 1991 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first woman in twenty-five years to do so, demonstrates precisely what he means.
Loot'-the word itself-denotes goods gained through selfish often violent behaviour. As the title for the pithy opening story, it signals the psychological terrain that Gordimer is concerned with throughout the book. Coveting something, getting it or not getting it, straining to hold onto it, getting something you don't want while in the midst of getting something else, discarding it, and finally the old adage "you can't take it with you"-these are the private emotions and external forces that Gordimer's stories explore in a deadly serious yet fanciful fashion.
"It's because I'm getting so old," says Gordimer in a program aired last June on the BBC when asked about her preoccupation with greed, death and reincarnation in Loot and Other Stories. And indeed in all but one of the entries, "The Diamond Mine"-and what an erotic gem that is!-death hovers in one form or another over the characters. To be accurate, even in "The Diamond Mine", young Tilla's quiet loss of innocence at the fingers of a visiting soldier in the back seat of her parent's car is a death of sorts.
In the title story, Death takes the form of a vociferous wall of water that descends upon greedy villagers scavenging detritus left exposed on the ocean floor. A powerful earthquake has "tipped a continental shelf" and

"People rushed to take; take, take. This was- when, anytime, sometime-valuable, that might be useful, what was this, well someone will know, that must have belonged to the rich, it's mine now, if you don't grab what's over there someone else will, feet slipped and slithered on seaweed and sank in soggy sand, gasping sea-plants gaped at them, no-one remarked there were no fish, the living inhabitants of this unearth had been swept up and away with the water."

So engrossed are the people in their scrounging that they are deaf to the roar of the looting sea as it returns and adds them "to its treasury."
Equally significant in this story is Gordimer's third person reference to "the writer" who "knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination." As if to illustrate the fluidity of the writerly imagination, Gordimer focuses in on a retired, divorced man living in a mountain villa, where a Japanese print, "a Hokusai, The Great Wave'" hangs "above his bed-head" and he can "turn his back on the assault of the city." Even he is intrigued by the earth's upheaval and, like the other villagers "with whom he doesn't mix, has nothing in common," races for treasures among the debris, ultimately coming upon "the object. (A mirror?)." Taking possession of the mirror, something that he knew was there but "could never find before," he carries it back with him, but is drowned en route when "the great wave comes from behind his bed-head and takes him."
Gordimer packs a wallop of social commentary in all of these stories, delivering it with a singular writing style that stretches the rules of syntax and challenges traditional forms of dialogue. But in Loot, there also flows a strong undercurrent of literary criticism that is best perceived when the story is juxtaposed to "Adam's Rib: Fictions and Realities", the first essay in her book entitled Writing and Being (1995). There, Gordimer takes on Edward Said and Roland Barthes after arguing against the accusation that "the writer's imagination is the looter among other people's lives." Such an accusation, or "prying game"-one that fiction writers frequently have to deal with-is made, she says, "by people who do not understand the relationship of fiction to the appearance of reality," a relationship that is a mystery even to writers themselves. "The writer in relation to real personages is more like Primo Levi's metamir', a "metaphysical mirror" that receives, for instance, what the individual "is not saying as she speaks, the anger in his eyes that belies his smile" (her italics). The title story is offered then as a depiction of the issues of the time', but also as a declaration of the author's conviction that the source of the imagination lies "somewhere between the two extremes, fiction as an enactment of life, character as its imaginatively embodied discourse." While not all of the stories are as symbolic as this one, all do deal with contemporary issues, and all have a connection with South Africa, the country in which Gordimer was born in 1923 of an English mother and Latvian father, and where she has lived all her life.
"Mission Statement", a love story in which the passion is conveyed as tautly and palpably as the political tension, documents the sometimes sickening, often frustrating and rarely rewarding tasks faced by international aid workers in developing countries. Bureaucratic bungles and idealistically motivated massaging of the rules form the backdrop for the intensifying relationship between "Roberta Blayne, ne Cartwright" an Assistant to the programme administrator, and an official in the African government. A British divorce, Blayne senses her dead grandfather's heritage haunting their encounters until it finally finds its uncompromising revenge in an ironic twist to the African official's marriage proposal.
"The Generation Gap" offers readers a twist of the tragicomic sort as adult children come to terms with the revelation that their father has left their mother for a younger woman, to them a sort of second fiddle', the

"second violinist in a second-best symphony orchestra-so rated by people who really know music. Which the father, poor man, doesn't, just his CD shelf in the livingroom, for relaxation with his wife on evenings at home."

In this poignant story, Death acts as a benevolent motivator for new beginnings. While the affair may be over for this sixty-seven year old lover, life isn't: "Death waits, was waiting, but I took the plane to Cape Town, instead."
But it is in "An Emissary" and "Karma" that Gordimer takes full and inventive advantage of the genre's restless' and fragmented' form to describe, then question, the randomness of death. In "An Emissary", for example, the protagonist is the malarial mosquito. Its deadly characteristics are introduced by way of an intertextual epigraph-a review of The Fever Trail by Mark Honigsbaum. Divided into four parts by capitalized rubrics in the right-hand margin, and told from a variety of narrative perspectives, the story examines the idea that quotidian decisions can have deadly consequences. Choosing to spend an hour at a rave, or at "Fredo's Sauna and Health Club" where "some tiny thing floating out of the misty heat . . . lands on a plump wet pectoral, just above the hair-forest there. . .." Or daring a tryst off a "rutted muddy road between baobab trees," trees which are believed to be "mythical animals turned to stone." Death's "emissary, Anopheles" can strike anywhere, and does: Dr. Claire Panosian Dunavan, the reviewer in the epigraph, writes:

"In the last 20 years, it has killed nearly twice as many people as AIDS. . . Malarial mosquitoes can even stow away on international flights-just ask recent unsuspecting victims near airports in Germany, Paris and Sao Paulo."

At eighty pages, "Karma" is the longest narrative in the book and, appropriately, the last. Here, the author stretches the scope of character development possibly as far as a writer can go without crossing into science fiction. Despite her declaration that she doesn't believe in any afterlife: "To me if you see a dead bird, you know that that's the end of it," Gordimer manages to describe in detailed and credible fashion a protagonist's multiple returns to earth. Enriched by lines from W. B. Yeats, Amos Oz and others, the reincarnations range from an egg waiting to be fertilized while its potential lesbian parents dither over concerns related to political correctness and racial purity, to a Russian boy executed by Germans who know they are losing the war, to the aborted foetus of a resourceful chambermaid turned mistress. Regardless of gender, age and era, each protagonist serves not only to embody' the ideas generally associated with the phenomenon but also to examine through realistic relationships questions pertaining to ethics, the collective unconscious, the meaning of life and, of course, death.
Jump and Other Stories, Gordimer's last collection of short stories, was published in 1991, three years before South Africa was to hold its first democratic elections. The stories there, and those in her previous nine collections, as well as her thirteen novels, her essays and her two books with David Goldblatt, all bear witness to the atrocities of apartheid, and to the contribution the author made to ending it. Understandable then, that she was one of the first people Nelson Mandela wanted to see upon his release.
In "Adam's Rib: Fiction and Realities", Gordimer cites Toni Morrison's claim that "the ability of writers to imagine what is not the self . . . is the test of their power" as a defence for fiction that has its foundations in reality. Throughout Loot and Other Stories, and in her most recent novel, The Pickup (2001), Gordimer continues to engage the power of her imagination to further an understanding of post-apartheid South Africa specifically, and of racism in general. So it has been since she was fifteen when her first short story for adults was published-her art, working.

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