A Guest of Honour by Nadine Gordimer

A Guest of Honour (1970) is a long, spacious, comprehensive work of fiction. It has all the lineaments of a traditional story. It is leisurely and detailed. There is something Olympian, something magnificently confident in the way in which the writer goes about her work. Her calm certainty camouflages the ease with which she handles the many strands in her story and the complexities of her plot.

The novel is a perceptive and a persuasive political¬†work that has the challenge and inevitability of history itself. It is political in that the major figures think and act in the light of their politics. As in Malraux’s Man’s Fate, and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, the fascination of the book derives from the dialectical play of its ideas. Our sympathy for her people is directly proportional to the appeal of their arguments. There are no deliberate scoundrels in it, only powerful truths testing to see whether their hour is come.

Gordimer’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadine_Gordimer¬†and http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jun/13/nadine.gordimer) theme is a classic one: the destruction of revolutionary ideals once the revolution has been effected; the throttling of those who want the social revolution to be an essential part of the political one; the dilemma of the outmanoeuvered who see no course except to revolt against the revolution they helped bring about. It is a theme old in history and as recent as the new African states in which her novel is set.

Evelyn James Bray, who is the centre of events, has had a curious history. A British colonial administrator, Bray was nevertheless actively involved in the freedom movement of the blacks, to such an extent that he had become anathema to the white settlers in the colony. They had angrily banded together and had him driven out. Now at the hour of independence, he is invited back by the newly chosen president of the newly established republic. The president, Adamson Mwete, a flamboyant and popular leader and a symbol of reawakened Africa, moves literally from the tin-roofed shack that was his home to the presidential palace and moves his attention at the same time from the individual to the concerns of the state. Bray notices that Edward Shinza, the man who had worked in harness with Mwete in securing freedom for the colony, is missing. Shinza complemented Mwete. He was both a finely drawn intellectual and a practical organizer, a reasoning man and theorist and yet one willing to do the spade work that others take credit for. Bray learns that independence, far from bringing the men together in a time of triumph, has only widened the gap between them. Mwete lives in colonial splendor; Shinza retreats to the bush, to the same scrubby conditions he endured before.

This is the outward show of differences that are crucial and fundamental. Mwete wants progress for the country, not for any segment within it. Shinza wants to improve the lives of the people; he wants the revolution made flesh. The President, for example, has concluded a contract with foreign-owned mining companies that gives a larger share of profits to the state, but keeps the wages of the miners at the same level. The economy of the country, says one character, can only be developed at the expense of the workers. The agitation of the miners stirs the trade unions and the leaders who control them. Once these unions had been part of the popular movement for independence without losing their function as vehicles for the grievances of the workers. Now the President wants them to become enforcement agencies to keep the workers in place.

The old independence party becomes a para-military organization to implement the decision of the head of state. A repressive detention law is passed. Men of wealth retain their privileges, and slowly the new republic becomes one with the empire. The poor farmer, the wage-earner in the fish-drying plant can hardly distinguish the new order from the old. The logic of events does not stop there. Men and movements are pushed into a convulsion of violence and terror, and in a final irony, the President turns to Britain, the country he ousted, to send troops to maintain the state it has just freed.

Such a summary may seem to reduce¬†Gordimer’s characters to robots in history. They are, on the contrary, exceedingly human: complicated, erring, driven by fleshy appetites and by the loftiest resolves. And they are a varied lot: fearful Indians afraid of joining either side; petty officials who want to stay out of the conflict; white settlers waiting for their opportunity; innocents caught up by winds of change. And all move in a landscape so tactile and so sensuous that it becomes a participant in everything that occurs. History takes on human attributes in this mature, fully realized work. Whether we want to or not we are forced to take sides between those who want to ride the current and those who want to alter it. A marvellous work of fiction.

To follow up an interest in Nadine Gordimer start with A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer (1999, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Life-Celebrating-Nadine-Gordimer/dp/0670885835/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1387021509&sr=8-1&keywords=A+Writing+Life%3A+Celebrating+Nadine+Gordimer )

528 pages in Bloomsbury paperback edition

ISBN 978-0747559887

Nadine Gordimer

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