When you write from a divided home, it is inevitable that the divide manifests itself in your writing. Writers from South Africa, I suppose, therefore feel compelled to return to apartheid in some form- either in Coetzee’s Disgrace or in Gordimer’s ‘The Conservationist’.
In fact, Conservationist did remind me terribly of the other. The white man with a loosely strewn together life, a farm with black workers, the divide and the mutual acceptance across the divide.
The book primarily consists of self-monologues of a white millionaire in an apartheid South Africa, who buys a farm in the suburbs. The monologues and thought chains draw out his rootlessness and the emptiness of his life. The title very beautifully captures his essence – a man comfortable with the state of affairs, disinterested in freeing his country out of the apartheid which serves him well. In other words, a man who wants to conserve what is. Very subtly, Gordimer has mocked this entire group of these ‘comfortable’ people, which were instrumental in maintaining the racial divide.
At other times, she delves into the monologues of a few others – significantly the rich man’s farm manager Jacobus and an old Indian shopkeeper living close to the farm. Both these men too, are reluctant to any kind of change – comfortable in the continuum. Through them, she tries to give the perspective of those discriminated against and the immigrants, always struggling to only keep their feat on the foreign land.
The Conservationist is a rewarding reading, even though it is a bit tedious because of its monologues. The ‘You’ in the monologues keeps referring to several different people – the son, the mistress, the ex-wife, and you have to pay attention or the monologue floats away fast. But in the midst of the tedium, you can see in the rich farmer the entire country. And then there is the freshness of the farm to enjoy.