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Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2014 1991 Nobel
Julie Summers’ car conks out in a downtown part of a city in South Africa. This is close to her main hangout, the El-Ay Café (pronounced LA Café). She goes there and her friends tell her about a garage just around the corner. There they send a young man her own age to bring the car back and work on it. Thus begins the relationship of Julie with Abdu. The two are in their late 20s.
The mechanic is an African from somewhere in the north central part of Africa and is in South Africa illegally, with no way of getting proper credentials. However, he is only using the name Abdu, and thinks he can get away with his illegal status. He’s already done this in several other countries, but has always eventually been caught. His real name is Ibrahim Ibn Musa.
The close friends of Julie are a mix of young folks, some white, some black, some straight, some gay, some with partners and some without. Several are from well-off families, like Julie’s, but, again like her are estranged from those families, often by choice. Others are from middle class families, but all of them seem relatively poor themselves, though they do spend many hours handing out at the coffee house.
Julie earns a modest living as a fund-raiser for several charities, working strictly on commission. She is an only child and both her parents have remarried after their divorce. Her father lives in the wealthier suburbs of Julie’s city and her mother and her husband are in the U.S.
Before long Julie and Abdu become lovers and he essentially moves in with her. He’s been crashing at the garage, and while she only has a very modest apartment, it is much nicer than his place. The gang at the El-Ay Café has fully accepted Abdu. While he is working as a lowly garage mechanic, he has a university degree from his home country and specialized in economics.
Eventually their relatively idyllic life falls apart when his whereabouts and immigration status is discovered and the locals are going to arrest him soon. He realizes he has few options and decides he has to go back home to try to get legal status. Much to his surprise, and not to his liking, Julie decides to go with him. In order for this to even be thinkable to his strict Islamic family at home the two must marry which they do just before they leave on their journey to his village.
Life there is difficult for the two. She is used to being an independent woman, on her own and doing as she pleases. That is simply not possible within the strictures of the Moslem community where she is living, though her exceptional situation of being one of the only whites in the area does give her a bit more freedom than local women have.
His family welcomes them and treats her well though her non-Moslem status does present some difficulties. All this wears heavily on Ibrahim (back at home he has to revert to his proper name). He begins to work part time for his uncle repairing cars in the local village, but spends as much time and energy as he can trying to get a new visa to just about any place on earth other than where they are.
Julie makes the best of her situation, becoming friends with the women in his family, teaching some English and, in turn learning some of their language as well. However, there is a lot of pressure on Ibrahim because of her being with him.
The last bit of the plot, which will be known to those who have read the novel, need not be told here, and for those yet to read the novel, well, Nadine Gordimer doesn’t disappoint. We don’t get anything like what we expected, but as soon as we hear it I’m sure most readers say: “Yes, yes, what a fantastic development.”
This is truly a stunning novel. Every step of the way is believable, beautifully written, gripping in its drama and a brilliant lesson in life in both South Africa and Central Africa.
I was especially impressed with her presentations of how Julie responds to her life in the village. In 1983 I was invited to visit several nations in the Middle East where some of my Muslim students lived. I was just astonished with how magnificently Gordimer described Julie’s early days in Ibrahim’s village. It so matched my own amazement in my visit. She was living with people who were quite poor in and undeveloped area. My first days were spent In Qatar at the wedding of one of my students who was very wealthy. But like Julie I was just stunned with the DIFFERENCE between life I have always known and what I was to experience there in the 140 degrees heat of those days. A week or so later I lived in the crowded Kuwait City, but with a student who had a wife, and three small children. We were living in a tiny apartment not much larger than two rooms in my home here in St. Louis. This was much more like what Julie experienced and Gordimer brought back many very specific memories in her descriptions of Julie’s life. I was just amazed at how accurately and powerfully she brought back those experiences to me.
I highly recommend this novel. It’s one of the best I’ve read in some time, and I’ve been reading some marvelous literature of late.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com