Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun: A Postmodern Text.

Author:Diallo, Khadidiatou
Position:Critical essay

'It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write'. Albert Camus, Carnets Introduction

South African writer Nadine Gordimer has been one of the most outstanding advocators of interracial and "inter-gender" tolerance and harmony. Like fellow writers Andre Brink, John Maxwell Coetzee, and Beyten Beytenbarch, she has been engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle and delved into the historical evolution of her country, in the hope of finding an explanation to violence, after apartheid days. Over more than forty years, Gordimer, through an acute and sustained observation of the society she inhabits, has provided us with, what Stephen Clingman called history from the inside - from inside the land and its people. She began to write "looking for explanations for life," (Gordimer qted. in Bazin and Dallman 573-4) but more, through her prose writing and short stories, she looks for explanations for the bone-deep animosity in South Africa, "the politically charged atmosphere and milieu" where she happened to have lived. Although Gordimer declared in interviews that she was not a political person, politics hovers on the edge of her novels, from The Lying Days, Burger's Daughter to July's People. While her early-published novels explore the edgy and tensed relationships between individuals and society, society and history, her post-apartheid stories put on stage the hectic and violence-ridden South Africa, in the democratic phase.

The House Gun, more than other novels of the transition, gives an image, honed to perfection, of the legacy of apartheid. The novel harps back on burning issues as racism, homophobia and the redefinition of gender relationships. As the title rightly suggests, The House Gun is an allegory of domestic and political violence, so ingrained in South African culture, but also of anti-normative human relationships. Thus, reading The House Gun from the constellation of postmodern esthetics could help reflect, in the framework of our analysis, on the fraught relationships, on transgressive attitude of the youth towards socio-cultural "normality." To better dig out the causes and manifestations of the socio-political and cultural crisis in post-apartheid South Africa, we'll resort to the ground-breaking principles of postmodernism. More precisely, that approach will help decipher the environment of contradictions represented in the novel.

An attempt to grasp postmodern ideology is like defining the un-definable, for the term covers a variety of domains. Characterized by skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism, postmodernism distrusts any entity or agency that defines what people can or cannot do. Postmodernists thwart any attempt to fixate the meaning that something possesses, (or can ultimately possess), because meanings "are never fully "present" to the speaker or hearer but are endlessly "deferred." (Duignan) This attitude of postmodernists goes against the ideas and beliefs of modernism, which are the division of society between low and high culture, the "view of humanity as an entity that is perpetually improving and progressing, among others." (Matos) The movement is a broad reaction against the philosophical tenets and values of the modern period of Western history: the rejection of science and technology as ways to human progress, and of objective natural reality that would be independent of human beings, etc.

As "fictional philosophers", writers, concerned with the violence and absurdity of life in the late 20th century era, resorted to postmodern postulates to debunk the modern vision of the world, which they considered as the root cause of a socio-political malaise. Through what was branded postmodern literature, or postmodern esthetics, writers conceived works which "simultaneously create and destabilize meaning and conventions in their ironic or critical use of the works from the past." (Lewis qted. in Sims 171) Postmodern literature is used "to describe certain characteristics of Post-World War II literature and a reaction against Enlightenment ideas implicit in modernist literature." (Sharma and Chaudhary) The esthetic approach then gives the elusive impression to totally break up with the values and meanings from the past, and yet, use them as inspiration to create "new" value-code and references. While some analysts like Stuart Sims insist on "skepticism" and rejection of cultural progress, others pinpoint the idea that "postmodernists do not only reject grand narratives, but they also embody an "anti-authoritarian" position when approaching and analyzing the world and its cultural productions." (Matos) This assumption could well account for the repulsive attitude of characters, in The House Gun, towards any form of cultural and social norms that stifle their quest of freedom. In postmodern literature, human experience is considered unstable, contradictory, ambiguous, and fragmented. Therefore, the world itself is taken as a succession of contradictions, uncertainties, and ambiguities. So, the writer in such a dearticulated era, creates "open" works in which the reader, strong with his own reading background, builds out alternative meanings, and produces his own unguided interpretation of the text, unlike modern authors whose works guide and even control the reader's response.

In this respect, it can be easily understood that the hallmarks of postmodern style in literature be such narrative strategies as the crisis of the subject, irony, humor, temporal disorder, dialogism through intertextuality, magical realism, to reflect the fleeting nature of meaning, the evasive aspect of truth, both in real and fictional world. This approach to literature is a way of reacting against modernism that Lyotard labels "a totalizing narrative." Also, it is an echo of the postulates of poststructuralism, from iconic figures as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes or even Julia Kristeva; postmodern writing is one essential way to rebut any authoritarian ideology and socio-political system.

In its reflection of a seemingly chaotic socio-political environment, pregnant with violence, contradictions and where values, so ingrained in the past, are being deconstructed by the youth in a society in transition, The House Gun can be analyzed within the framework of postmodern esthetics. Gordimer makes a shift, more in style than in the themes addressed, to depict the trouble with post-apartheid South Africa. Indeed, according to Gordimer, a writer is selected by his subject--his subject being the consciousness of his own era. In the post-apartheid period, where hope seems to fade away, where the traumas of the past make it back-breaking for communities to reconcile one another, Gordimer has certainly understood that choice could not have been more relevant to sway away from the Lukacsian realism and espouse the postmodern style, through a narrative that attempts "to retain aesthetic autonomy while still returning the text to the "world." (Hutcheon 125) Though she is mainly preoccupied by the South African reality, Gordimer knows that her stories should be interconnected with others from the 'grand narrative family' (intertextuality), the world of discourse, the world of texts and intertexts, as Hutcheon holds it. She is aware that the most relevant way to explain the transformation in her society is to create a self-conscious art, "within the archive", which is history and literature, to echo Foucault.

It is no wonder then the novel much aroused analyses and criticisms. Vincent Bucheler, in a comprehensive analysis, reflects on the novel and its representation of the "legacy of the old regime... violence, racism and homophobia" (2) to affirm that social turmoil leads to the break of moral values and show Gordimer's alert against gender-based discrimination, "race and sexual preference and the necessary regulations of firearms" (12) that stunt democracy. Such an argumentation finds its echo in Nancy Scheper-Hughes's (2014) exploration of The House Gun, which analyses the seeds of violence and self-destruction among whites living in South Africa as well as other societies with race or class separation. Gordimer has given a positive answer to the mutual question about the possibility of writing novels once the hot and hackneyed topic of apartheid is over. (Zulli 129) For the novelist, the reason for a continuous flow comes "out of a sense of the mystery of life." (Gordimer 138) This quest of answers in the mysterious life brings her, in The House Gun, and in other narratives like None to Accompany Me, to present "a collection of characters who depart from the usual norm. They are heroes, not in the sense of outstanding human beings, but in that they are ordinary people who live in extraordinary times," (Molina 3), an era in the history of a country in which separate worlds yoked together by violence (Cook Molina 3). Gordimer's latest fiction shows, consequently, "a welcome readiness to pursue new avenues and a new sense of the world," (Coetzee) a new sense of the world the crypt signs of which she reads and interprets and that this paper seeks to decipher, in the light of the postulates of postmodernism.

The analysis puts into the limelight the narrative structure and the dialogic design of the story to demonstrate that these strategies are means through which she harps back on issues as the ubiquity of violence, the deviation from moral and social boundaries, and strained human relationships, inside and outside her society.

A Disconcerting Narrative: The Reflection of a Nation in Crisis

Gordimer, in many interviews, says that she has been writing her land and history from her personal experience of the "dry white season", to talk like Brink. Through a puzzling narrative structure in The House Gun, she casts a caustic look at her society in post-apartheid era, to reflect upon the new maladies eroding the political and social growth.

The story in The House...

To continue reading