On Friday I stopped. After two months haring around Kenya, diving in out of slums and driving throuugh the Rift Valley I simply stopped. And went to Lamu for the weekend. My body responded by making me sleep for long periods of time and then making me vomit. Anyway, I managed to polish off the first of my six books for the Africa Reading Challenge.
The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer
It starts with a pickup. A white South African, Julie, picks up the poor, black immigrant mechanic who fixed her car. Abdul is brought into her world – the pampered middle class friends at the coffee shop, lunches on terraces – until the day his time runs out and he is told he cannot stay in the country any longer. Then it becomes less clear who was doing the picking up. Abdul needs Julie’s friends, money and contacts as he tries to find a way of staying.
Julie despises the world she was born into, using every opportunity to stick two fingers up at her father’s lifestyle. Shacking up with an illegal immigrant is her biggest chance yet to show him she is her own woman. Yet her father’s friends and money offer Abdul his only chance of staying.
Abdul, the penniless illegal, is desperate for everything that Julie is turning her back on. He is the dispossessed who dreams of earning cash while she is the spoiled brat, who doesn’t know how lucky she is.
They end up back in Abdul’s home country where the same tensions emerge. Abdul – now known by his real name Ibrahim ibn Musa – spends his days at embassies trying to find a country in the developed world where he can chase his dreams. Julie, having left behind her world of privilege, is content to chatter with the women in the kitchen.
In part it’s Romeo and Juliet set in post-Apartheid South Africa; in part it’s Juno and the Paycock as Abdul’s dreams of a better life elsewhere always seems doomed, while realistic Julie gets on with the business of living in his family’s village.
But the whole thing is told in a stream-of-consciousness voice that is ultimately dissatisfying. Themes come and go without being explored or resolved. A kindly uncle, a gynaecologist, is accused of sexual assualt only to be forgotten and then re-emerge 100 pages later with the charges dismissed and apparently irrelevant.
Ultimately the two characters seem to drift through their own worlds with little thought for the other. The obvious tensions between the two seem to mean little in terms of character development. Or is that the point: That it is impossible to cross the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, to understand the one’s desperate desire for material improvement and the other’s easy abandonment of a comfortable life?