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Tapeworms and collective memory just don’t mix

Nadine Gordimer fails to reinvigorate her pet themes in her new short story collection

Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 for her commitment to politics in fiction, Nadine Gordimer was described by the Nobel association as one “who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity.” Her friend Susan Sontag once declared that Gordimer exemplifies “all that a writer can be.” With these spotless literary credentials, I approached her newest collection of stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, with great expectations. But a writer’s career isn’t linear, and Beethoven isn’t one of its high points.

Gordimer’s stories, though gracefully perceptive at times, tend to become tiring. The collection’s largest successes come when she expresses her thoughts on memory, love, and politics through her characters’ intimate reflections. By placing emphasis on the individual, she makes heavy, abstract topics like race, sexuality, and political ideologies more palpable; they come alive in her caricatures of her now-defunct circle of friends in “Dreaming of Death.” Yet the thematic monotony of Gordimer’s work endures despite these brief flashes of colour.

The story “Tape Measure,” a first-person narrative about a tapeworm’s secret life in the intestines of an unsuspecting human, most seriously undercut my former faith in her literary abilities. The story disrupts the collection’s continuity with its excessive abstractions, and presents no new revelations about memory or politics. When juiced for its metaphors – and I mean wrung like a pair of sweat socks – “Tape Measure” at best offers readers this profundity: the tapeworm stands for collective memory, a parasite that nests deep within us and can take hold of us at any point, beyond our control. And indeed, the human cannot remove the tapeworm once he discovers it in his digestive tract. At the end of the story, the tapeworm asserts that one of its eggs will wriggle into the body of the human, assuring that the process will “begin over again.” This gives readers a sense of memory’s legacy and its constant stranglehold over our sense of individual identity. The inescapable influence of history and the nature of memory constitute the underlying message in nearly all of Gordimer’s stories – a message that, after a certain point, feels quite repetitive.

It’s almost ironic, then, that Gordimer herself fails to escape her historical patterns as a writer. Like a newspaper, I found that I could open Gordimer’s collection, skim it, and get the basic idea.

But I will admit that Gordimer does, at times, convincingly dissect human psychology. In the story “Allesverloren,” Gordimer documents a widow’s desperate attempts to piece together the shards of her husband’s life in a quest for her own emotional salvation. “He is nowhere except the possibility of recall, a calling-up of all the times, phases, places, emotions and actions of what he was, how he lived while he was,” the widow recalls. His life, Gordimer writes, “must continue for her survival.” The widow proceeds to interrogate one of her husband’s former lovers in her attempt to recreate him, but this man offers nothing but an impersonal account of their romantic history. She finally ceases her prodding when the ex-lover pulls out a bottle of wine for them. Allesvoren, reads the label on the bottle, an Afrikaans phrase meaning “everything lost.” The ending finishes the thought in her previous story “Frivolous Woman. We understand that, indeed, “the past is a foreign country…”. In Beethoven, the past makes exiles of us all; people become estranged from each other and, as time passes, from themselves.

The collection may be punctuated with moments that affirm her credibility as a Nobel Prize winning writer, but these instances are too sparse to make the book worth reading. As Siddartha Deb of The New York Times suggests, Gordimer may be past her expiry date; her earlier narratives are far superior to her current work.

For a better measure of Gordimer’s talents, read The Conservationist.

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (192 pages) is available from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux for $18.