The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

The ConservationistToday (7/13/14) I was saddened to learn that Nadine Gordimer passed away at the age of 90. It has been nearly a year since I have read one of her many novels, but I thought I’d share my favorite Gordimer with the SMC family in hopes that more people will get to know her writing better.

The Conservationist won the Man Booker Prize. The book tells the story of a conservative, white, South African “developmentalist” business-tycoon named Mehring who decides to buy a large ranch/farm outside of Johannesburg. At the beginning of the novel Mehring justifies his purchase as a matter of keeping up a certain level of conspicuous consumption and creating a remote place to seduce married women. While he continuously tries to imagine and live the farm as a kind of edenic nature retreat, his fantasies continuously run afoul of the realities of an apartheid-era farm. He is unable to see past his arrogant delusions of romantic nature without people, even though his farm is created and maintained through the labor of a large number of (black African) people who live and work on the land for a pittance. Mehring appears only on weekends and holidays, but this does not stop him from ordering his farm manager, Jacobus, to do all sorts of bizarre, misinformed, or detrimental work on the farm (which Jacobus quietly resists). The bounds of Mehring’s narrow, small imagination are pushed at through his illusions of his liberal ex-lover, who taunts his judgements and opinions at every turn, yet fails to pierce his studied obstructionism and willfully blind privilege. Mehring’s obliviousness is challenged most acutely by the existence of an unnamed, unmarked dead black man on the farm, who was found dead on his property. The police, having little concern for the victim because of his race, force Jacobus and the other farm hands to bury the man. The man serves as a powerful symbol of the histories Merhing’s colonial farm attempts to shove out of sight and out of mind, only to reemerge.

In what ways is Mehring “a conservationist”? What does he “conserve?” Turn to this powerful meditation on the ideologies of development, capitalism, and apartheid to find out.

Rating: I’ve veld many good books in my hands, but seldom velt so good reading one as when reading about the farm in Gordimer’s The Conservationist.

Availability: SMCM Library, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended

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