THREE YEARS AGO, in reviewing her Selected Stories , I insisted that Nadine Gordimer "writes as well as anyone alive today." Those words embarrass me now, not because Harper's and The Atlantic have chastised reviewers who engage in hyperbolic praise, but because in this instance the praise was understated, almost churlish. I should have said -- admitted, really -- that I don't know a living writer who's even in a class with this enchanting and adroit South African.
Many small delights distinguish Gordimer's fiction. Her prose is meticulous yet earthily sensual, a blend of metaphor and minute detail. ("He made love to me with the dragon Hoover breathing in the corridor outside and he does not know that the essence on his tongue in the bitter wax of my ear chamber, the brines of mouth or vagina were not my secret.") She has an unerring sense of scene, an ability to build force as if each chapter were one of her luminous short stories. And while her writing is often oblique, it is never obscure.
The technical mastery of Gordimer's craft is subordinate, however, to her literary purpose: to capture the many nuances of desire and perception without losing their emotional intensity. This is no small task; contemporary writing often achieves intensity only through the clash of bloodless stereotypes, or else sacrifices intensity in order to explore every nook and cranny of the human psyche. Gordimer's gift is to combine power with intricacy.
Her novels share South African settings, but otherwise each is distinct. The Conservationist (1975) was a tale of realization: a complacent industrialist gradually discovers that the decay of his prized weekend farm reflects the decay of his entire land. Burger's Daughter, by contrast, is a story about choice. And the choices involved are by no means uniquely South Arican.
Burger's Daughter begins simply: "Among the group of people waiting at the (prison) was a schoolgirl in a brown and yellow uniform holding a green eiderdown quilt and, by the loop at its neck, a red hot-water bottle. Certain Buses used to pass that way then and passengers looking out will have noticed a schoolgirl. Imagine, a schoolgirl: she must have somebody inside."
The schoolgirl, Rosa Burger, does have somebody inside; Inside the prison, on this occasion, it's her mother, picked up for subversive activity. Soon it will be her father, Lionel Burger, a successful doctor who's betrayed his Afrikaner heritage, his race and class, to become a key conspirator in the communist underground. He will be sentenced to life -- "And here life means life" -- accepting his fate with equanimity, certain that The Future is dialectically assured, Soon he will be dead: a legendary martyr, a fallen but inescapable leader whose banner the faithful smuggly assume Rosa will carry forward.
But Rosa (for Rosa Luxemburg) has somebody else inside: inside that resilient schoolgirl exterior, inside the dutiful daughter adept at "cloak and dagger stuff" and the evasion of surveillance. Someone who abhors the iron laws of the regime, but who knows, unlike her father, that the iron laws of Marxist theory will not supplant them. Someone who senses, when both parents are dead, the futility of struggle; who feels cheated, used, stripped of simple pleasures, weary of pain. Someone who wants to learn "how to defect" from her father.
Lionel Burger summarized, at his trial, Rosa's legacy: " '. . . there will always be those who cannot live with themselves at the expense of of fullness of life for others . . . . I would be guilty only if I were innocent of working to destroy racism in my country.' " Yet Rosa longs for respite, "Even animals have the instinct to turn from suffering," she reasons. "The sense to run away. Perhaps it was . . . [a] sickness not to be able to ignore that condition of a healthy, ordinary life: other people's suffering."
The agony of indecision here would suit Joseph Conrad; Rosa's first lover, an anti-political drifter who assails everything she learned in "that house," is in fact named Conrad. But unlike Lord Jim, needing to find courage in the face of danger, or Heyst on his island in Victory, needing to accept love, there is no one "destructive element" in which Rosa can immerse herself, no one demon to haunt her until she turns and confronts it. Either choice -- the "acolyte desting" leading straight to prison or the "healthy, ordinary life" at home or abroad -- seems equally simple, equally an escape.
This odyssey, like Homer's, is not diminished by the telling of its end. Rosa doesn't know "how to live in Lionel's country," and she learns abroad, that a normal life is attainable, not just appealing. Yet she returns home, not on Lionel's course but on her own, embracing suffering by nursing crippled black children. The secret police, in their paranoia, sweep her up and deny her a trial,"'the crowning point of a revolutionary's activity.' " She is not a revolutionary against the state -- only against the choices she inherited. Having wrested from life a different choice, one of her own devising, Rosa accepts easily the perverse mercy of arrest. It frees her to become Burger's daughter again: in prison, at peace, chained to her native land.
"No one," Gordimer writes, "no one can defect." Here, at least, she proves it with terrible beauty.