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Wednesday book: A powerful voice of truth and reconciliation

Living in Hope and History: notes from our century

by Nadine Gordimer

(Bloomsbury, pounds 18.99)

SINCE WINNING the Nobel Prize in 1991, the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer has undoubtedly become one of the World's Great Writers. To her credit, she has not allowed this aggrandisement to impede her as a working writer of excellence. She has also gracefully assumed the responsibilities of "writer-politician and diplomat", speaking out at symposia around the world on her own enduring themes of politics, language, what it means to be a writer - and what it means to be a human being.

But in this role, too, there is always the danger of one too many pious abstractions. What saves Gordimer are exactly those qualities that make her fiction outstanding: high self-regard, a ruthless empiricism, a long history of political involvement, irony and "a remove from self-centredness" - the phrase she uses here to describe one of the few political heroes of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela.

For, in many respects, this book - a collection of essays and talks from the "diplomat years" - is about others and otherness. Gordimer does not stint her praise for writers she loves. Here we are taken away from the usual trendy Euro-American canon to a celebration of the future of African writing, and a consideration of novelists as diverse as Joseph Roth, Naguib Mafhouz and Gunter Grass.

Gordimer returns constantly to the necessity of serious fiction in a world dominated by popular culture. Good fiction both illuminates and excavates a moment in a culture's consciousness, largely (and somewhat paradoxically) through its passionate commitment to the particular. As if to prove her point, Gordimer admiringly describes a final scene in Roth's The Radetzsky March: "a dazedly disoriented piece of writing that expresses the splintering of all values, including emotional values, so that the trivial and accidental... takes over". The best artists possess the discipline, the muscle to pin down the disorder that is our personal and political truth in the modern world.

In a rueful exchange of letters with the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, both writers muse on the importance of complex fiction as an antidote to the banalisation of violence. How can a child really understand that a bullet can kill when the actor they see lying dead resumes vigorous life in the next scene or the next role? The lies and short cuts of popular culture are a kind of "third parent" in modern households, shaping for the worse everything we think and feel.

Politics has been Gordimer's lifetime passion. She is touching and truthful here, too, honest enough to recognise socialism as not just a failed grand narrative, but a still legitimate dream. She remembers the millions of Russian soldiers who died in the assault on Fascism, deaths forgotten not just in the paranoia of the Cold War, but now too, in this easy era of Third and Fourth Ways.

Gordimer's involvement in politics gives her language a fibrousness and faith. Like EL Doctorow and Grace Paley she can record the difficulties, even hypocrisies, of those who struggle for a better world, without belittling the struggle or the strugglers. Queuing to vote in the first democratic elections in South Africa, she remembers the dead with respect: "the old woman who worked in my mother's kitchen, the ebullient jazz composer Todd Matshikiza, who was the first black man in whose arms I danced... Oliver Tambo, the Moses who led his people out of bondage." Yet, in an essay written a year later, she is clear-eyed about the problems of the new South Africa: crime, poverty, homelessness.

At one point, Gordimer observes wistfully "that the writers I tend to admire most - Roth, Kundera, Milosz, Levi, Kis - are those who reject, out of their own experience, the left to which I remain committed in its hope of its evolution". As she notes, almost all these writers were exiles, a condition that "provides the distancing... the slow rupture of membranes that is the ultimate strength of disillusion."

It is, however, a comment that illuminates almost unintentionally her own great achievement as a writer. Her rootedness in a political time, place and faith has never dimmed her complex gifts as an artist; her partisanship has not comprised her artistic distance. Great writers can retain political faith; they can believe and create. That is an important message for all aspirant writers of the next century.