All the Booker books that I have read so far have been well written, of course, but Nobel prizewinner Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974) is the first that has made me stop and re-read a beautifully written passage. Take as a brief example this simile that I had to read twice: “…the sound of radio music winds like audible smoke in the clean fine morning: it’s Sunday.” Or the sensory richness of a long passage where our hero Mehring spends New Year’s Eve alone in a field, watching the lightning and fireworks, listening to insects, and smelling his absent son in a borrowed sleeping bag.
Mehring is a wealthy white man in South Africa who bought a farm, apparently on a whim, as a place to bring a lover, and now seems to feel alive only there. He becomes more and more withdrawn from his own social group, without ever fitting in with the colored (black or Indian) folks, either. His wife, lover, and son have all left him, but he stubbornly comes out every weekend to supervise his farm, earning him the title epithet.
The drama begins with a body found on Mehring’s land: most likely a black from the “location,” another term for township: a shantytown for blacks, rife with crime and bereft of the most basic amenities. The police find it inconvenient to transport the body, and simply bury it in the vlei (marsh) where it lies. To me, this unidentified victim comes to represent all the blacks of South Africa, how cumbersome and disposable they are to the whites. The locations have become holding pens for the indigenous, like Native American reservations, but more crowded. The whites see them as eyesores, cesspools. Mehring thinks he is a fair man doing the right thing, but we can tell that his more liberal lover and son both reproach him.
Then he takes abominable advantage of a young woman on an airplane, and loses any respect I might have had for him. Symbolically, the country seems to do the same. A flood on a Biblical scale unearths the forgotten body, which must be returned to the earth, properly, in a coffin, and seems to become its new and rightful owner. Also during the flood, Mehring is feared dead, so his hired hands must manage the farm without him – which they do quite well. Finally, Mehring becomes the patsy in a scheme with a seemingly simple lower-class girl, whose race is unclear.
The tables are turned. But is justice served? Several times, Mehring remembers bits of conversation with his liberal lover, who ends up leaving the country – whether in flight or exile is unclear. She seems to think the whole system must be overhauled, whole new countries like Namibia established, while the Conservationist continues to repair, to shore up, to tinker, to distribute gifts and pennies without really changing anything. Will one captain of industry’s receipt of his comeuppance change anything either? It’s not clear.
**end spoiler alert**
I could keep writing: for example, the story is riddled with images of circles, in the form of eggs, rings, and peace signs. And I’m sure someone has written intelligently about this. It’s a deep and delicate novel worth reading, and reading again.