The Pickup has an inward, spiritual dimension absent from July’s People. But it has its political thrust too, not only in its exploration of the mind of the economic migrant, or one type of economic migrant, but in its critique and ultimately its dismissal of the false gods of the West, presided over by the god of market capital, to whose mercies Julie’s South Africa has abandoned itself so unreservedly and who has extended his sway even into Ibrahim’s despised patch of sand.
The Pickup is interesting in that, written in post-apartheid South Africa, it stripped Gordimer of her popular leitmotif of racism and forced her to explore new avenues. So she substituted the clash of races with those of cultures. But in stead of merely replacing the opposing forces, she changed also the nature of the opposition. What Pickup deals with is not inequality, but different equalities, each attracted with the other and unable to understand it. An illegal immigrant from an Arab country meets a young, rich South African girl, and both of them end up in a misunderstood relationship based on their physical attraction to each other. He wants to escape his poverty and his country, she wants to reject her father’s wealth, his rationalism and ideals. As the immigrant is sent back to his country by the emigration office, she follows him as a wife, and finds herself mesmerized by the desert and the web of relationship that holds her husband’s family together. And even though this family tie is often functionary and automatic, she finds comfort in it and soon makes a place within the household, especially amongst the women.
The novel is neatly divided into two different worlds, the world of the independent modern South African woman amongst her ‘Table’ (a set of modernist and liberal friends), picking up an Arabic boyfriend, and the world of the Arabic family where she becomes the compliant woman adopting to the social fabric, alienated from a husband who is looking to escape.
It is interesting that both the characters reject their own cultures and are lured by the other. Their relationship mirrors the constant fascination of Oriental with the Occidental and vice versa. They are attracted to each other as they are puzzled with each other. But it is difficult to determine who of them is the Oriental – is it the very practical man from a spiritual family who wants to escape his family history and find the luxuries of a material life? Or the woman who lives in her own apartment, drives her own car, but rejects all of it to embrace the desert in a country whose name was unknown to her all these years? Even gender confuses us, for isn’t the male more Occidental than the female in traditional sense? But to contradict are her independence and his connection with his family, his sense of the traditional and her money. It is a question which is relevant to the converging world, because the convergence is being equally played by a divergence – as people travel everywhere, their differences draw them further apart even as they bring them together in the smaller space. There is a little more misunderstanding, and a little more attraction.
Here is a link to Coetzee’s essay originally published in the NY Book review.