In an essay on Nadine Gordimer’s life and career, Per Wästberg calls The Conservationist “a kind of sequel to the first classic of South African literature, Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883)” ("Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience"). That characterization is a useful way to position the book and to think about the politics at its center. While Schreiner situates her story (and her farm) in the vast semi-desert Karoo, which German, Boer, and English settlers have colonized and in which they scramble to make a living, Gordimer situates hers commuting distance from Johannesburg and makes the farm a weekend retreat for Mehring, an already successful South African industrialist (described repeatedly as “not just any pig iron dealer”). Where Schreiner‘s three young white protagonists operate within a pioneering colonial context, struggling against provincial customs and ideas that limit their opportunities for self-realization, here, the politics of apartheid spawned by the country’s colonial past are played out in the lives of both white and Zulu characters—with the death of one unidentified Zulu man opening the story on a tragic note.
Mehring leaves it to the local police to solve the mystery of the man’s identity and dispose of the body, but they do nothing beyond giving it a hasty burial on his property. The need, then, to identify and properly bury this man, clearly a victim of violence, nags at the narrative. It resonates thematically and is, in its way, the single plot element on which progress can be said to be made. The presence of the body on his property also nags at Mehring, who identifies (ironically) with this mysterious misplaced corpse, particularly in the wake of its reappearance above ground after fires and floods ravage the property in the course of the novel.
Mehring, of course, is no farmer, though he takes every chance he can to get away to the farm, reveling in the land’s beauty and his own romantic connection to it. He is frequently shown spending hours lying on his back in the veld (a practice that reinforces his connection to the corpse and recalls--also ironically--Schreiner’s young philosophical Waldo), even as he insists that his Zulu farmhands make the farm productive.
While Gordimer does provide insight into the Zulu community that lives in and around the farm,* we’re mostly stuck with Mehring’s point of view—which is designed to make us uncomfortable. Mehring leads a privileged but largely sterile and lonely existence. On one of his frequent hikes around the farm, he states (in rhythm with his own motion), “My—possessions—are—enough—for—me.” This solipsistic statement gets repeated throughout the novel, revealing Mehring’s satisfaction with the status quo and his own privileged place in it. It also resonates when the people closest to him and with whom he most frequently interacts evade his desire to control them. This group includes his Zulu farmhands, his son, and the women in his life.
Mehring spends little time thinking about his ex-wife, who has moved to New York, but he seems absolutely preoccupied with his “gypsy,” the married academic/activist with whom he had an affair. Intent on seducing and proving his power over her, particularly because of her anti-apartheid political views, he initially purchases the farm to impress her, to use it as a place they might meet for their trysts. Yet she never returns after their first trip to see the property. In fact, Mehring ends up having to use his wealth and connections to help his lover leave South Africa when her husband’s political activism threatens to land the two in jail.**
Mehring also finds himself baffled and thwarted by his son, Terry, who travels during his school holidays to tribal areas in the newly christened Zamibia rather than spend time with his father. Anti-apartheid (and possibly gay), Terry visits his father only to elicit from him a promise to pay his way to New York so he might avoid military service. During his brief visit to the farm, he spends much of his time with the Zulu farmhands.
What little sympathy we might muster for a lonely and “abandoned” Mehring is undercut by his overall satisfaction with the way things are and his refusal to see beyond his own self-interest. As he drives his Mercedes past scenes and landscapes of poverty and industrial waste again and again on the route between his farm and the city, his primary concerns are the traffic and road conditions. While he grows increasingly uneasy that troubles from a notorious nearby slum may some day reach his own property, he ultimately believes himself to be a benevolent and enlightened boss—much better than the brutish Boer neighbors. He thinks he provides his farmhands with plenty, though they clearly have little. His main concern is not to be duped by them into hiring more workers or taking on more expense than is necessary. Mehring finally believes in the bottom line. Despite his romance with the land, he believes it must pay.
Only in the end does Mehring’s faith in his own power and position falter. When he finds himself physically confronted with racial and class tensions from which he has heretofore felt protected by a fully institutionalized (and internalized) system of white privilege, he realizes the increasing instability of that system and his own place in it.
Like Schreiner before her, Gordimer experiments with form in this novel, in this case interrupting her narrative with pieces of Zulu myth and folk wisdom and embracing a stream-of-consciousness style that foregoes transitions and makes much use of repeated phrases and imagery. Mehring’s thoughts move from present to past, from his son to his former mistress to other concerns and events without warning, making his story itself difficult to follow but giving it a poetic feel as well.
I’m not really sure how I ultimately feel about the novel. I can’t say that I actually enjoyed it. The style intensified the main character’s self-interest and solipsism as an indictment of the system he represents, and the result was a little off-putting. Even if this was Gordimer's design, it was just a little too bloodless for me. Yet I did admire the style, as dense as I found it, and thought that Gordimer brought the novel round to a satisfactory, if subdued, conclusion. I felt not quite angry but a little empty at the end, despite my knowledge that the system that here seemed to be rotting from inside and out would, in twenty years, be dismantled more peacefully than this story might have forecast.
I’m glad I read the novel, and I can see why it was a co-winner, but I don’t know that I would have voted for it.
*We also get insight into the lives of neighboring Boer farmers, Indian general store owners, members of Johannesburg’s white social elite, and anti-apartheid activists.
**Further, if Mehring’s relationship with his gypsy suggested a tenderness or a sympathy with more populist politics and ideas as well as a commitment to a woman who is more or less his equal, his anonymous sexual encounter with a young woman on a plane and his creepy infatuation and flirtation with the teen-aged daughter of an industrialist with whose family he has long socialized negate that view.