You wake up one morning and you realize you and your family are in danger. You are no longer safe in your home in Johannesburg because of the popular uprising against the apartheid. You consider yourself to be a liberal white, someone who supports civil liberties and equality for all. But that makes no difference. You will be targeted if you stay in your home. What do you do? Where can you go?
This is the situation of the Smales family in July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. Mother, father, and their three children are out of options. So July, their servant of 15 years, offers to take them back to his village. For the first time in their lives, the Smales find themselves living under primitive conditions in a barely habitable dwelling with no running water and no proper sanitation. They have nowhere else to go and are entirely dependent on July for their survival. The balance of power has shifted. How July and the Smales navigate this shift is the subject of Gordimer’s novel.
The tension surfaces most clearly in Maureen Smales’ interaction with July and in her attempts to navigate a space for herself in July’s village. It does so initially in the details of everyday life. It is no longer relevant to sustain the master/servant relationship when the daily routines of eating, sleeping, cooking, and personal hygiene are shared on an intimate level. Eventually, the tension comes to a boil when July confronts Maureen because of her past treatment of him as her house boy. She is shocked by his accusation since she considered herself to be compassionate and humane toward July. But what she comes to realize is that no matter how compassionate or humane she had been, the very nature of their relationship and the context under which they operated deprived July of his dignity. In the face of systemic oppression, kind gestures are ultimately meaningless.
Gordimer’s exploration of the July/Smales relationship is a microcosm of the shift in power that occurs on a large political scale. The two sides struggle to find a balance, to ascertain how to view themselves, how to view each other, and how to interact with each other under these new circumstances. Gordimer does not provide any easy answers. The patterns of behavior are so ingrained that it is not easy to transcend them. The novel ends inconclusively with Maureen running toward the sound of a helicopter which may or may not be their salvation. The future is uncertain for the Smales and for July and his people.
Gordimer packs a lot in this very short novel. The characters are complex and multidimensional. They show their anxieties, conflicts, and struggles as they try to adjust to their new circumstances and shifting power structure. The dialog was authentic. July’s cadences and diction were especially effective in conveying his voice. The imagery captured the sights, sounds, and smells of a primitive village lacking in all modern conveniences.
This is not a light read, but it is a powerful one. Recommended.