The House Gun is Nadine Gordimer's twelfth novel, her second set in post-apartheid South Africa. For Harald and Claudia Lingard, the passively liberal, white couple at the center of the story, not much has changed in the political transition from apartheid to majority rule, from F.W. de Klerk to Nelson Mandela. Harald and Claudia live in comfort and safety until one evening when they discover "something terrible has happened." Their only son, Duncan, has been arrested for killing one of his housemates. There is never a question of his guilthe has confessed to the crimebut Harald and Claudia cannot understand how Duncan could abandon his belief in the sanctity of human life, nor can they believe that the violence that had always affected "other people" has found a way into their world. The House Gun records with remarkable precision the psychological transformations that Harald and Claudia undergo as they search for the truth.
In this novel, as in most of Gordimer's books, the personal becomes political. While Duncan's crime was surely one of passion, the repercussions force Harald and Claudia to snap out of their oblivion and face the legacy of South Africa's bloody history: since the end of apartheid the murder rate in South Africa has skyrocketed, and, as a result, guns are "kept for protection" in almost every household. Harald and Claudia also must face their own prejudices as they put their faith in Hamilton Motsamai, the black lawyer Duncan has hired to defend him.
With stunning grace and clarity, Nadine Gordimer seamlessly intertwines the self with society as she tests the boundaries of love and intimacy. Readers will find, like Harald and Claudia, that even within the most complicated frameworks, these boundaries are resilient. The House Gun is a portrait of powerful awakeningsof a father and mother, a husband and wife, a parent and child, a nation and its citizens. But it is also an affirmation of the will to reconciliation that starts where it must, with individual men and women.
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in Springs, a small gold-mining town thirty miles from Johannesburg. Her parents were Jewish émigrés, her mother from England and her father from Latvia; he ran a jewelry store in town, where Gordimer attended an all-white convent school. Gordimer credits Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, about oppressed Chicago meatpackers, with opening her eyes to the plight of the black mine workers in Springs. Her focus, though, in life as well as work, has always been on the individual experience. In a 1991 interview in The New York Times, Gordimer describes being "drawn into politics not through ideas but through friendships with many black people through the years. Little by little, I began to see what I was part of."
Gordimer's first short story was published when she was fifteen. Her writing career took off when The New Yorker printed a story in 1946, her first collection appeared three years later. She has since published seven volumes of short stories and twelve novels, which have been translated into thirty languages. Gordimer has won some of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. She has been given honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, and other universities and has been honored by the French government with the decoration Commandeur de l'Ordre des Artes et des Lettres. A vocal member of the long-outlawed African National Congress, she is also a founder of the predominantly black Congress of South African Writers. Nadine Gordimer has long been considered a preeminent interpreter of South Africa, and also its conscience.
"Elegantly conceived, flawlessly executed... Gordimer tells a love story unlike any other I have ever read."
Jack Miles, The New York Times Book Review
"A memorable blend of the topical and the timeless, at once a profound, lingering meditation on the human heart and a story so gripping you can scarcely bear to put it down."
San Francisco Chronicle
"With the scaffolding of a courtroom drama and the moral underpinnings of the state's responsibility, the novel infuses an isolated crime of passion with the atmospheric pressure of a country reeling from its own past."
The Boston Sunday Globe
"The House Gun ... is a tense post-apartheid family drama as vital as anything [Gordimer] has ever written."
What follows is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Dwight Garner for Salon Magazine in 1998. If you would like to read the rest of the interview, please visit the Salon Web site at http://www.salonmagazine.com.
One of the main characters in The House Gun is a talented black lawyer, to whom a wealthy white couple turns for help when their son is accused of murder. You are clearly writing about the new South Africa.
How likely is this scenario today?
These kinds of changes are proceeding apace. When you thinkI just can't believe it, I laugh when I think about itthat our former president, P.W. Botha, has had to appear in court before a black judge, a black magistrate. This is an unthinkable reversal.
Botha is rebelling, isn't he? He's trying to have the black judge tossed out. [The former president is accused of refusing to cooperate with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.]
Well, but on a technicality. The issue is whether the black judge understands Afrikaans sufficiently well to follow his testimony. Which, of course, is nonsense. Because anybody who becomes a magistrate or a judge in South Africa of any colorsince Afrikaans and English were the two official languagesis fluent in both languages. But the irony of this is just unbelievable. That P.W. Botha appeared under the judgment of a black man!
Botha said something threatening, too, something like "the tiger is awakening," meaning white rage.
But I think there were only 30 tigers, rather timid tigers, who came to support him. And there were thousands of blacks, young blacks and other blacks outside, singing and enjoying that this man was being treated now like everybody else. That he had to account for what he did.
Do you know Botha? Did you ever meet him?
No. It would be very unlikely.
He's a very complicated figure, isn't he?
The old crocodile, we call him.
He did crack open the door, at least, to change.
Yes, he did. It was a back door, as usual. That he actually sent for Mr. Mandela to come out of prison, and had tea with him. And this was before the advent of F.W. de Klerk taking over and actually beginning to negotiate the changes. It was initiated in some sort of way with Mandela. But this doesn't really weigh in the scale of justice when you think of all the things that P.W. Botha did during the time he was president.
What kind of justice do you expect for him?
Well, apparently there is a way in which he can simply pay a fine. So I imagine that if he is found guiltyand how can he not be?then he has an option of a fine. He's not hard up, I assure you.
The House Gun is about a murder committed by the son of elite white parents. And to some degree it's about what happens to them when they're yanked out of their controlled lives and their controlled environment. Is this to some degree a metaphor for what's happened to many whites since apartheid ended?
Well, this is something that's got nothing to do with apartheid. It has to do with intimate human relations and how we know each other. It's about how children know their parents and how parents know their children. So that's really the core of the book. Of course, it doesn't take place in a vacuum. It takes place in a particular time, in a particular city. But I see the same thing [the tendency toward wanting to live in a controlled environment] in this country [the U.S.]. Mostly I'm interviewed by white people, and identified with white society. Hardly anybody says to me, "How are blacks dealing with change?" They're only interested in how whites are. And after all, whites are a minority. There are huge changes in the lives of blacks as well and even though one would think this is just release and freedom, it brings its problems.
And yet your books, perhaps by necessity, are largely about the white experience in South Africa.
Perhaps the books of mine you've read, but they're not all about the white experience at all. For instance, My Son's Story and None to Accompany Me are not.
We were speaking of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee a moment ago, and I can't help but notice that your novel is really about truth and reconciliation. It's about getting to the truth of a shocking story, and it's about the things that hold you afloatreligion, literature . . .
Well, not literature. It's rationalism. The wife is a doctor and she's not a literary person at all. Indeed, the religious one, the husband, Harold, is the great reader. What I'm looking at there is, in a terrible crisis, when something terrible happens, what structures are there to support you? If you're religious there are certain ways of dealing with whatever happens. And with birth, with death, with disaster, you turn to God. You pray. And you believe somebody is looking after you from up there. But Claudia does not have any beliefs. She has only her work, her humanism, the idea that life itself is sacred, we mustn't cause pain. But what interested me was that neither of them could really deal with this situation from their different point of view, from the religious one or the rationalist point of view. What happened is so overwhelming that they feel inadequate to it. And they are inadequate to it. Their coming to adjust to it is what you love to call here "a learning process."
The couple's black lawyer makes the observation that these two are less resilient than a black couple might have been in the same situation. They haven't been through the same kind of hardships.
I think that reflection of his would be very true. Harold and Claudia are middle-class white professionals and typical liberals who say, "I have no race feeling at all," but who didn't do anything, who didn't risk, who didn't put their lives on the line in any way for change. All they did was probably vote against the Nationalist government. But they voted for people who really were so middle-of-the-road that you could not be depicted as overthrowing that government. How do these people find themselves in the position that they are? How do they find themselves now, as you remarked before, dependent upon a black man, their son's life is in his hands, and his reflection on how they deal with it comes from his culture? The way they are unable to deal with it is an indication of what a protected life they've lived. If you're black and you've lived during the apartheid time, you're accustomed to people going in and out of prison all the time. They didn't carry the right documents in their pockets when they went out. They couldn't move freely from one city to another without acting against the law and being subject to imprisonment. So that there's no real disgrace about going to prison, because you didn't have to be criminal to go to prison. And then, when people were in prison, then there was sorrow, there was degradation, it was a common happening. I expect people are more accustomed to it. He's reflecting on how for whites, unless you belonged to the criminal class, this couldn't happen. So that they are much more vulnerable than black people would be in the same position.
Speaking of liberal guilt, is there a lot of that among your acquaintances on the left in South Africa? A sense among some of them that they could have done more?
Well, now you must draw a distinction between people on the left and liberals. We draw that distinction. F.W. de Klerk is a liberal, because he came to realize that things have got to change. Being on the left is something much tougher in South Africa. And those of us on the left don't suffer from this guilt thing. Because guilt is and was unproductive. It's no good saying, "I feel guilty because I'm privileged or white." You couldn't throw away your privilege, but you could do something active against that. So the left did that. As you know, there was a considerable number, an extraordinarily effective number of people on the left. And especially on the so-called extreme left. You went to prison, you went to exile. We have heroes among whites as we have among the blacks. But the liberals, the people like my couple, who said, "Of course we're not racist" and had no personal involvement, they may feel guilty that they didn't do more. But the next people on the list have got nothing to feel guilty about, because many of them risked their careers, risked their personal safety, they deprived their families of a kind of safety because they were tied up in politics. There were several generations of people who have made this sacrifice from father to son and so on. And I don't think now that many of these liberals feel guilt. They have a very pragmatic attitude. They have adapted to the situation, saying, "We always wanted it to be like this," and they're probably very useful in the transition period. Because they accept the fact that certain privileges aren't. . . they haven't lost them, but they're not theirs alone, they're sharing them with other people.
How long will this transition period last, do you think?
Let's be realistic. The real extent of the transition is going to be a whole generation. If I look now at little kids at grammar school, going to school together, black and white, in what were formerly white schoolsthey're now 6 or 7 years old. So it's only when they grow up that you will see whether we really have overcome completely the racial divides. Because that's the first time ever that children have been brought up together to know each other as people, rather than "I'm black, and you're white." And it'll take a generation also in terms of realizing in material terms the differences in people's daily life. We're not going to move 3 or 4 million people out of Sowetoeverybody knows Soweto, but you've got lots of Sowetos all over. White people are not going to move in there. Why should they? They'd have to be extremely idealistic to do so, and the people living there would think they're crazy, because they just want to get out. It's a matter of conditions, living conditions, facilities that people are used to. Libraries and cinemas and shopping centers. It's still the fact that all these millions who live in the ghettos come and buy in town. Over the last few years, they are beginning to change this, to create business and proper shopping malls and things within the townships. But you can see the difference in living conditions, and that'll take a long time to change. It's virtually creating new cities. Johannesburg is no longer a white city. But even in the elite suburbs, black professionals and the new entrepreneurial class, they live there. So you're beginning to see class difference operating within the black community. It's inevitable.
You can go to the American South and see similar things. There are black neighborhoods that look like they haven't changed in 100 years.
I find that rather depressing. But of course you must remember that here you've got a black minority. Our situation is very different from the point of view of proportional values. Here, we've got a black majority. We have a black native government. There are whites and otherspeople of different, black, colored racesin the government, but it is indeed a black majority government, you've got a black majority population. The biggest difference is that blacks in South Africa all have their own languages. I think this is of tremendous importance. There's something about having your own mother tongue. Black Americans cannot turn to the ear, to the intimate shelter of another language. South African blacks have always had that. And they also had, of course, their own ground under their feetthey no longer had the title deed to itbut the earth under the feet and the rivers running and the forests, these were their natural home, their habitat.
- The narrative of The House Gun is divided into two parts. Why do you think Nadine Gordimer chose to do this? Is the narrative style of the two parts different? How? Do you think this is effective?
- The murder that Duncan commits functions as a prism through which to explore the many types and faces of intimacy: intimacy between husband and wife, parent and child, lovers (hetero and homosexual) and friendseven attorney and client. Often, we assume that intimacy is inherently good in relationships, but consider Duncan's relationships with both his girlfriend and housemates. While these relationships may have been intimate, they were not necessarily good. Why do you think Duncan chose to stay involved with these individuals? Does Nadine Gordimer judge him for doing so?
- Throughout the novel, Claudia refers to a note that she and Harald wrote Duncan after one of his classmates committed suicide. It said, "There is nothing that you cannot tell us." But as the novel develops, it becomes apparent that Harald and Claudia really know very little about Duncan's life. Did this strike you as a failure as parents on their part? Why or why not?
- Think about Harald and Claudia's marriage. What facet of their relationship was transformed the most by the murder? How and why?
- Do you think that Harald and Claudia's relationship improves during the course of the novel, or just changes?
- While there are sections in The House Gun that give us glimpses into Duncan's perceptions of intimacy, love, and justice, he remains, for the most part, an opaque character. How did you find yourself responding to Duncan: with empathy, with disgust, or with anger?
- Did you believe Hamilton Motsamai's defense that Carl's murder was a spontaneous act of passion? What are the specific circumstances of the crime that make you believe that it was, or wasn't, premeditated? Is that truthwhatever it may beirrelevant? Why or why not?
- Duncan, like his father, is an avid reader. Duncan recognizes that writers are "dangerous people" because they know how to murder without picking up a weapon. Do you think that Natalie bears as much of the responsibility for the murder as Duncan? Why or why not?
- Nadine Gordimer strongly believes in the symbiotic relationship between a novel and the time and place within which it was created. How did she place The House Gun in a larger political context?
- "Guns don't shoot people, people shoot people." After reading The House Gun, do you agree with this statement? Would Duncan have committed the murder if the gun had not been so readily available?
- Did Duncan receive a fair sentence? At the end of the novel, was justice served?