Friday, January 20, 2012

Loot and Other Stories (Nadine Gordimer)

Nadine Gordimer wasn't required reading when I was a Lit undergraduate but I wish she had been. The 1991 Nobel Prize winner for Literature is always asking questions through her text -- questioning social behaviors, facilitating political discussions especially those concerning her country, South Africa -- and does it with a deft hand. I actually feel inadequate just attempting to describe her writing.

The title story "Loot" is certainly the most lyrical, about an earthquake that "drew back the ocean as a vast breath taken." The ocean floor and its treasures are laid bare ("People rushed to take; take, take(p3)"), consumed by a greed that spurs them to possess things that are not theirs, reclaim someone else's memories. Ms Gordimer describes the frenzied scene with an almost breathless tone to her narrative, before ending with the story of one man in particular who has joined the looting. It is here that the story takes on a political undertone, setting the mood for the entire collection.

My favorites though were "The Generation Gap" where four grown-up children deal with the breakdown of their elderly parents' marriage late in the relationship and "L,U,C,I,E." which is about a trip to Italy shared by a woman and her distant father, visiting the tomb of the grandmother after whom she is named. I've never been a politically-minded reader in the first place so I naturally gravitated towards the strong familial themes of these stories. "The Generation Gap" is effective in its depiction of a family left scrambling after their father leaves their mother for another woman. What follows is an upheaval of the dynamics of their old life; familiar roles and definitions are changed, relationship lines are redrawn. There is an almost-detached reportage quality to the text, an outsider's view of a very personal matter, and the story never declines into melodrama despite its very nature. In contrast, it is the conversational (but no, not friendly) of "L,U,C,I,E." that drew me to it. Here, the narrator is actively inviting the reader into her thoughts: her relationship with her father, the awkwardness of it, the discomforting details of an Italian cemetery. "Karma" takes the prize for being the most ambitious, and though it isn't my favorite, it ends the collection on a strong note as it tackles death, karmic Return, and the nature of life in five different voices.

The themes of avarice and desire and possession are not uncommon in literature, but in Loot and Other Stories, they find new skin. The book is both beautiful and uncomfortable, and either way, quite startling.

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