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Gordimer's Impersonal Perspective
One of the most fascinating aspects of Nadine Gordimer's talent as a writer is her ability to present ideas and concepts to readers without explicitly showing them. This statement is particularly true of the author's treatment of the interregnum in her novel July's People, which is a fairly insightful look at relationships between whites and blacks in apartheid South Africa. The interregnum is very much the setting in which the novel takes place; it is the source of much of the tension and mistrust that exists between its principle characters, the Smales family and their one-time servant July. Yet what Gordimer does that adds a high degree of sophistication to this book is to deal with the interregnum period -- which was imagined, at the time of the writing, since South Africa's apartheid system was still enforced when this novel was initially published in 1981 -- from a decidedly impersonal standpoint, in which it greatly influences the motives and actions of the characters, yet somehow remains always unseen.
In order to properly understand how and why the author deals with the interregnum period in this novel from such a distant vantage point, it becomes necessary to first examine just what exactly the interregnum period is, and how it could affect the main characters within the story. Miguel Castro's journal article, "July's People: South Africa's Interregnum" sheds a great deal of insight into the exact nature of the interregnum in South Africa that Gordimer is referring to, and also alludes to the impact that it has on the characters, in the following quotation.
Thus, it becomes clear that July's People was written against a backdrop of socio-political tension between "the old" system of racial segregation, which was about to die, and the future system of racial equality, which was struggling to be born. The interval between these two events is what Antonio Gramsci's epigraph refers to as "interregnum" (10).
This quotation explains that the interregnum was a period between two conflicting forms of government, one of which repressed Africans and the other of which gave them a sense of liberty that was on par with that of any other human being, including whites. The period between these two forms of government, which is spurred in the novel by the revolt of the repressed Blacks, is therefore highly influential to the Smales, who are white liberalists who have never actually condoned apartheid, yet who are forced to flee from their residence and live with their servant, July, as a direct result of the interregnum. However, where July takes them is far from the scene of revolutionary actions, which is why the bulk of the novel does not directly deal with the interregnum -- only its effects upon the Smales and July and their surrounding community.
As such, the Smales are forced to make drastic changes in their lifestyles. They are no longer the triumphant liberals in a land of oppression; now they depend solely on July's kindness -- or what they begin to actually wonder if is kindness to keep them from a power struggle that they can feel -- but which is never seen in the novel. The following quotation alludes to the fact that the events of the interregnum that are so influential to this novel are never actually depicted.
For a long time, no one had really known what was happening outside the area to which his own eyes were witness. Riots, arson, occupation of the headquarters of international corporations, bombs in public buildings -- the censorship opf newspapers, radio and television left rumour and word of mouth as the only sources of information about the chronic state of uprising all over the country (Gordimer).
This quotation alludes to the fact that virtually everyone, including the Smales', is actually ignorant as to what is going on in terms of the revolutionary events of the interregnum. There are only "rumours" as to some of those key events, which include rioting and bombing, but these rumors are never confirmed. This fact is actually one of the strengths of Gordimer as an artist that is displayed in this novel. She has her characters feel a great deal of conflict and tumult over a series of events that is never confirmed and never directly written about. Doing so allows her to deal with the events of the interregnum period from an impersonal perspective so that the focus of the novel is on the ramifications of this uprising -- which is the gradual shifting of power from whites to blacks within the state of South Africa.
Such a shifting of power is actually quite dramatic for the Smales, particularly for the mother of the family, Maureen, who fails to realize that her "material well-being owes a great deal to the discriminatory policies of apartheid" (Erritouni 2006). Maureen soon realizes how much she and her family have lost as a result of the interregnum as she is the one family member who never quite fully adjusts to her new life living with July and his surrounding community. Her children get along well with the other children in the area, and even her husband, Bam, is able to make himself useful in his new surroundings by contributing to hunting efforts to feed people in the neighborhood. Instead, Maureen alone largely represents the loss of the white-dominated power structure, which is implied in the following quotation from Jefferey Folks' article "Artist in the Interregnum: Nadine Gordimer's July's People."
If the interregnum is filled with "morbid symptoms," it is also emptied of bogus authority; as a transition toward a more authentic future, it is inevitably a disorienting and sometimes threatening period. It may seem to the Smales that they have lost everything "back there" in Johannesburg, but the interregnum, as the point at which their accustomed life is stripped to bare essentials, is also the beginning of a potential revitalization" (115).
This quotation attests to the potency of the interregnum in the lives of the characters, particularly that of Maureen. Of all of her family members, she feels the most as though she has "lost everything" in her previous existence as a member of the privileged class in Johannesburg. Furthermore, the luxurious life she had grown accustomed to in that environment has been replaced with only a shadow of its former self, what Folks refers to as the "bare essentials." The "revitalization" that is impending, of course, is largely not intended for Maureen or her kind, particularly due to her hesitance to fully adapt to and embrace her new surroundings. These sorts of realities are the focus of Gordimer's novel, and are the means she chooses to address the myriad issues brought about by the interregnum. Addressing these issues in this fashion, however, is decidedly impersonal and at a remove from the actual events that determine the course of existence for Maureen and her family.
Because of the inexorable loss of their status and position in society, and their extreme reluctance to adapt to the new society and their standing in it that they have been put in with July, the Smales attach an extreme significance to any sort of communication of events taking place in the interregnum. To that end, they listen to the radio quite frequently, hoping to get any sort of information about the revolution taking place. However, in keeping with her motif of dealing with the primary events of the interregnum (the revolution) from an imperfect, impersonal perspective, Gordimer has the characters continually be frustrated at the lack of communique which is most frequently evinced by a dearth of information on the radio. The following quotation, which appears at the end of this novel, alludes to this fact rather succinctly. The Smales can only hear "the sounds of chaos, roaring, rending,…[continue]
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