annotation by Diane Sherlock
The Conservationist is a South African novel of the early 1970’s before the end of apartheid that lays out in vivid landscape the contradictions and difficulties of that country and its tensions. It is both dense and lyrical as it follows the life of a wealthy white South African protagonist, Mehring. Mehring has a failed marriage, an estranged son, a dead body on the property he bought on a whim as a weekend getaway, and a mistress who must flee the country due to political messes. Gordimer explores the monotony of both farm life, a hobby for Mehring, as well as the monotony of the business world along with themes of death and rebirth.
For the most part, Gordimer does an admirable job of exploring her themes and painting a vivid picture of life on the veld, but it remains one of the coldest books I have ever read. Certainly the protagonist is one reason. Gordimer provides a fine tension between the way Mehring sees himself and the way he appears to others. He believes he has gained his position in the world entirely due to his own hard work, giving no quarter to luck, circumstance and privilege. By the end of the book, it’s clear he is small minded, both bigot and sexual predator. It is not an easy or quick read, requiring concentration and attention to the small details Gordimer includes. The physical descriptions are lyrical: “…it lashed around them, a furry tongue of fiery soft dust spitting stinging chips of stone.”
The main flaws in the book are a smattering of clunky transitions and occasional awkward turns, such as using coincidence to ill effect when Mehring reads about his friend’s death of a friend right after a chance meeting with the man’s daughter. Mehring’s moral equivalence sticks out: “But the children ignore him as he ignores them. What percentage of the world is starving? How long can we go on getting away scot-free? When the aristocrats were caught up in the Terror, did they recognize: it’s come to us. Did the Jews of Germany think: it’s our turn.” While it illustrates his mindset that the Jews controlled money the way the French upper class did, it didn’t feel seamless within the narrative. In fact, the fractured narrative is at times an annoyance.
On the plus side, Gordimer uses Zulu creation myths in her narrative, leaves conclusions to the reader, and her protagonist and the people around him are full of contradictions: he’s not a male chauvinist, yet he will risk his societal position in a high-risk clandestine fondling of a teen girl on a plane; his leftist mistress travels the world on his money and so on.
Mehring’s philosophy is summarized in a conversation/debate he has with his lover about the farm: “A farm is not beautiful unless it is productive. Reasonable productivity prevailed; he had to keep half an eye (all he could spare) on everything, all the time, to achieve even that much, and of course he had made it his business to pick up a working knowledge of husbandry, animal and crop, so that he couldn’t easily be hoodwinked by his people there and could plan farming operations with some authority.”
There were some problems with this particular edition from Penguin. The paperback cost fifteen dollars, seriously overpriced for such a cheap product. The type was difficult to read and there were only a couple of footnotes explaining that Witbooi = white boy, and Swart Gevaar = black danger. Those were the easiest to figure out. There should have been a dozen more footnotes for American readers, including the information that corn is referred to as ‘mealies’ in South Africa and vlei (pronounced ‘flay’) means wetlands. More problematic is that dialogue is set off with dashes and descriptions use the same device. It would have been less confusing if standard quotation marks had been used.
Gordimer’s facility with language and description alone show why she is held in esteem, as co-winner of the Booker Prize for this work and Nobel Prize recipient in 1991. Her lyricism was the most valuable element for my own writing. The Conservationist is also an excellent study for those exploring unsympathetic protagonists, particularly one as isolated as his country was before the end of apartheid.