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INTRODUCTION

From a seemingly simple scenario of girl meets boy, Nadine Gordimer's The Pickup evolves into an exploration of freedom, responsibility, love, and identity. In their efforts to forge a life together and find a place that can accommodate their respective dreams, the two central characters enact both metaphorically and literally the opening lines of a poem that figures prominently in the novel: "Let us go to another country / Not yours or mine / And start again."

The Pickup begins in an unnamed country that is clearly South Africa, where Julie Summers, a young publicist from an affluent, prestigious white family, sets her sights on the dark-skinned foreigner who has repaired her car. Abdu (or, as she learns much later, Ibrahim ibn Musa) stands out dramatically from her usual circle of cohorts, a group of like-minded intellectuals, poets, and freethinkers, identified collectively as The Table, who meet daily at the EL-AY Café. The open-minded and seemingly worry-free Julie invites a serious, reserved, and cautious Abdu to join the life of The Table. As Julie and Abdu become lovers, we learn that he is an illegal immigrant who is working as a mechanic only because he can do so unofficially. We also learn that Julie despises and is embarrassed by her father's capitalistic values and privileged lifestyle, the "beautiful terrace of her father's house" that "she didn't care to call...home" (p. 138). But it is precisely to her father's lifestyle that Abdu aspires. As an "insider," Julie wants out; as an "outsider," Abdu wants in.

Within their complex relationship, it often seems unclear what exactly is the nature of the love between Julie and Abduor, in fact, if that is the right term for what passes between them. Desire and responsibility continuously come into conflict with each other. Abdu can't help considering Julie's relationship with him "another of the adventures she prided herself on being far enough from her father's beautiful house always to be ready for" (p. 112). Yet he "felt something unwanted,...he felt responsibilitythat's itresponsibility for her. Though he had none" (pp. 173-174). Near the end of the novel, the narrator refers to Abdu/Ibrahim's "love for her," but "he can admit it to himself only" (p. 266). As for Julie, she feels that there are those, such as her uncle, who know "she loves the man who appeared to her, legs, body, finally head from under a car" (p. 73). At the same time, Julie cannot bring herself to confront her father and enlist his aid in Abdu's struggle to avoid deportationan omission she in a sense rectifies by accompanying Abdu in his return homeward into "exile."

When the couple arrives in Ibrahim's homelandfor, from this point of the novel onward he is referred to by his real name, Ibrahimthe unnamed desert country emerges as an oasis for Julie, while remaining for Ibrahim a place he wishes desperately to escape. Ibrahim is not convinced that his country is anything more to Julie than the location of another of her adventures, but Julie finds in it the kind of home that neither her father nor even The Table could provide: "You must understand, I've never lived in a family before, just made substitutes out of other people, ties, I supposethough I didn't realize that, either, then. There are...things...between people here, that are important, no, necessary to them" (p. 187). Of all the members of Ibrahim's family, his mother has the greatest impact on Julie. Her gentle but deeply devoted piety sets the tone for a household and family in which relationships have weightan almost palpable massand carry responsibility, ultimately drawing Julie in (and, it would seem, driving Ibrahim out). Gordimer addresses the theme of religion with great subtlety, contrasting, on the one hand, the mechanical call-to-prayer that breaks the reflective silence of Julie's early morning desert walks with, on the other, the way the religious life in Ibrahim's family contributes to a web of care and to the significance of daily life, neither of which Julie has ever felt to this degree.

The novel concludes with Ibrahim leaving his homeland for America while Julie stays behind. His family's public explanation to save face is that she will follow him, but they know she might not. The implications of such a decision are uncertain, and Gordimer leaves it to the reader to fathom the possibilities. Does Julie think she has foundor maybe becomeher true self in Ibrahim's country? Has this development overwhelmed her relationship with Ibrahim, so that she must sacrifice it in order to live authentically? Does Ibrahim's decision to leave without her indicate a similar process, in terms of his own need to live the life he feels he must? The nuances of Julie and Ibrahim's situation force us to weigh their conflicting perspectives. In the end, even if the two lovers both deserve our sympathy, they nonetheless are competing for it. Questions persisthauntingly soas to who is in fact freer, more open-minded, and more faithful to a true self, if in fact such a thing as that exists.

 

ABOUT NADINE GORDIMER

Nadine GordimerNadine Gordimer was born in 1923 to Jewish immigrants in the small town of Springs, Transvaal, South Africa, a mining town outside of Johannesburg. She attended school at a convent and published her first short story as a teenager in the children's section of a Johannesburg Sunday newspaper. In 1945 she spent a year at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Living in Johannesburg since 1948, Gordimer has been a vocal activist against apartheid, publicly criticizing the government's policies and activities. A relentless defender of freedom of self-expressionthree of her novels were banned in South AfricaGordimer has served as a steering committee member of the Anti-Censorship Action Group. Her writing illustrates the need for political change and, more generally, the dynamics at the intersection of public and private life. But it is the combination of these qualities with her immense storytelling skills and the power with which she addresses such universal themes as responsibility, freedom, and the nature of love that has won her a reputation as one of the world's great writers. Among her many literary honors are the 1974 Booker Prize and the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Why does Julie stay in Ibrahim's country?
     
  2. Why is Abdu/Ibrahim afraid to bring Julie to his country?
     
  3. What does the desert signify for Julie? What does it signify for Ibrahim?
     
  4. What does Julie's "elegant suitcase" represent to Ibrahim?
     
  5. Why is neither Julie nor Ibrahim's country ever identified by name?
     
  6. Why does Julie later think that during her time with Abdu/Ibrahim in her homeland, they "were playing at reality; it was a doll's house, the cottage"? (p. 164)
     
  7. In Arabic, the name "Abdu" literally means "servant" (and is often an abbreviated form of "Abdullah," meaning "servant of God"). Why does Ibrahim choose this name for himself while living in Julie's country?
     
  8. In what sense, if any, do Julie and Ibrahim love each other?
     
  9. In what ways is Julie's relationship with Ibrahim an expression of her true self? In what ways is it, as Ibrahim often believes, merely another one of her "adventures"? Are those the only two options?
     
  10. Why does Julie come to feel closer to Ibrahim's family than to her own?
     
  11. Why does Gordimer title this novel The Pickup?
For Further Reflection
  1. Is it possible to entirely escape the effects of family on one's identity?
     
  2. Is living in a way that is truest to oneself necessarily in conflict with responsibility to others?

Related Titles

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (1949)
Following World War II, three Americans journey to North Africa in this novel that examines the ways in which hidden aspects of identity emerge in the absence of a familiar place and culture.

J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (1999)
In this Booker Prize-winning novel, a middle-aged white professor struggles unsuccessfully to accept and adjust to the changing face of South Africa in the wake of his dismissal for sexual misconduct.

E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)
Illuminating the racial tension endemic to British-ruled India, this story of a British woman's encounter with not only an Indian man but also an entire culture is a subtle portrait of the complexities and ambiguities of human relationships.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
This novel explores the nature of identity by following a young African-American woman through a series of relationships that enable her to discover both the possibilities and limitations inherent in conceptions of race, class, and community.