|Jan/Feb 2002 Book Reviews|
Bloomsbury, Allen & Unwin (November 2001) 270 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 5634 2
What is it like to move to another country, another culture, a strange place with a strange language and strange customs? What sort of people do that?
Nadine Gordimer's imagination follows two young people who do move to another country but for very different reasons. Julie Summers, a young South African trying to free herself from her affluent, middle-class origins and free to choose where she wants to live; and Ibrahim ibn Musa, from a tiny Arab village in the desert, trying desperately to find new opportunities and a new life in any country which is willing to take him on. By accident these two young people meet. Maybe by accident, maybe not, their lives become entwined.
Julie's friends, "young haphazard and selectively tolerant," are a mixed-race bunch who frequent the El-Ay Cafe in "a thoroughfare, the bazaar of all that the city had not been allowed to be by the laws and traditions of her parents' generation." In a few lines, Gordimer expertly conveys the style and the atmosphere of the place and the values of those who come to "sit over a single coffee" and talk. It's a meeting place for dissenters, free thinkers, drifters, poor immigrants, prostitutes, poets, "aging Hippies and Leftist Jews." Julie's friends, black and white, are a brotherhood: "elective siblings" who totally accept each other and ask no awkward questions; their creed: "whatever you do, love, whatever happens, hits you, mate, bra, that's all right with me." It is here that Julie feels at home not at her wealthy father's place. It is here that she introduces Ibrahim, although at the time that she makes the introduction she knows him only as Abdu.
Abdu has outstayed his South African permit and is hiding under a false name and working illegally as a grease-monkey at the garage to which Julie's takes her broken-down car. His introduction to Julie's friends brings him into a new situation in this new country to which he came so hopefully, and it brings him new challenges and new opportunities. He is desperately trying to stay in South Africa.
For Julie, it is partly the strangeness of Abdu which attracts her. She is curious about him--a personable, intelligent young man who has a degree in engineering (from an unknown place) but who works in a garage. For Abdu, perhaps, the friendship offers something else. Gordimer never spells out any underlying motives. She simply tells the story of their friendship and the different ways each reacts to the strangeness of the other. It is subtly and beautifully done, and she allows the reader's imagination full scope.
When the South African authorities finally catch up with Abdu, he persuades Julie to use family connections to try and extend his permit. But when all attempts fail, Julie precipitates a commitment which neither had anticipated by buying two airline tickets to Abdu's country and insisting she will go with him. For her, it is an adventure, she sees no complications other than hardships which will be an exciting challenge. For Abdu, however, this is a serious situation which requires that they marry before he can take her to live with his family. For Abdu, too, return represents a failure, but Julie's background offers him some hope of reversing this.
The way in which Julie and Abdu/Ibrahim cope with the move and with the many necessary cultural adjustments is again beautifully and realistically imagined by Gordimer. The differences in attitude to family, friendship and connections; the questions of independence, values and responsibilities; the problems of being a stranger in an unfamiliar culture and of bringing a stranger into your own family; all are explored from both Julie and Ibrahim's sides--not analytically or didactically but imaginatively. Subtly and surely the reader is drawn into the scene and begins to sense and feel the tensions, the fascination, the needs and the pressures which govern the characters' lives.
The Pickup is a superb story told by a very skilful storyteller. It is also a story which explores the changes in the wider world in surprising but important ways. V.S. Naipaul said in a recent interview that he believed that "the serious function of writing" (and he was talking about novels) is to help readers to understand society. The Pickup seems to me to do this enjoyably, topically and admirably. In a world of rapid social change, where issues of immigration are daily aired in the media, Gordimer offers insight into the radically different meaning which "another country" has for those who can choose to move and those who must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in order to be chosen.