BOOK REVIEW / The prisons open, the future arrives: Briege Duffaud admires Nadine Gordimer's exploration of the new South Africa: None to accompany me - Nadine Gordimer: Bloomsbury pounds 15.99

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It is tempting to approach Nadine Gordimer's new novel as if it were an endorsement, straight from the ruins of apartheid, of the euphoria that gripped the world last spring; as if it were a literary version of a Time essay on one of history's recent miracles.

And indeed the euphoria is there, in Gordimer's flamboyant description of the political exiles' return: 'blind with excitement in the glare of recognition - not, at once, of who they were individually, but of what they stood for, the victory of return . . . life regained, there outside the airport terminal, was a carnival beyond belief it would ever be possible to celebrate.'

But the novel, set in 'the year the prisons opened', the period immediately before the first non-racial election, deals mainly with the uncomfortable and often dull realities behind the miracle. The translation, for instance, of heroic-sounding words like 'justice', 'freedom', or 'land for the people', into committee reports, negotiations, technical guidelines, White Papers. Or the realisation of the thin line that divides heroes from criminals, upward mobility from corruption. Those distinctions, which were largely unexamined during the years of struggle, have suddenly become important now that black leaders have to be seen to be above reproach.

We are shown the practical difficulties of transition: the overblown expectations that cannot be immediately fulfilled, the highway robberies, burglaries and muggings by dispossessed men who are prepared to take forcibly what they don't believe they will ever be given.

In Gordimer's previous novels the political situation existed as a covert menace that moulded and limited the lives of human beings, black and white, manifesting itself in the form of unjust privilege, pass cards, restrictions, arrests, hopeless acts of defiance. In, for example, Burger's Daughter or A World of Strangers, apartheid and repression appear as immutable forces, and the resistance efforts of blacks or of white liberals are seen by the reader as cries of despair or of rage, courageous acts of blind faith inevitably doomed to failure and tragedy. The characters in those novels lived their lives in the shadow of politics, feeling (or sometimes not) the necessity to express solidarity with liberation movements that might triumph in the far future.

In None To Accompany Me, the far future has arrived; politics strides openly through the pages as a main character. There is no longer an inexorable hidden force: the blacks and whites who people the novel finally have their lives in hand, to make or mar themselves. 'After decades when they had worked towards it without success, change suddenly emerged, alive, from entombment.' Faced with unexpected freedom, they are for the first time thrown back on their own responsibilities, their abilities or inadequacies.

Vera Stark, a liberal white lawyer, has sacrificed the interests of her husband and children to what seemed a largely hopeless struggle for black rights. With changing times comes self-examination and the possibility of guilt, leading to a final awareness of herself and an acceptance that the road she chose was the only one possible for her. Vindicated by events, she can now follow it without useless regret for a family life that has become redundant to her. 'Perhaps the passing away of the old regime makes the abandonment of an old personal life also possible.'

But the passing of the old regime inevitably alters the relationship between the black majority and the whites who have been hitherto their comrades-in-arms. With Vera's abandonment of her old life comes a symbolic shift in her friendship with a black leader to whom she has been adviser, protector, champion and increasingly, in her mind, platonic lover. He introduces her to his black friends and colleagues, amicably but significantly, as 'My Tenant', foreshadowing, with her full acceptance, what must eventually be the future of even sympathetic whites in the new South Africa.

Vera's friend, Didymus Maqoma, who for most of his life has been a hero of the long underground war, returns home to comparative obscurity and disillusionment: 'He seems to be living in the past, a time warp, we're still some sort of refugee, we must suffer in noble silence - for what the cause doesn't need any more.' So rages his wife, Sibongile - loud, derisive and assertive. She is more in tune with the changing times and is emerging, to his bewilderment, as a popular political figure.

The young rural leader, Zeph Rapulana, having left his family behind in a settlement and moved into an affluent suburb and into the swiftly-rising class of successful black businessmen, becomes innocently involved in a financial scandal. 'We haven't learned yet to be ruthless, and that's the first rule in business,' he muses. He laughs with Vera about 'the curious aspects of the changes of which they were part, the time through which they were moving'.

These four characters - Vera, Zeph, Didymus and Sibongile - represent different aspects of the transformation, as do the droves of minor characters shifting around the city and the townships and the rural settlements, daring for the first time to claim and complain openly as citizens with equal rights. But Nadine Gordimer is too great a writer to allow any of these people to be merely aspects or symbols. Her genius has always been to create intensely alive human beings who transcend the political issues they are involved with, while at the same time bringing those issues urgently to our notice. In the failures and inconsistencies, the little areas of vanity and selfishness that co-exist with heroism, Vera and her friends are sympathetic and credible. They feel their way through a passage of their lives where wishes have been granted and certainties have turned into ambiguities.

The intense vitality of Gordimer's prose conveys the density and the variousness of human life in a time and place where the old order is rapidly changing, where both good and evil are possible, where nothing can yet be taken as achieved and yet everything is excitingly there for reshaping and re-inventing: 'Everyone wants their own future arranged around them,' she writes, 'everyone has plans for a structure of laws to contain their ideal existence. It is the nearest humans will ever get to the myth of being God on Creation Day.'

(Photograph omitted)