A LONG WITH DOCTORS and scientists, writers today are specialists, conscientiously reexamining their chosen sector of life: we talk of Cheever or Roth "territory." Nadine Gordimer is distinct in laying claim to the whole broad field -- the heroic and the base, the public and the private, politics and love and the clashes endemic to both. Like the great 19th-century Russian novelists she unites vast scope with minute attention to the oridnary. Gordimer's setting is Africa, as it has generally been in 15 previous books of fiction, but in her Africa we find ourselves. Last winter saw the publication of her novel, Burger's Daughter , which should become a literary landmark; now comes a collection of stories, A Soldier's Embrace , smaller in scale but equally intense and excellent.
The notion of duality -- the definitive fact about Gordimer's native South Africa -- permeates these dozen stories, all of them about impossible combinations producing discord, imbalance and functional failure, whether of a society, a family, or a pair of lovers. "Town and Country Lovers" presents two couples, the men white, one woman black and one colored (in South African usage, meaning "of mixed race"). The story is presented in two episodes; both simmer with foreboding beneath the wordless lovemaking, till at last the law enters as a malevolent deus ex machina. The women understand and suffer all, while the men manage to save their white skins, if not their souls.
Duality, in Gordimer's stories, appears not only between black and white but between sedate marriage and passion, conventional burghers and eccentric pariahs, the mean-spirited and the generous, the bitter and the sweet. Irrepressible social outcasts disturb the vistas of smug solid citizens. Two stories tell of families unable to absorb a troublesome member: the adolescent boy in "Siblings" is awed and attracted by his cousin's bizarre behavior, but her scarred naked body -- the price of her experience -- repels him and he quickly withdraws to safety. In "A Mad One," an aging self-satisfied woman realizes that her shunning of a pesty neurotic relative springs from stinginess of heart, yet she hasn't the will to change. And in "The Need for Something Sweet" (apt title for a wonderfully true and bitter story), the fiftyish narrator recollects his youthful love for a middle-aged, seedy, alcoholic foreigner -- an utter misfit. Now outwardly a successful businessman whose married life is a dull kind of misery, he is likened to a seal flat on his back, grunting and forever hungry.
For Gordimer the public and private zones are not neatly separable; perhaps this integrity is one source of her artistic strength. In both arenas power is a determining force, and in both the identical common decencies or lack of decencies apply. Accordingly she brings to every genre of story the same warmth tempered by keen scrutiny as well as her genius in the choice of detail. "Time Did" is an intimate, piercingly acute snapshot of a love affair abruptly but not unexpectedly withering before our eyes: another untenable situation. Its political analogue is the title story, "A Soldier's Embrace," which wryly shows a white liberal lawyer and his wife in an African nation where blacks have just won the war and assumed governmental power. Despite the best of intentions there seems no way this pair can remain; ironically, they move to a neighboring country where the struggle continues, and they can therefore play a purposeful role. The image of the wife swept up between a black and a white solider during the cease-fire celebration, kissing each on the cheek and then pondering her gesture, epitomizes a nation and its people split down the center.
But the story which represents the condition of South Africa far more stingingly, if metaphorically, is "The Termitary," ostensbily a nostalgia piece whose narrator recalls the repairmen's visits that broke the monotony of her childhood home. Three exterminators, one white and two black, come to rid the house of infesting termites, or white ants. The job done, they display the queen in a box, "an obese, helpless white creature, five inches long, with the tiny, shiny-visored head of an ant at one end. The body was a sort of dropsical sac attached to this head; it had no legs that could be seen, neither could it propel itself by peristaltic action, like a slug or a worm. The queen. The queen whose domain, we had seen for ourselves in the galleries and passages that had been uncovered beneath our house, was as big as ours."
The queen is mother to thousand, and exudes a "creamy sweetness," quite like the mother of the house. But more ominously, "the queen cannot move, she is blind . . . the tyrannical prisoner of her subjects who would not have been born and cannot live without her . . . she is helpless to evade the consequences of her power."
A the keynote of Nadine Gordimer's technique is this elliptical poet's way with metaphor as a shortcut to meaning, together with a compression of language that can render the core of a life or a situation in a few sentences. A sleeping woman's deepest and most universal instincts are revealed in a flash: "She lay bound and gagged in dreams of drowning, earthquakes, and car crashes to which she could not be summoned with a call to save her childeren because she was tethered to her conscious mind by the wire of the disconnected telephone." Elsewhere so much is packed in and between the dense lines that a story takes on the resonance of a novel. "Dr. Franza-Josef von Leinsdorf," we are told, "is a geolist absorbed in his work; wrapped up in it, as the saying goes -- year after year the experience of this work enfolds him, swaddling him away from the landscapes, the cities and the people, whereever he lives: Peru, New Zealand, the United States. He's always been like that, his mother could confirm from their native Austria."
With her lavish but controlled figts, Nadine Gordimer records reality from painfully close up, just as the photographer alone, in "A Hunting Accident," has the audacity to stare into the eyes of a dying hartebeest and seize its last moments. She gives voice to passionate surges and to creatures yet unborn; by the magic of her words a march of black strikers becomes an imperial beast in "A Lion on the Freeway": "The cry that came from them as they approached -- that groan straining, the rut of freedom bending the bars of the cage, he's delivered himself of it, it's as close as if he's out on the freeway now, bewildered, finding his way, turning his splendid head at last to claim what he's never seen, the country where he's king."