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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch


In this issue:



Eileen Frost reviews "The Pickup" and "Portrait in Sepia."

Nadine Gordimer's new novel is declared as thrilling and riveting; mutual attraction entwined with mutual incomprehension.

Often described as one of the world's consummate storytellers, Isabel Allende has done it again. "Portrait in Sepia" is a thoroughly enjoyable novel set in nineteenth-century California and Chile.

Holiday Gifts

We review a number of children's book suitable for giftgiving. Perhaps it is the adult, able to introduce this old pastime to new audiences, who receives the rarest gift—especially if that audience is your child, a grandchild or one you might be able to borrow for a while.


The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux $24.00

Once in a while, the experience of reading can only be described as thrilling. Such is the case with Nadine Gordimer's "The Pickup," a riveting novel for our times.

Julie Summers, a powerful businessman's twenty-something daughter, suffers a car breakdown on a sleazy, chaotic street in a large South African city. At a nearby garage, a young Arab mechanic smiles up at her from beneath the chassis of a vehicle under repair, then undertakes to fix her car. She tells him, "I suppose I just drive until something goes wrong." So begins their love affair.

Trained as an economist, Abdu has fled the poverty of his homeland to attempt a better life, but his immigrant visa has expired. He must live covertly and in shame, an educated man doing dirty mechanical work, exploited by his employer, without legal status. Privileged Julie works in public relations, an occupation almost non-existent in Abdu's impoverished country. She invites him to join her and her friends for coffee. They begin seeing each other, then living together. There is mutual attraction entwined with mutual incomprehension.

Friendly, outgoing Julie knows nothing about Arab culture. (She doesn't even understand the language used by non-whites in her own city.) She is unaware of Abdu's family, who await his return in a small town on the edge of the desert. Moreover, she has no idea how her own world may appear through non-Western eyes. And she has no inkling of the illegal alien's desperation that his status be regularized. Abdu, in turn, struggles to understand the meaning of Julie's attraction to him. Is it frivolous? Is it remotely possible that it is more than transient? Is she merely using him but will one day disappear? Can her connections help him get a visa? He moves into Julie's apartment. The owner of the garage notices that Abdu is no longer sleeping there and speaks to Julie: "As the white father of daughters himself, it was a shame to see what she was doing with this fellow from God knows where, nothing against, but still."

When Abdu receives a deportation order after exhausting all possible avenues for staying in South Africa, Julie shows up with two airplane tickets. Abdu sees her as a child, innocent: "You cannot live in my country, it's not for you." Julie's father shouts at her that "what we do know" about Abdu's country is that it is ruled by "gangsters," and the "women treated like slaves." When Julie refuses to stay behind, Abdu realizes she has "devotion" to him, a construct he can understand. Their relationship deepens as they depart together, married in a civil ceremony, his real name, Ibrahim ibn Musa, revealed to her.

In this novel Gordimer is at the top of her game. She can interpret the nuances of the struggle for understanding between people of different backgrounds better than most living novelists. Her depiction of Julie's move from an easy-going, casual society to one regulated by rules and expectations is masterful.

The meaning of the return to his country for Abdu/Ibrahim is equally complex. He feels pain and anger at the way people live, shame at bringing nothing home to help his family, superior to Julie in his cultural knowledge, frustration at his inability to communicate everything to her, and embarrassment at her seeing local poverty.

Meanwhile Julie is bewildered to see that his village just ends at the desert sand. She struggles for friendship with Abdu's mother and sisters and for something to do. When she begins to teach English out of friendship for the relatives, her life is transformed. Abdu meanwhile spends most days in the city, seeking yet another visa from a western country: "Toronto, Calgary under glittering glass-splintter snow, these frozen places might crook a finger of acceptance to the desert, whose sand was grit between the teeth."

"The Pickup," whose ending will surprise, is an exceptionally rich reading experience. Such mastery is what we have come to expect from Nadine Gordimer, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Gordimer lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Next: Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende and reviews of childrens books for giftgiving >>


©2001 Eileen Frost for SeniorWomenWeb

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