EESE 2/2003


Picking up the Other: Nadine Gordimer's The Pickup  1

Franz Meier (Regensburg/Frankfurt am Main)

 The study of world literature might be the study of the way in which cultures recognize themselves through their projections of 'otherness'. Where, once, the transmission of national traditions was the major theme of a world literature, perhaps we can now suggest that transnational histories of migrants, the colonized, or political refugees - these border and frontier conditions - may be the terrains of world literature.2

The Pickup in Context: Gordimer and the 'New South Africa'

For Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize winning South African author, the complexities of 'the Other' have always been at the centre of her interest. Having grown up in a post-colonial South Africa and lived through the various stages of its apartheit regime, she always made it one of her tasks to analyse what this radical form of institutionalised 'othering' did to people and their cultures. Nearly all of her 13 published novels and most of her short stories deal with that topic; and although she distances herself from any sort of propaganda in her literature,3 she has nevertheless become something like a moral institution in South Africa.

Having chosen apartheit as 'her theme' throughout her writing career, Gordimer faced a paradoxical situation when this racist ideology finally gave up its spooky ghost in the early 1990s. However limited and indirect the influence of literature on political practice may be, she has doubtless played her part in that process; but the accomplishment of her goals also deprived her of her most basic theme for writing, leaving her a 'rebel without a cause', a writer without a theme. While early on critics have worried about how she would deal with this problem,4 Gordimer's latest novel shows that at the age of 78 she is still flexible enough to look for new frontiers.

Taking the present 'New South Africa' as its point of departure, The Pickup continues to deal with problems of race and class, bureaucratic arbitrariness and the connection between the private and the political, but it lifts these problems from a local or national to a global level, with the story's setting changing from liberal post-apartheid Johannesburg to a conspicuously unnamed Arab country5 in the second and longer part of the novel. The interracial love story between Julie and Abdu thus picks up Gordimer's theme of Self and Other (on both a cultural and an individual level) and widens its scope from the racial opposition 'Black and White' to the cultural one between 'East and West'. With this thematic choice The Pickup, like several other fictional stories of 2001,6 has regrettably gained in topicality since. Only days after the book's publication, the happenings of September 11 have put the relationship between western Christian and eastern Arabic-Islamic cultures on the agenda of political debates and TV talk shows all over the 'global village'.

While this particular coincidence was certainly unforeseeable, to pick up the theme of Arabic-Islamic cultures came probably quite naturally to a writer that has always been filed under what at various times was called 'Commonwealth Literature', 'New Literatures in English', 'World Literatures in English' or 'Post-Colonial Literature'. The post-colonial aspect is given a particularly ironic twist in this novel as South Africa - a former ("intervenor") colony itself7 - is here contrasted to another post-colonial culture, which meanwhile has fallen prey to the neo-imperialism of Western capitalist states - for which the 'New South Africa' described in the novel paradoxically serves as an example.

Difference and Binary Oppositions in The Pickup

Julie Summers, the female protagonist, is the daughter of rich white middle class parents (meanwhile divorced) in contemporary Johannesburg (cf. 234). She has, however, early on distanced herself from this bourgeois background. She lives in a formerly black part of town, drives an old second hand car, works for a rock 'n roll agency and spends her leisure time with a multiracial and liberal circle of friends, the so called "Table" (23, passim) at the L.A./EL AY Café. The story begins when her car breaks down and she starts a love affair with Abdu, the mechanic at her garage. Abdu, whose actual name is Ibrahim, turns out to be an illegal immigrant (with a degree in economics) from an unspecified Arab country, and to foster great admiration for the jet set world of Julie's father. When Abdu/Ibrahim is detected, Julie (reluctantly) tries to use her family connections but cannot avert his expulsion. In a spontaneous resolution and against his initial resistance, she decides to accompany him to his home. The second part of the novel is set in a small Arabian town probably somewhere in Northern Africa. Ibrahim immediately begins to reapply for immigration into any of the western states - Australia, New Zealand, America - while Julie, to his surprise, quickly finds her place in the new surroundings. She gets integrated into Ibrahim's family and discovers an almost mystical affinity to the desert. At the same time she increasingly alienates herself from Ibrahim. When he finally gains a permit to immigrate into the United States, Julie, in another last minute decision, refuses to come along.

Even a short plot summary like this makes obvious that Gordimer's The Pickup is strongly dominated by structural parallels, chiasmic inversions and mirrorings, as well as binary oppositions. The story takes place in two radically different settings, neatly dividing the novel into two almost symmetrical parts, and it develops between two radically different people, each of whom seems to be a sort of split personality him/herself. Their relationship is like an experimental installation in a chemical laboratory to test the reciprocal reaction of two opposing elements in differing milieus. It is only thanks to Gordimer's unbroken stylistic skill and her sensitive description of social and psychological detail that this rather forced construction does not become too obtrusive.

Nevertheless: the intercultural love story of Julie and Abdu/Ibrahim clearly functions as a site of difference and binary oppositions, a site at which each position and character gains clarity and contour through its/his/her confrontation with significant Others. This process of reciprocal self-definition through difference takes place on several discursive levels which are intricately interwoven in the textual whole but can (and need to) be separated for the sake of the argument here. In what follows I shall therefore tackle five different discourses and their respective enactments of 'otherness', which are all linked up with the two protagonists and their developments within the novel's main plot. The respective sections will accordingly be entitled: "The Racial Other", "The Social Other", "The Sexual Other", "The Cultural Other" and "The Psychological Other".

The Racial Other; or: Who's Black?

When we first read of Julie Summers, the rich liberal bourgeois neo-Bohemian 'picking up' Abdu, the illegal immigrant from his hide in a car repair shop in Johannesburg, what we expect is another of Gordimer's stories about interracial relationships8 (of which the sexual encounter between a white woman and a black man is still the culturally most provocative one). But contrary to that expectation, there is hardly any mention of the racial aspect in the love relationship or its immediate social surroundings. Skin colour no longer seems to be an important distinctive feature in the liberal anti-bourgeois post-apartheit climate at the ambiguously named L.A./EL-AY Café. At best (or worst), racial diversity is relished by the whites as an element of postmodern savoir vivre, its casual display functioning as a shibboleth of one's own liberalism.

There's no denying, of course, that blackness does play a role in the novel. It features e.g. in the successful ex-lawyer Hamilton Motsamai (who, incidentally, had already figured prominently in Gordimer's previous novel, The House Gun of 1998) with his "black voice" (74) and his tribal beard (cf. 76), as well as in the address "Bra" at "The Table". But blackness is no longer a distinctive feature of 'otherness'. The lawyer, who formerly fought for the rights of blacks has meanwhile moved into finance, where he is as successful as his white colleagues. His idiosyncratic grunt and his tribal beard are little more than fashionable relics from an almost forgotten past. And the address "Bra" at the El Ay Café is used indiscriminately for every man at "The Table" irrespective of his skin colour (cf. 23).

As concerns Abdu, the question of blackness poses itself in an even more complex way, as he is of Arab, not of African descent, "not one of them" (87) as somebody at "The Table" puts it. He thus bypasses the traditional South-African race-dichotomy altogether - even though this dichotomy has meanwhile lost much of its radical power of 'othering' anyway. The question of Julie's whiteness in the unnamed Arab country, on the other hand, is not even mentioned in the second part of the novel, nor does it seem to be a distinguishing feature in the Arab society described.

The Social Other; or: Money and the Family

More prominent than the racial difference between Julie and Abdu is their different social backgrounds. And here we also find the first clear case of self-definition through difference. Julie, the well-to-do daughter of a white bourgeois family in "The Suburbs" (8), tries to emphasize her independence and identity by moving into a flat in a formerly black district of Johannesburg, earning her own money in the rock 'n roll business and driving an old second-hand car. When in the first part of the story she has to use her father's Rover while her own vehicle is in repair, she does so with a sense of shame almost, not realizing that her seemingly radical resistance to bourgeois norms has meanwhile become the norm in her liberal, hybrid, pseudo-Bohemian social world of "The Table". In reciprocal complementarity to Julie, the illegal "grease-monkey" (49) Abdu has no problems with capitalist fetishes. He is full of admiration for Julie's father's car and, to the astonishment of Julie, for his successful business partners and their jet set world. For both protagonists the respective other represents their ideal self, the imaginary objet petit a in Lacanian terminology.9 At the same time, their desire for one another is, in each case, "the desire of the Other"10 in both senses of the phrase.

This is also true for a further aspect of the social discourse which is loosely connected with the economic realm: the role of the family. In Julie's eyes the family (her own as well as the institution in general) is a relic from times past, an element of bourgeois ideology that she wishes to leave behind and whose reality, characterized by divorce and adultery, exposes it as a sham. For her "The Table", the liberal and dynamic network of friends at the L.A/EL-AY Café, supplemented by occasional sexual relationships, sufficiently satisfies her desire for community. For her, the 'outcast' Abdu, without family and friends in a foreign country, somehow mirrors her own ideal of independence, while Abdu himself, who deliberately stays at the margin of "The Table", regards this 'independence' as deficiency and cannot understand why Julie shies away from contact with her parents. Back in his hometown he stoically accepts many of the traditional duties in his family, without, however, fully identifying with it. Julie, on the other hand, after having been accepted into the women's social circle, almost perfectly fulfils the role of social harmoniser that might have been expected of a local woman, but combines her communal integration with a strong sense of self-determination and initiative.

Thus with regard to family attachment, the book again follows the chiastic structural model as each protagonist seems to prefer the other's family structures to his/her own. However, Gordimer successfully refrains from all too simple oppositional reversal. Rather than having two contradictory concepts simply change position she opts for a hybridity in which both protagonists subtly enrich their respective others' (desired) family models with elements of their (principally criticized) own. Julie adds to the traditional female solidarity in the Arabic patriarchal family her western sense of self determination. Abdu on the other hand, who is willing to waive family privileges and planning to leave his family, nevertheless retains the vision of fetching his mother as soon as he will have 'made it' in the 'golden West'.

The Sexual Other; or: Sex, Gender and Patriarchy

Apart from race and class the discourse of gender also becomes destabilised in the course of the story. The book's very beginning depicts a situation of sexual discrimination that may well be typical for many of the so called civilized countries: a woman causing a traffic jam when her car breaks down. Her situation and gesture of helplessness is answered by misogynist swearing and horn-blowing from the surrounding men. "Clustered predators round a kill", those are the first words of the novel. When Julie, the victim, is finally helped to get her vehicle off the road, it is by a couple of black men. But Gordimer immediately counteracts any tendency of ethnic romanticizing here, as they are shown to help her out of purely economic reasons: "for a hand-out!" (6). (This is just one example of how intricately the discourses of race, class and gender, which I have separated for heuristic reasons, are actually intertwined.)

If the power relations between men and women are clearly patriarchal in this instance, they soon become reversed in the love affair between Julie and Abdu - which is the more surprising as it contradicts the stereotyped expectations of an intercultural relationship with an Arabic-Islamic man. It is Julie who 'picks up' Abdu, invites him for a coffee in the EL-AY Café and initiates their first sexual contact. Of course, this has to do with their different economic and social positions (as has Julie's later attempt to gain support for her lover from her influential friends); but traditional gender roles are clearly questioned in this relationship. This deconstruction of patriarchal hierarchy, however, does not result in a simple inversion of traditional power-structures (as is the case in the badly integrated subplot of the gynaecologist Archie Summer's accusation of sexual harassment). Julie is as conscious of her privileged status as she is careful not to appear patronizing towards her partner; and Abdu refrains from vain machismo, but is also unwilling to risk giving up his self-esteem. Each adapts to, but neither dominates the other. (That the motivations for this mutual tolerance may be not only noble ones on both sides is another of Gordimer's ironic twists: Julie at least partially uses Abdu for the gratification of her exoticism and the (self-)confirmation of her anti-bourgeois liberalism, while Abdu clearly hopes to take advantage of her social contacts and money.)

Things again change when after about 100 pages Julie and Abdu set out on their journey eastward. The more the couple comes under the influence of the Arabic-Islamic world, the more they adapt to a patriarchal world view. Ibrahim alias Abdu, of course, seems to be much more willing to accept these new (or rather: old) gender-relations; but Julie - out of respect for the foreign culture - is also surprisingly prepared to comply with his and his family's wishes in this respect: she consents to marriage (cf. 107) and adapts her dress to eastern standards (cf. 115). But again power relations are not completely reversed, and Abdu for example resists his family's expectation that Julie should wear a scarf (cf. 123). (It is telling that Abdu is unyielding in this point, while Julie quite voluntarily covers her face to protect herself against the rih [cf. 163] or during her journey into the desert [cf. 207]...)

So, while the changing cultural framework clearly makes for a hierarchical shift in gender relations between Julie and Abdu/Ibrahim, power structures are far from being definite in either context. What may be particularly surprising is the depiction of Arabic-Islamic culture in this respect. It is indeed a patriarchal culture, but in Ibrahim's family it is less the father than the all-pervading "presence" (121) of the mother that resides over the symbolic order. Besides, the very segregation of men and women in this culture creates a space of female solidarity and agency, that in Gordimer's Arabian country seems to be less limited than is usually assumed for Islamic cultures in general.

Thus eastern and western gender patterns get multifariously interwoven in both of the novel's contrasting settings. The gender structures of the liberal post-apartheit 'New South Africa' as well as those of the traditional patriarchy in the unnamed Arabic-Islamic country cannot be easily pinned down and opposed. As the relationship between Julie and Abdu/Ibrahim shows, they are continually modified through negotiation.

There is one sphere, however, in Gordimer's novel, where such negotiation seems not even necessary and which therefore appears as strangely immune to the hierarchic discourses of cultures: the sphere of love and sexuality. As in other Gordimer novels,11 love and sexuality tend to form an essentialist utopia, in which a pre-stabilized harmony exists between the partners and one which is conspicuously free of any discursive power struggles. Sexual intercourse in particular appears to be a readily available, 'natural', trans-cultural and un-hierarchical residue (cf. 27, passim). Of course, the outside world is able to threaten this utopian haven - as for example in the case of stress-induced impotency or religious taboo (cf. 90 and 154 ff.) -; but once secured, it seems to be an ever available paradise regained, "another country" as the repeatedly quoted formula from a poem by the South African writer William Plomer has it (88, 96, 108), "that country to which they can resort" (130).

The Cultural Other; or: The West versus the East (Said)

If so far I have mainly dealt with the limited discourses of race, class, family and gender in isolation, I shall now move on to the wider discursive formations of western and eastern culture, which of course include such areas as the above mentioned, but reach far beyond just these. The distinction between East and West, Orient and Occident, is a binary opposition that has fundamentally shaped our cultural discourses particularly since the 18th century. As Edward W. Said has convincingly shown, the Orient, as we conceive of it, is an arbitrary construct of western culture, invented as a sweepingly wholesale and basically negative, though fascinating,12 mirror image which serves to give the wavering concept of the West a firmly grounded positive definition - in other words to give the Occident its identity. In a long lasting and multifarious discursive project of scholarly and political appropriation that Said calls "Orientalism" the West first constructs the East as its cultural Other and then makes this Other conform to the western image - thus sanctioning the projection as 'authentic reality'. The signifying power underlying the arbitrary distinction, the "authority of the observer", is of course firmly located in the West.13 And as with many of our other binary oppositions, this one, too, is clearly hierarchical in its structure. In order to confirm the western post-enlightenment self-image as positively characterized by rationality, progress, civilization, tolerance, honesty and self-control, the stereotypical concept of the East is negatively defined by irrationality, decadence, archaism, intolerance, violence, corruption and sensual excess. In terms of race, class and gender the West is depicted as white, dominant and masculine, the East as black, subaltern and feminine - signifiers that closely link Orientalism with sexual discourse and make white male penetration of the black woman the all pervading sexual metaphor in orientalist and colonial discourses.14

It is one of the structural ironies in Gordimer's novel, subtly undermining neat stereotypical distinctions, that though it clearly builds on the opposition of Orient and Occident, the former is represented by a man, the latter by a woman - and what is more by a white woman from South Africa, a country belonging to a continent which traditionally has been more closely allied with images of the Orient than of the West. Just as in the case of colonialism, the opposition tends to deconstruct itself here because the very category that needs to be defined already contains elements of the Other it projects for just that purpose.

On the other hand, South Africa at the beginning of the 21st century indeed seems to be an apt example of what generally are considered to be the unifying features of the West. Its process of political renewal, its liberalism and its economic progress make the 'New South African' society appear decidedly western. As Abdu puts it: "European - but they don't call themselves that [...]" (94). Being a post-colonial country with a high degree of cultural diversity, however, the 'New South Africa' is also threatened by the loss of its cultural and/or national identity. Seen from this angle it is maybe not accidental that a writer in post-apartheit South Africa becomes interested in the Orient as cultural Other...

And the Arabian country which provides the setting for almost 160 pages of the novel, clearly is described as the 'New South Africa's' cultural Other. It therefore seems almost unavoidable that Gordimer in the depiction of that setting falls prey to at least some of the stereotyping that Said (whom she counts "among the truly important intellectuals of our century")15 criticized more than two decades ago.16 The fact that the foreign country's name remains conspicuously unspecified, considerably adds to that danger of stereotyping, implying that all Arabic-Islamic countries and cultures are somehow alike! Thus "in a country like this" (109) Julie even at the airport finds all the picturesque images of the Orient that one would expect her to find: "The old women squatting, wide kneed, skirts occupied by the to-and-fro of children, the black-veiled women gazing, jostling, the mouths masticating food, the big bellies of men pregnant with age under white tunics, the tangling patterns of human speech, laughter, exasperation, argument [...]" (109 f.). (Note the foregrounding of sensuality, the fragmentation of people, their reduction to fundamental functions of life like mastication and reproduction in this passage.) Similar descriptions follow when she visits the local market (cf. 126), or when "for the first time in her life [she sees] two old men actually sharing a water-pipe, the hookah of illustrations to childhood's Scheherazade stories" (128). Granted, most of these descriptions are tainted by Julie's point of view (although Gordimer's very flexible narrative technique sometimes makes focalization difficult to detect), and the latter quote even shows an ironic awareness of her stereotyping 'Orientalism'. Nevertheless, an uneasy feeling of typifying simplification remains 17 - especially if contrasted with Gordimer's minute and intricate social realism whenever she depicts South African life. Thus we get the show-offish and somewhat boisterous uncle Yaqub with his car repair shop, parading his "silver-blue BMW" (180) like a badge of honour; or the corrupt oriental business man and smuggler Mr. Aboulkanim. We are presented with the ordinariness of bribery, the arbitrariness of bureaucracy, and the stoic endurance of its spells of fortune by orientals such as Abdu/Ibrahim. Last but not least we have the image of a culture totally penetrated by Islam. And once again we meet the generalizing stereotype: It is "[o]ne of those countries where you can't tell religion from politics [...]" (12; emphasis mine) - as if this were the case in all Arabic-Islamic cultures.

But if we have to charge Gordimer with stereotyping and typifying Arabic-Islamic culture in her attempt to create a cultural Other in contrast to the liberal and permissive 'New South Africa', the interesting thing about her novel again is the way in which this Other is conceived of by the two protagonists. While Abdu/Ibrahim sees in his own Arabic-Islamic culture little more than the prison he desperately wants to escape from, Julie increasingly finds in it what she obviously had been missing in the liberal 'New South Africa': values such as commitment, solidarity, family, spirituality. Here the cultural Other borders on the psychological.

The Psychological Other; or: The Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real (Lacan)

One of the central themes of Gordimer's The Pickup is identity. Both protagonists' identities are problematic, either doubtful or doubted, either by themselves or by others. The problem poses itself most obviously in the case of Abdu, or Ibrahim ibn Musa. Which of the two is his 'real' name? Of course, 'Abdu' is only the alias he takes on as an illegal immigrant in South Africa, a feigned identity or persona in order to cheat the State. But if we consider his self-image (as well as Julie's image of him) the name 'Abdu' seems to describe him more accurately than the official 'Ibrahim ibn Musa', which even etymologically is linked to his family in Arabia and thus signifies the past he wanted to leave behind. (He did not even bring a photograph. [cf. 25, 34])

Abdu/Ibrahim's own attitude towards the question of identity is a different one altogether. Like love, identity for him is a sort of luxury only the privileged can afford. Unwilling to accept the role that his family and tradition ascribe to him, he makes himself a nobody in his own culture and he stays so in those western states that paradoxically agree with him in the rejection of his oriental I. But if they are not willing to take and value him for what he is, neither are they willing to grant him the possibility to become what he would like to be: the Other in which he locates his desire. Precariously suspended in a liminal state between abrogation of his eastern past and appropriation of a western future 18 (both denied to him by the western Other) he has neither history nor place in which to anchor his identity.

Julie also defines herself in opposition to the culture of her past. She finds her own identity through radical difference from the bourgeois world of her parents, making herself a 'home' instead in the social network of liberal friends at the EL-AY Café. Or so she thinks. The symbols of her father's Rover and the expensive suitcase both indicate that her break with the luxury of her past may actually be only another sort of luxury she can afford. Even when she 'picks up' Abdu, one almost suspects her to do so (at least in part) in order to prove (at least to herself) how far she is away from her parents' bourgeois life. Abdu is the significant Other of the world she comes from and despises, and so she makes use of his difference to define her self. "[I]t is she who is looking for herself reflected in those eyes" (129)

But once Julie has picked up the Other, it cannot be contained in its purely contrastive function. As Abdu turns out to sympathise with many of the values of her parents, Julie is increasingly forced to give up her neat (illusory) distinction between 'Us' ("The Table") and 'Them' (the parents). The more she loses her sense of clear cut differences, the more she is ready to become really "open to encounters" (10), as the liberal slogan at "The Table" goes. And with her radical decision to accompany Abdul to his hometown she again faces the Other in order to find out about herself. Under the eyes of the locals at the airport she still sees herself "as strange to herself as she was to them: she was what they saw" (117). But through her contacts with the oriental women she positions herself more and more within their culture. At the same time (as the increasingly contrastive shifts of narrative perspective in the second half of the book illustrate), she alienates herself from Abdu/Ibrahim, who tries to define himself precisely through his distance to that culture. But even this is not the final step in her development. (Still her luxury suitcase figures prominent as a permanent reminder that her new adventure might be bound to remain just an episode. [cf. 218])

Her past attempts at self-definition at "The Table" and in Oriental culture can be read in terms of Lacan's registers of the Imaginary and the Symbolic.19 "The Table" for Julie represents a kind of collective mirror image of herself, a communal objet petit a which the subject wrongly takes for him/herself during the mirror stage.20

Oriental Culture for Julie can be seen to represent the realm of the Symbolic. This register is characterized through language and the nom/non-du-père. And fittingly Julie learns Arabic, reads the Koran and submits (partly at least) to the laws of a patriarchal culture. Within the Symbolic register, according to Lacan, the subject defines his/her identity not through identification with the imaginary other of his/her mirror image, but by entering the discourse of what he calls le Grand Autre, the big Other, that is, the ordered world of laws and symbols.

Julie's final step towards her 'true' identity, however, cannot be described in terms of either the Imaginary or the Symbolic alone. It is triggered by her encounters with the desert, the ultimate sublime, the end of time and space, and maybe death. In her regular forays to the end of the road she gradually creates there what could be called 'a room of her own' at the border of the civilized world. In approaching this realm, that is comparable with Lacan's register of the Real, she finally seems to find meaning in her life. This meaning has its root in the unconscious (for Lacan "the discourse of the Other")21 and it aptly manifests itself in a dream - a dream in green (cf. 173 f.). Although Julie initially does not understand this vision (and Abdu misinterprets it completely), it suddenly gains meaning when she finally gets a chance to take a drive into the desert. Fascinated by the sight of a rice plantation in the middle of the desert, she translates her dream accordingly and decides to cultivate the land. In this utopian image of rice in the desert the opposing symbols of water and sand - long prepared for in the novel and associated with other opposites such as life and death, time and eternity - find their 'Aufhebung' (in the Hegelian sense) and so possibly does Julie's quest for her 'true' identity.22

When at the end of the novel Abdu finally obtains his permit for the U.S.A., Julie decides to stay. But whether any of them really finds his or her 'true' identity in the respective realms of the other remains ultimately open - not to say questionable. Abdu's prospects in the States seem anything but promising and Julie's dream of a rice plantation in the desert is based on a camouflage enterprise for an arms-smuggling business. Gordimer would not be herself if her utopias did not show ironic twists.23

Works Cited

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Glowinski, Huguette, Zita Marks and Sara Murphy, eds. A Compendium of Lacanian Terms. London: Free Association, 2001.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Late Bourgeois World. London: Gollancz, 1966.

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Jolly. Rosemary. "Rehearsals of Liberation: Contemporary Postcolonial Discourse and the New South Africa." PMLA 110.1 (1995): 17-29; rpt. in Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Padmini Mongia. London: Arnold, 1996. 365-382.

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Smith, Rowland. "Black and White in Grey: Irony and Judgement in Gordimer's Fiction." The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer. Ed. Bruce King. New York: St. Martin's 1993. 45-58.

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1 Nadine Gordimer, The Pickup (London: Bloomsbury, 2001); page numbers in parenthesis refer to this edition. An earlier version of this paper was presented as part of the lecture series "Anglistisches Literaturgespräch" (organised by Ulrich Martzinek) at the University of Regensburg during the winter term 2001/02. I owe a number of inspirations to the discussion in this forum as well as to the helpful comments of my colleague Helge Nowak.

2 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994; rpt. 2000), 12.

3 Cf. e.g. Jonathan Steele, "White Magic [The Guardian Profile: Nadine Gordimer]," The Guardian, October 27, 2001.
(,4273,4286023,00.html, July 1, 2002).

4 Cf. Jaggi Maya, "Culture-Crossed Lovers in the New South Africa" [review of The Pickup], Guardian Weekly, 20-26 Sept. 2001, 21.

5 According to Steele, "White Magic," "Gordimer says she had Saudi Arabia in mind," but the backwardness of this "country, she had barely heard of" (12), the fact that it was "partitioned by colonial powers on their departure" (12) and the work of Abdu's brother "over the border at the oil fields" (25; emphasis mine), make Saudi Arabia appear an unlikely candidate.

6 Cf. e.g Salman Rushdie's Fury (London: Cape, 2001) or Hollywood movies like Collateral Damage, dir. Andrew Davis (U.S.A., 2002), the release of which had to be postponed.

7 The term "intervenor colony" is applied to Africa by Eberhard Kreuzer, "Theoretische Grundlagen postkolonialer Literaturkritik, " Literaturwissenschaftliche Theorien, Modelle und Methoden: Eine Einführung, ed. Ansgar Nünning (Trier: WVT, 1995), 199-213, here: 201. For the difficulty of applying D.E.S. Maxwell's distinction between 'settler' and 'nonsettler colonies' to South Africa cf. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989; rpt. 1993), 27; and Rosemary Jolly, "Rehearsals of Liberation: Contemporary Postcolonial Discourse and the New South Africa," PMLA 110.1 (1995): 17-29; rpt. in Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Padmini Mongia (London: Arnold, 1996), 365-382, here: 370-72.

8 The theme is to be found e.g. in Gordimer's novels Occasion for Loving (London: Cape, 1963), The Late Bourgeois World (London : Gollancz, 1966) and My Son's Story (London: Bloomsbury, 1990).

9 See note 19 below.

10 Jaques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis [1964], ed. J.-A. Miller; trans. A. Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981), 38; as quoted in Zita M. Marks, "Object a," A Compendium of Lacanian Terms, eds. Huguette Glowinski, Zita Marks and Sara Murphy (London: Free Association, 2001), 122-129, here: 127.

11 Cf. e.g. Ingo Käther, "Nadine Gordimer," Kritisches Lexikon zur fremdsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur (KLfG), ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold (München: Edition Text und Kritik, 1983 ff.), 27. Nlg, 1-19, here 17, on A Sport of Nature (London: Cape, 1987).

12 Said accounts for this ambiguity with the distinction between latent (fascinating) and manifest (despising) Orientalism. Cf. Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Routledge, 1978; enl. ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995), esp. 206-10 and 222-24. For a further investigation of these dialectics of "desire and derision" cf. esp. Homi K. Bhabha, "The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism," The Location of Culture, 66-84 (the quote on p. 67).

13 Cf. Said, Orientalism, 308, passim; the quotation from Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 59. Cf. also Bhabha, Location of Culture, 89: "The question of the representation of difference is [...] always also a problem of authority."

14 For the complex interaction of orientalism, colonialism and sexism cf. Said, Orientalism, 207f., 309-16, passim.

15 Qtd. in, (14 Dec. 2002).
Said, for his part, in an otherwise rather critical review of her Writing and Being (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995), had called Gordimer an "impressive [...] political and moral figure" and praised "the greatness and importance of her [...] work as artist and citizen" (Edward Said, "On the Concealed Side," Times Literary Supplement 4835 [1 Dec. 1995]: 7).

16 For the "subtextual survival and prevalence of cultural and ethnic stereotypes" in Gordimer's novels cf. esp. chapter 3 ("Stereotypes: Text and Subtext") in Kathrin Wagner, Rereading Nadine Gordimer (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994), 43-70; the quote from p. vi in the "Preface". Although my ensuing argument will parallel Wagner's position that Gordimer (necessarily?) falls prey to the "'us versus them' syndrome" (ibid., 66) and continues some of the stereotyping that she actually sets out to oppose (cf. ibid., 47), I shall largely follow a different track. While Wagner, treating the novels before 1994, focuses on Gordimer's stereotyping within South-African culture and particularly criticizes her "reverse racism" (ibid., 57; italics mine) (underestimating, I think, Gordimer's all-pervading sense of irony), I shall try to trace remnants of the continuing East/West-dualism in her latest, non-South-African novel. I do, however, subscribe to the following, careful warning at the end of Wagner's chapter on stereotypes: "Such distortions in her fiction should not perhaps be so much a cause for criticism as an illuminating reminder, not only of the extent to which the notion of 'realism' as un-problematically mimetic cannot be sustained, but also of the lack of 'innocence' with which each individual will inevitably interpret his reality" (ibid., 70).

17 Although, according to Steele, "White Magic," Gordimer "showed draft passages to a leading Arabist for advice".

18 I use the terms "abrogation" and "appropriation" in a broad cultural rather than the limited, mainly linguistic sense in which they were famously introduced into postcolonial theory by Ashcroft/Griffiths/Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back, 38-40, passim.

19 The specific nature of Lacan's oeuvre and his evasive use of terminology make it difficult, if not impossible, to give a single source for most of his famous concepts and phrases. Rather than listing a rather random collection of bibliographical data for the ensuing Lacanian phrases, I therefore refer the reader to Jaques-Alain Miller's "Classified Index of the Major Concepts" in Jaques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2002), 361-67, and to the commentaries in Glowinski/Marks/Murphy, Compendium of Lacanian Terms.

20 Cf. Jaques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage as Formative Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience," Écrits, 1-8.

21 Ibid., 190.

22 A critical excursion:
In Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1899/1902) Africa is presented as the cultural Other of Western civilization - a position that 'the dark continent' did indeed occupy at the turn of the century. About half a century later the African writer Chinua Achebe in his article "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" [1975; rev. 1977], Massachusetts Review 18 (1977): 782-94; rpt. in Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York: Norton, 1988), 251-62, criticized Conrad's novella for exactly that feature. The whole of Africa, he argued, is conjured up in this novel as "merely a setting" for the psychological development (or rather "disintegration") of the white protagonist Marlow, and he grimly exclaimed: "Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?" (ibid., 257).

Another 50 years later and after a lot of political struggle, rather than being the undefined Other of the West, South Africa at least looks more like a workshop for a future multicultural society. Julie Summers seems to be an ideal representative of that liberal post-colonial pluralism. The further development of the story, however, seems to indicate that even in such a society self-definition and identity depend on a significant Other. This Other, for the liberal anti-bourgeois Julie Summers seems to be located in the Arabic-Islamic cultures. Just as Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Julie initially seems to understand her foray into the realm of the Other as a thrilling adventure. But the Other that Marlow and Julie pick up and eventually enter, increasingly invades their minds, finally enabling them - in almost mythical encounters with the Real (Conrad's jungle, Gordimer's desert) - glimpses of what in different ways they take to be the truth. With structures so closely related (though the novels are divided by a century of decolonisation) one might be tempted to ask whether Achebe's criticism of Conrad's novel might not be transferred to Gordimer's work, in so far as it uses the Arabic-Islamic (instead of African) culture as an instrumentalized means for the self-realization of a white liberal middle class protagonist. (This is especially true if we take into account that the second, Arabic protagonist Abdu is granted no such psychological development by Gordimer and clearly stays the less 'dynamic' and 'round' character of the two).

23 On Gordimer's uses of irony cf. e.g. Rowland Smith, "Black and White in Grey: Irony and Judgement in Gordimer's Fiction," The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, ed. Bruce King (New York: St. Martin's 1993), 45-58.