on September 14, 2001
I tend to read Nobel Prize-winning writer Nadine Gordimer's books more out of a sense of duty than pleasure, but in this intense work, she's produced a page-turner as gripping as her apocalyptic July's People.
The story is told against two backdrops, from the perspective of two very different people, who "pick each other up". It's a cliche to say their lives are changed forever by their encounter, but Gordimer introduces fresh and complex twists into this most ancient of plots --Boy Meets Girl, and Nothing is Ever the Same Again.
Julie Summers, the archetypal poor little rich girl, meets Adbu -- not his real name -- in a garage workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa. Julie is in flight from her privileged background and splintered family; Abdu is an illegal immigrant from an impoverished desert nation, desperate to make a better life for himself. They become lovers, and a chain of events is set in motion that eventually leads to marriage, deportation and exile in a remote desert village in Africa.
The powerful erotic tension between them keeps them together, in spite of the widening gulf between their goals and values. Julie -- who takes for granted so many of the advantages that come with her background of wealth and status -- is fascinated by the strange new world, the exotic culture, religion and language into which her bond with Abdu plunges her. She is mesmerised by the desert, and builds deepening bonds with the women of the clan. Abdu, however, is almost fanatically determined to emigrate to a Western nation and build a "good life", one with the security and comforts that Julie has the luxury of despising.
Gordimer is an incisive and intelligent as ever in exploring complex issues, and she has her finger on the pulse of issues perplexing both post-apartheid South Africa and the global village. Migrancy and refugee movements have become major issues for the 21st century, with wealthier countries adopting increasingly hard-line attitudes and policies, even though many of them were founded by immigrants. In a relatively short book, Gordimer also touches deftly on the entire range of questions raised by cross-cultural relationships -- from the intimate and domestic to the broad and metaphysical ones of religion and identity. She also provides a fascinating study of how two people who love each other can fail utterly to understand one another.
I've withheld a fifth star only because I was slightly dissatisfied with the ending; Gordimer often resists closure, but I am a little wary with the trend in current South African writing that has women accepting the "lesser portion" and resigning themselves to fate. But I recognise that the ending is what will spark much debate about this fine work. So, to find out what actually happens -- read the book!
on April 24, 2002
This book is very subtle and beautiful. The carefully detailed explanation of the relationship that grows and changes between Julie and Abdu is exquisite. The interactions of Julie and her family, and then the quietly growing connections Julie makes in Abdu's desert family, the roots she puts down when she had no anchors until then, are described to perfection. The end of the book is inevitable, once you know it. But although I gradually came to accept and understand it, I am left after reading the last few pages with an ache in my chest for all of the characters.
My only complaint is that some of Gordimer's sentences are so tortured and indecipherable I had to read them three times before I could figure them out. Now what's that about? Does she mean for the sentences to be that convoluted? Is this due to bad editing? I know it's not me, as I have read many so-called "difficult" authors: among them Nabokov, Lessing various Russians, Japanese etc. Gordimer is writing in English, my native language, for heaven's sake.
BUT---nevertheless I strongly recommend this atmospheric, evocative, painful novel.
Through the use of a highly creative writing style, almost `expressionistic' in character, Gordimer describes a wonderful illustration of a human transformation. The protagonist is a girl from the privileged White South African Bourgeois, who was virtually surrounded by privilege and opportunity. At least that is how it seems to an immigrant from a poor Islamic country in Europe. And, yet, unlikely as it would seem, she falls in love with this immigrant who is working as a garage mechanic. Having been raised in a more enlightened age in Modern South Africa, it does not seem inappropriate to either her or her bohemian friends at the Café/Restaurant that she frequents for her to do so.
He has hopes that his involvement with her will help him stay in the country, which is trying to expel him, but he did not initially intend to fall in love. His vision is one of success that looks so sweet from outside the capitalist economies of the world, but can be so elusive once one enters within. Her vision seems yet to be developed. She has a job, which could be done in most parts of the world. She is an educated girl. And yet, she finds herself, through her own choice transported to the world of the desert; a world without computers and supermarkets. True, there is some electricity and there are cell phones and TV's, but not too much else in the way of modern day amenities, including a lack of running water. But there is always what becomes a strange allure of the desert around her.
With technique that is nothing short of brilliant, Gordimer renders a tale of rejection of values from all sides. The man is rejecting the values of his homeland, and the woman is doing likewise, but neither knows truly what they seek at the end of their journey. The interplay of cross-cultural interaction is deeply conveyed within the text. The richness of communication, between people who speak more non-verbally, than with words is portrayed with particular alacrity. Many of the deepest thought processes are left for the reader to understand by inference. And the solutions to problems in the journey are particularly uniquely resolved. The book is truly a modern day piece of literature.
on June 1, 2002
...if you like books that complicate conventional notions of love. The first half of the book is a disorienting bit of restraint, the meaning of which is only revealed once the story's location changes at the mid-point to some unnamed poor African country. Then you see these two characters' lives crossing at an intersection that we might call love. Or are these just the colliding desires of two desperate and unhappy people? Gordimer is a master of economy and subtle observance. There is not an ounce of crap in this book. It's not just about love but about the contemporary world and its stupefyingly unfair inequalities, but also about the startling similarities that people can share amid those inequalities.
on June 2, 2013
Two people, in lust, eventually love, knowing almost nothing about each other's culture or how people think in the other's language system, marry and move to the man's home. The man, Abdu/Ibrahim, wants to leave his home, his powerful Mother and large supportive family and seek a life elsewhere in the world. BUT, which country would take a man from this country so impoverished that no other country could/will possibly want him--what in the world would/could Ibrahim contribute to the new country? Julie, white, from a weathy family, living in rebellion in her own country, accommodating herself to Ibraham's family, culture, language, loving though unable to understand her husband's system of thinking, wants to stay with Ibraham's family, not immigrate. Within this complex story, written in sentences that burst with information, with emotion, with explanations of varying cultural and personality differences, gets to the reader. What will happen next? How do we live, knowing just the surface of each other, wanting to love and NOT to hurt our beloved, also needing to be a couple yet trying to satisfy our own personal needs? This book was for me, a most unusual immigration story, and I have read many immigration stories in my long lifetime. To understand the way in which Nadine Gordimer wrote the book, her sentence structure, her ability to move back and forth from personal to cultural thinking and back again, to give us the essence of a person in just a few words, one must read this book to appreciate its structure and its power. I wish that I were better able to express to you how powerful I found this book, which I am sure will stay with me for a long, long time. NanS
Truth be told, I really didn't like this story. On a couple of levels.
First, the plot. I found Julie to be utterly insufferable. Every decision she makes is not real, it's just another way for her to do exactly what everyone else doesn't want her to do. At nearly 30, she's way too old for the teenage rebellion. She and her "friends" at the cafe live their entire lives trying to meet some sort of moral code that they think makes them superior to everyone else while they are completely unappreciative of what they do have. Her relationship with Abdu is just a way for her to take her rebellion to its outer limits. Abdu's family in the "Arab village" (more on that later) is infinitely more interesting than Julie or any of her friends. My only consolation is that Abdu also finds her insufferable from time to time.
I realize this assessment is entirely personal. People with these sorts of airs and pretensions get on my last nerve.
Second, the writing. Gordimer does her very best to make you need to read every passage at least twice to figure out what she is trying to say. It got to the point that I felt like I was watching a movie through a vaseline smeared screen; you have to squint to see what's going on. And then there's the matter of this "unnamed Arab village". The author is very determined that this "unnamed village" be mysterious and a stand-in for the average Arab village, but then she drops a clue that told me within 2 minutes of googling that they're in Morocco. So if you want it to be unnamed and representative, why drop that clue? I don't get it. And then there's the brief side plot of Julie's uncle being unjustly accused of sexual harassment. It had absolutely zero effect on the plot, so it felt like the author just wanted to make the point that "Hey! Some women lie about sexual harassment!"
Every drawn out, metaphoric passage felt like the author poking me in the eye and saying "Ha ha! I'm sooooo much smarter than you." What could be an interesting story about the nature of immigration is buried under all this...affectation. It wasn't even a good love story.
So yeah. Thumbs down. Only finished it because it was for my book club.
on March 19, 2015
I have only read a few books by Nadine Gordimer so I am not sure what her style is. I have found that she starts out to tell a good story and then gets bogged down in her ideals while the story and character dissolve. This was slightly less the case in this book, although I found the principal character unbelievable and unlikeable. This book, like the others of hers I have read, lacks immediacy. She breaks the rule I have always heard from my English teachers about writing, which was , " Show it to me, don't tell me about it." Gordimer is telling, in the third person, much of the time. I found the detailed description of the uncle gynecologist completely unnecessary as well as the pointless diversion of the lawsuit against him. My last difficulty with the book is probably not fair as it was written at an earlier time, but I find it difficult to believe that an independent Westernized woman like the one in this book would be so welcome, or so safe in the nameless community that is depicted here, wherever it might be. I think she would give grat offense by the failure to cover her head or otherwise dress properly and the failure of even a fictional character to behave with simple respect makes her unpleasant for me.
on March 10, 2003
"The Pickup (PU)" may be Nadine Gordimer's best novel to date. Her observations about social and cultural conflict and the universal truths revealed in her latest is proof indeed that, despite her well entrenched reputation as an African novelist, Gordimer's aim is lofty and wide and the result is that she has successfully avoided being cast in the limiting mould of an ethnic writer.
PU doesn't necessarily make easy reading. Gordimer's prose is terse, occasionally difficult, and distancing. Her perspectives often shift from Julie to Abdu and back again without any warning, so you may find yourself stranded in mid air - like a deer caught in the headlights - but the discomfort is only temporary because you quickly find your feet and recover. The style that Gordimer has chosen to write in isn't alienating but curiously congruous within the context of the social and cultural issues she surfaces in this tale with an otherwise well worn premise of a white girl picking up a black boy and paying the price of her socially disgraceful act.
Julie Summers is a white girl from a privileged background in South Africa. She despises her father's life of business, privilege and distinction, choosing to spend her time hanging out with her other liberal minded friends at the "EL-AY Café Table", where they congregate daily to [complain] about social injustices, etc. Abdu is an illegal immigrant, working long hours like a "grease monkey" in a run down garage and desperate to make a living in his newly (albeit illegally) adopted home. Julie picks Abdu up after a chance meeting. They become lovers and when Abdu gets deported, Julie decides to marry him and they return to his natural home, an unnamed country in Africa.
The internal conflicts and struggles in their relationship before and after leaving South Africa arise from their contrasting backgrounds and the unspoken cultural baggage that accompany them. To Julie, dignity is about principles - she baulks at crawling back to Daddy for help. For Abdu, it is about survival and building a better life for himself, so he finds Julie's attitude genuinely puzzling. Julie gives scarcely a thought to the meaning of "home" for she always had one. For Abdu, his natural home is a hell hole from which he must escape to find another that allows him to fulfil his potential. Then there are Julie's friends at the Table. What do they really know and what do they stand for ? Is their all talk and no action simply a pastime for privileged white youths ?
When the second half of the story moves permanently to black Africa, we sense the subtle changes creeping into the relationship between Julie and Abdu, who becomes Ibrahim, his real name. Here, Gordimer shows great intuition judging their behaviourial shifts as they make the transition. In his own habitat, Abdu becomes even more silent, concentrated and tunnel visioned. Julie's quiet acceptance of her new family's ways shows a genuine attempt to blend in and is both touching and real. Still an outsider, Julie seeks solace in her visits to the "desert at the end of the road" - her secret place - where she recoups her resources and regains her sense of balance and perspective. Like us perhaps, Abdu waits for Julie to crack up and reveal her true mettle as one of the boys at the Table. But Gordimer has other ideas and the ending she has devised contains a jaw dropping twist nobody will foresee. It is the novelist's expression of eternal surprise and compassion that encapsulates the human spirit. A beautiful ending. "The Pickup" resonates with a power and optimism that makes this one of the most compelling and deeply satisfying novels I have read. I'm surprised it didn't make it beyond the 2001 Booker Prize longlist. In my opinion, it's more substantial than and far surpasses some which made the shortlist.
on December 5, 2011
I'd never read Gordimer before but must say, I expected more. My read was from a Kindle edition and I wondered if the conversion process had screwed up the syntax, but I gather from other reviews this word placement can't be blamed on electronics.
The story started out well enough and I was able to tolerate the protagonist even though some of the plot design seemed contrived which along with the ending somehow just did not ring true. Sorry Nadine, don't think it was a great success, but I will try one of your other novels anyway just because I don't like making decisions based on one example.
on August 17, 2015
A white South African beauty raised with privilege and black servants drives an old heap that breaks down in a busy intersection. At a nearby garage the beauty arranges for repairs to the old heap. Then the Nobel Laureate author works the old heap metaphor into an entrancing novel of paradise found as the garage owner assigns an overstayer (mechanic) to the repair work. You, dear reader, are very unlikely to see the ending coming as the novel crosses continents of lifestyle, racial prejudice, religion, social mobility and geography.