This is a very curious book. From the perspective of things occurring, enough happens that you could call it an eventful book. The protagonist, Julie Summer, a white, semi-bohemian Trustifarian in South Africa has a problem with her car; it is fixed by a dark skinned Middle Eastern man named Abdu, with whom she begins an affair (the pickup of the title). He is exposed as having overstayed his visa and is expelled back to his unnamed native country. Julie leaves with him, marrying him, as he will not take her back as his mistress. Once in his country, Julie goes native, staying with the women, learning the language, falling in love with the desert. When Abdu finally gets his papers to travel to America, Julie refuses to leave the country with him. That’s enough plot for one book, yet Gordimer’s writing is of such an unemotional, detached quality, a rational observer commenting on the vagaries of the human heart, that everything feels as if it takes place off-stage, Greek tragedy-like.
In a less talented writer, this kind of thing would be a weakness. I’m not altogether assured that it’s a strength for Gordimer whose prose serves a strangely poetic functionality, almost as if she were writing curiously human allegories, that never entirely enter into the realm of the symbolic nor the realm of the fictional real. There is an impressionistic quality to her actors who perilously balance themselves between being fully realized characters and expressions of types in the larger world, Platonic ideals standing in for concepts Gordimer wants you to recognize and know.
In Abdu (Ibrahim back in his own land) she has painted the plight of the immigrant in a country that discriminates against them. As an educated man, he is unable to find work in his chosen field and instead must subsist as an underpaid illegal mechanic at an auto garage. His hope is to find some way to live legally in a country not his own, a Western country where he could be a success. It is the typically expressed immigrant dream with the typically demonstrated difficulties of obtaining this. In Julie, Gordimer paints the subtle transformation that is an individual’s growth through experience, and she does this through such slow, minor seeming shifts that by novel’s end Julie has become someone entirely new, almost entirely different.
But for all of that, there’s something somewhat indescribable in how the novel left me feeling unfulfilled, unsatisfied, as though I had missed an important revelatory chapter that fully allowed the theme to blossom but which was unnecessary in the more straightforward plot. The book moves through such refined mental space at points that there is little to grasp. As has occurred to me on other occasions, I wondered if perhaps this was simply the kind of book or author that didn’t translate well to an audio format.
Stylistically, Gordimer has been criticized in this novel for departing from her earlier, more straightforward sentences, experimenting with more stream of consciousness aspects, more glimpses of things, more impressions. I can’t say that that particular comment holds much water with me. Consider this opening from July’s People (published in 1981):
You like to have some cup of tea? —
July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.
The knock on the door. Seven o’clock. In governor’s residences, commercial hotel rooms, shift bosses’ company bungalows, master bedrooms en suite — the tea-tray in black hands smelling of Lifebuoy soap.
The knock on the door.
no door, an aperture in thick mud walls, and the sack that hung over it looped back for air, sometime during the short night. Bam, I’m stifling; her voice raising him from the dead, he staggering up from his exhausted sleep.
No knock; but July, their servant, their hose, bringing two pink glass cups of tea and a small tin of condensed milk, jaggedly-opened, specially for them, with a spoon in it.
— No milk for me. —
Then contrast that with the opening of The Pickup:
Clustered predators round a kill. It’s a small car with a young woman inside it. The battery has failed and taxis, cars, minibuses, vans, motorcycles butt and challenge one another, reproach and curse her, a traffic mob mounting its own confusion. Get going. Stupid bloody woman. Idikanzana lomlungu, le! She throws up hands, palms open, in surrender. They continue to jostle and blare their impatience. She gets out of her car and faces them. One of the unemployed black men who beg by waving vehicles into parking bays sidles his way deftly through fenders, signals with his head — Oka-ay. Oka-ay go inside, go! — and mimes control of the steering wheel.
Both openings rely on dropping the reader into a scene with minimal set up, interchanging sentence length from long list sentences to short subject-verb-object structures and even less. Both immediately introduce us subtly to class and race distinctions inherent in the society. Both sketch instead of fully outline, fill in, provide perspective, or embellish.
If there is one thing Gordimer excels at, however, that does work well for an audiobook, it’s the general feeling of threat or society disapprobation that lingers but takes its time to manifest itself overtly. There is a constant sense of dread under her prose, a subtext of fear that seems to have an added ominousness when heard aloud. Julie herself seems to be unaware or insensitive to this lurking disquietude, her privileged background insulating her from the trials and struggles others must daily overcome, yet our sympathies oddly stay with her even when it is Abdu who provides the novel’s beating heart.
He is, however, both sympathetic and in his own way spoiled. When in South Africa, this second quality is never made manifest and we are drawn to his plight, to his striving and his desires. It is his fear of expulsion that provides a second nuanced level of dread and gives the savory tang of temporality to their lovemaking. Every moment of their being together might be their last.
He is a different character upon returning to his own village, however. Ibrahim’s relations with his family is that of pampered son of his mother, a stern older woman whose particular soft spot is in giving Ibrahim whatever he wants. When he and Julie break the Ramadan prohibition on sexual relations, his mother runs defense for him, making excuses, covering up. When Ibrahim works tirelessly to secure his travel visa to Australia or the United States, she is the only one who does not criticize his efforts though they pain her. And when Julie makes the decision, seduced as she is by the shifting sands of the desert and the simpler, differently insulated life of a woman in a strict Muslim world, to stay in the village when Ibrahim leaves, his mother refuses to condemn Julie’s disobedience, her small means of keeping her son close. It is that, and it is her motherly reflection that she has given in to Ibrahim too many times. In this small move she allows him to grow and go much further away than ever before, and she clutches him close by keeping the one person for whom she knows he’d return. In such small ways, Gordimer’s novel moves.
I was surprised by how peacefully the second half of the novel in Ibrahim’s village turned out simply because I had grown accustomed to far too many stories like this. The clash of headstrong young woman with another, stricter culture, more repressive of women. It is the classic fish out of water story and that Julie was going to such a place, described by Abdu/Ibrahim as “hell,” made me that much more prepared for that outcome. There are so few stories of how people from more restrictive cultures are crushed by the openness and freedom (or immorality, if you wish) of the culture they come to; there is, however, a vast body of literature documenting freer spirits being ground under by the omnipresence of disapproving judgment. Gordimer wisely avoids cliché, skirting just to its edges but only so as to do unexpected things with your expectations.
Reader Lisette Lecat, apart from having one of the coolest names ever, seems to be the It reader when it comes to white African writings. She takes on Gordimer, Alexander McCall Smith’s cozy Botswana mysteries, and Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs of growing up in Rhodesia Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Her voice is that curious blend of African intonation with English and Afrikaans qualities and provides Gordimer’s novel with a perfectly restrained reading. There is, in her voice, a distance too, one mirroring Gordimer’s prose, and when Julie wanders out into the desert and sits staring at its undulating waves of sand, a kind of perfect dreaminess and shapelessness infuses the world.