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The Independent Culture
THE HOUSE GUN by Nadine Gordimer, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99

IMAGINE THIS: you are a Nobel-Prize-winning literary heroine of the South African struggle, now in your middle seventies, with more than 20 books to your credit, the majority of these novels or short stories. Sheena Macdonald reveres you. The apartheid regime that you abhorred is gone, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tracking its difficult midway course between the Nuremberg option and revenge, is doing its best to reconcile tolerance with justice. Your last work of fiction, None to Accompany Me (1994), was written after the world - yours and everyone else's - changed, as is made clear in that book's opening pages: "Vera and Bennett Stark gave a party on one of their wedding anniversaries, the year the prisons opened. It was a season for celebration: sports club delegations, mothers' unions and herded schoolchildren stood around Nelson Mandela's old Soweto cottage queueing to embrace him ..."

The problem for you now, as a functioning writer, is a simple one, and it is a problem shared by many other literary heroes of countries that have wrested themselves from political oppression - Miroslav Holub of Czechoslovakia, Marin Sorescu of Romania, etc. What is there left for you to write about now that your fox has been shot? Has your spirit withered in the wake of freedom? Will your audience drift away now that it no longer has any particular reason to revere you for your courage and your probity? Will it be a case of "welcome back to the general indifference of humanity"?

On the evidence of this novel, no. But for a more fundamental reason too. The fact, strange though it may seem to some, is that Nadine Gordimer has never been a political writer or a political propagandist of any kind - in spite of the fact that the political situation of South Africa, where she has always lived, has consumed her and tested her conscience to the uttermost. She is, above all things else, a writer tout court: she was born with a keen faculty of the imagination. Writers of this kind aren't made or unmade by great events. They can exercise their pens just as effectively over the death of a canary.

The single event that consumes her in The House Gun is the murder of one young white man by another. It is a crime of passion - the murderer commits the act after witnessing his former homosexual lover making love to his current girlfriend. The murderer is an architect, and he comes from a background of white liberalism, an environment of security and privilege. His mother is a doctor and his father an insurance executive.

The novel itself has a single point of intense focus, as narrow and intense a focus as the beam of an oxy-acetylene torch - the terrible effect upon his immediate family of this totally unexpected act of destruction. There is never, over nearly 300 pages, any doubt whatsoever that the young man committed the murder. The man who serves as defence lawyer is a black man - this is, after all, the New South Africa.

The plot is therefore of the utmost plainness and simplicity - Gordimer's equivalent of the canary perhaps - but the torture that the family must endure as the trial of their son proceeds is slow and harrowing, and the violent seesawing of their feelings, the accusations and counter-accusations, the careful mapping of the harrowing of two human souls is managed with a superbly delicate degree of control.

Gordimer still has reasons to write. After all, she seems to be saying, are we not all still alive, and all still making our difficult and different ways across this earth?