The House Gun
The House Gun
THE LITERARY WORK
A young man from an upper-middle-class family shoots and kills a housemate. As his case moves towards trial, his parents grapple with how this could have happened and with conflicting emotions towards him and each other.
Nadine Gordimer, the 1991 Nobel laureate in literature, was born in a small mining town near Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1923. Her heritage makes her a minority within a minority on three counts: in a country sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines, she is white in a predominantly black land, of British heritage in a markedly Afrikaner white culture, and Jewish in a predominantly Christian population. Gordimer stands out politically as well. She has always been outspokenly liberal—even radical—in a white population that is profoundly conservative. Beginning with her first novel, Lying Days (1953), Gordimer has used her fiction to critique the racism of South African society, a racism epitomized by the official policy of apartheid (strict racial segregation). Her twelfth novel, in addition to as many short-story collections and several nonfiction works, The House Gun marks an important transition in Gordimer’s writing, taking it into the realm of the new, post-apartheid South Africa.
The heritage of apartheid
In 1948 the National Party, dominated by the Afrikaners (whites of Dutch heritage, formerly called Boers), won control of South Africa’s government—a position that the party would retain for the next 46 years. Almost immediately, the new government set about instituting a system known as apartheid (“apartness”), which was both a government policy and “a rigorous and totalizing ideology” of racial separation and privilege that would dominate South African life and thought for the better part of half a century (Beinhart and Dubow, p. 11).
Apartheid worked by officially classifying all South Africans according to race—black, white, Asian (mostly Indian), or colored (mixed race)—and regulating virtually every aspect of their lives so as to keep the races apart. Under a program of legislation enacted in the 1950s and 1960s, mixed-race marriages and sexual relationships were forbidden, mixed-race trade unions and political parties were outlawed, and employment was restricted on the basis of race. Most significantly, residential areas were divvied up by race: the Group Areas Act of 1950 dictated racial requirements for both land ownership and residency in every part of the country. To meet the requirements, families were resettled and whole communities were razed.
Apartheid not only separated people by race; it also guaranteed greater privilege to coloreds and Asians than to blacks and by far the greatest privilege of all to whites. The choicest living areas and farmland were reserved for whites, white schools and hospitals received infinitely better funding and equipment than nonwhite institutions, and whites could avail themselves of opportunities open only to them. In contrast, huge numbers of blacks were effectively stripped of all citizenship rights by being officially relocated to nominally independent “homelands” far from the country’s urban centers. As most employment opportunities were centered in these white urban areas, families were often divided, with wage-earners forced to spend much of the year living far from home. Moreover, they were not allowed to live in the cities where their jobs existed. So the black urban workers were housed on the fringes of cities, in overcrowded townships—often no more than vast squatters’ camps, with little in the way of infrastructure. Black workers then had to carry identification papers stamped by their white employers any time they entered a white area.
Many South Africans—some of them white—protested the government’s actions, but it, in effect, outlawed dissent. Anti-apartheid newspapers were shut down, organizations banned, and individuals placed under restrictions ranging from house arrest to imprisonment without trial. By the mid-1960s, many anti-apartheid activists had gone into exile, had been killed, or were serving life in prison. Meanwhile, thanks to its policies, South Africa had become a pariah state, barred from international athletic competition, subject to trade embargoes, and cut off from much of the outside world. Consequently several generations of races in South Africa grew up knowing little else but apartheid.
The new South Africa
By the late 1980s, the South African system of apartheid had become untenable. Black protest movements, which had rebounded beginning in 1976, escalated throughout the following decade and the nation’s government had few remaining friends abroad. Bowing to both internal and international pressure, Prime Minister P. W. Botha began power-sharing negotiations with leaders of the Coloured and Asian communities that resulted in a tri-cameral national parliament. Power still remained in white hands, however, and Africans were still denied any voice in government.
As with Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the Soviet system, the first concessions to be made in South Africa’s system marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid. The result was a dramatic restructuring of the South African government, and the demise of the apartheid system. By 1990, Botha’s successor, F. W. de Klerk, had freed the nation’s most prominent political prisoners, and had begun to dismantle most of the structures of apartheid. Progress was not entirely smooth—almost four years of negotiations were still to come—but in April 1994, the nation held its first multiracial democratic elections. The African National Congress (the largest black political party) won 252 of 400 seats in the new National Assembly, and its president, Nelson Mandela—a prisoner under the old regime for 27 years—became president of a new South Africa.
Although South Africa’s transition from a repressive, single-party government to a modern democracy—complete with one of the most liberal constitutions in the world—was remarkably swift and peaceable, many of the inequities engendered by the old system remained. By the late 1990s, at the time The House Gun takes place, most of the land and money in the nation still lay in the hands of whites. The new government had not been as adept at promoting an even economic and, for that matter, social playing field as it had been at achieving greater political equality among the races.
The South Africa in which The House Gun takes place, then, is a country still very much in the process of transformation. Everyday living conditions are basically stable, but high levels of uncertainty—coupled with hope about the future—prevail.
A major part of the reshaping of South Africa in the early 1990s involved the creation and adoption of a new constitution. In 1993, an interim constitution, accepted by both government and opposition leaders, declared “a new order in which all South Africans will be entitled to a common South African citizenship in a sovereign and democratic constitutional state in which there is equality between men and women and people of all races so that all citizens shall be able to enjoy and exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms” (Preamble of Act 200 in Constitution, 1993). Such language, and the ideas behind it, represented a radical shift from the nation’s past.
After the 1994 elections, one of the first tasks of the freshly elected National Assembly was the drafting of a permanent constitution for the new South Africa. Anxious to reverse the apartheid-era model of government that disenfranchised the majority of the country’s citizens, the new government strove to build bridges and confidence by encouraging wide participation in the making of the constitution. Called “the largest public participation programme ever carried out in South Africa”, the writers sought input not only from elected representatives, but from other political and civic leaders and from ordinary citizens; the final document declares itself to “therefore represent the collective wisdom of the South African people and [to have] been arrived at by general agreement” (“Explanatory Memorandum” in Constitution, 1996). The constitution is thus a symbolic as well as practical centerpiece of post-apartheid South Africa’s participatory democracy.
The finalized version of the constitution, adopted at the end of 1996, is a strikingly liberal document—not only in the context of the country’s formerly authoritarian government, but by any international standards. Enshrined in it are a dazzlingly comprehensive list of rights: the right to equality before the law, to legislative protection from discrimination on virtually any grounds, to privacy, and to freedom of religion and expression. Also guaranteed are the rights—long denied the mass of South Africans—to choose one’s place of residence, and to move about freely both within and outside the country’s borders.
Most significantly for The House Gun, the Bill of Rights states that “everyone has the right to life” and that “everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right… not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way” (chap. 2, sees. 11 and 12  in Constitution, 1996). These are provisions that the Constitutional Court drew upon in 1995 in debating the constitutionality of the death penalty (in The State v. T. Makwanyane and M. Mchunu)—a court case described in The House Gun, and upon which the fate of the novel’s young murderer hangs.
SCARS OF APARTHEID
Several of The House Gun’s scenes lake place during hearings of the South African Constitutional Court. Harald, the father of the novel’s young murderer, describes the court’s justices in some detail, focusing on “a swarthy man (Italian or jew?) with a scarred grin, and eyes, one dark-brilliant, one blurred blind, from whom radiant vitality comes impudently since he is gesticulating with a stump in place of one arm” (Gordimer, The House Gun, p. 135). This portrait, like many of those in the novel, is unmistakably drawn from life: the justice described is Albie Sachs, who as a young lawyer in the 1950s was active in the anti-apartheid movement. Sachs legal work led to his twice being detained without trial by South Africa’s Security Police—a not-uncommon fate for those of all races who were opposed to the government’s policies. In 1988, while he was working as a law professor and government minister in neighboring Mozambique, Sachs was nearly killed by a car bomb planted by the South African Security fortes. The physical deformity Gordimer ascribes to the justice in the novel resulted from this attack.
Guns and violence in South Africa
South Africa is a country with a long history of violence. During the apartheid era, many of the nation’s resources, both public and private, were geared toward preparation for possible armed conflict. The South African Police force enforced apartheid through measures notable for their violence and the oppressive type of order they sought to establish. In response to routine police brutality (including mass shootings of unarmed protestors and the torture of suspects in custody), black victims mounted peaceful political opposition. When nonviolent opposition proved ineffective, however, protestors fought back by attacking police stations, staging riots, and so forth. In the vacuum left by the police force’s lack of moral authority, black vigilante forces roamed the townships, engaging in a kind of gang warfare condoned—and occasionally directed—by the police. South Africans of all races grew to accept physical violence as a normal element of social unrest—or even interaction.
FROM “THE BILL OF RIGHTS”
7. (1) This Bill of Rights is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom… .
9. (1) Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law… . (3) The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth… .
10. Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.
11. Everyone has the right to life.
Freedom and security of the person
12. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right:
a. not to be deprived of freedom arbitrarily or without just cause;
b. not to be detained without trial;
c. to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources;
d. not to be tortured in any way: and
e. rot to be treated or punished in a cruet, inhuman or degrading way… .
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 1966
In the immediate post-apartheid era, vast economic disparities, frustration with slow social progress, and fear of change pushed the already-existing culture of violence to unprecedented dimensions. Crimes such as carjackings and robbery became commonplace; and even if victims showed no resistance, they were not infrequently wounded or killed. By the mid-1990s, South Africa had one of the highest murder rates in the world—between 60-70 annual murders per 100,000 people. During the same period, a study showed the average in 80 nations to be 5.5 per 100,000 (Barbarin & Richter, p. 86).
Throughout the 1990s, about 40-50 percent of the nation’s murders were committed with firearms, and this percentage rose annually. Gun ownership in South Africa is extremely high: in the year 1998, when the population was 40 million, the country’s registered firearm count reached 4.2 million, plus anywhere from 500, 000-4, 000, 000 more unregistered weapons in circulation. In 1995, in an attempt to stem the tide of violence, the South African Parliament enacted legislation that stiffened registration requirements, noting that “every person has the right to life and the right to security of the person … [and] the increased availability and use of firearms and ammunition has contributed significantly to the high levels of violent crime in our society” (Government Gazette, p. 7). South Africans’ desire to protect themselves from threat, and their mixed methods of doing so, were marked by the fact that in the late 1990s, fledgling, albeit vocal, gun-control groups coexisted with a citizenry that applied for new firearm licenses at a rate of 175, 000 per year.
Observers debate whether violent crime levels actually rose sharply in South Africa in the 1990s, or inadequate earlier statistics and changes in reporting methods help explain the apparently steep increase. Either way, public perception was of a nation in the grip of a violent crime wave. Suburban homes disappeared from view behind high stone walls topped with coils of barbed wire, private security firms burgeoned, and publications dispensed safety advice, suggesting that one could make a regular practice of running red lights to foil the carjackers, who dragged victims from their vehicles with startling frequency. At the turn of the new century, researchers noted that “few issues dominate the collective psyche of the South African people as fully or generate as much debate as crime and violence” (Barbarin and Richter, p. 65).
The House Gun opens with a phrase that will become a repeated refrain throughout the novel: “Something terrible happened” (The House Gun, p. 3). Harald and Claudia Lindgard, as yet unnamed, are watching the television news, passively observing tragedy in an unidentified part of the world, when the doorbell rings. It is a friend of their 27-year-old son Duncan, come to tell them, “Someone’s been shot. He’s arrested. Duncan” (The House Gun, p. 4). From this moment forward, Harald and Claudia’s lives change in ways they never imagined possible.
The Lindgards are white, upper-middle-class members of South African society. Claudia is a doctor; Harald, an executive director of an insurance firm. They have always lived at a distance from the strife of their homeland. Neither of them has any frame of reference with which to understand their son’s arrest, other than to assume it is a horrible mistake. Over the following few days, however, as they attend Duncan’s arraignment, visit him in prison, and interview Julian, the friend who came to tell them of Duncan’s arrest, they begin to realize that Duncan may actually be guilty of the crime he stands accused of committing.
The facts seem simple. Duncan has been living with his girlfriend, Natalie, in a garden cottage on the grounds of a house rented by three friends: David, Khulu, and Carl. It is Carl who has been shot, killed with the “house gun” owned in common for protection against burglaries. The murder was committed on a Friday evening. On the night before, all the friends had eaten dinner together in the house, after which they sat talking though the evening. When Duncan went to bed, Natalie stayed to help Carl wash up. Duncan was not jealous of the friendship between Carl and Natalie. Carl was a homosexual, along with Khulu and David. In fact, Carl and David were lovers. So there was little cause for jealously. But several hours later, Duncan awoke to find Natalie still gone. He returned to the main house to check on her, only to discover that she and Carl were making love on the couch. Natalie immediately got into her car and drove away. Duncan returned to the cottage, and stayed there throughout the night and the following day. On Friday, David and Khulu came home from work in the evening to find Carl dead; the gardener said he had seen Duncan crossing the yard a few hours earlier, and watched him drop something in a clump of ferns. Searching the yard, the police recovered the house gun.
The revelation of a probable motive implicating Duncan in his friend’s death is jarring to Harald and Claudia on multiple levels. A crime of passion is no more explicable to them than a carefully plotted assassination would be. At first, they cannot fathom Duncan’s ever committing such a crime. “That kind of act isn’t in the range of emotional control in which their son’s character was formed, or the contemporary ethic that men don’t own women. Therefore the act could not have been committed” (The House Gun, p. 31). Yet, to their shock, Duncan’s lawyer—a black man named Hamilton Motsamai—says Duncan has professed his guilt.
As the novel unfolds, the Lindgards’ lives come to revolve around a regular regimen of prison visits, meetings with Duncan’s lawyer, and bouts of agonized soul searching. Alienated from their friends and colleagues, who treat them with polite but uncomprehending sympathy, they retreat into a closed sphere of self-doubt. They spend their time seeking to understand what their son has done, and also probing their own consciences and past behavior—for “someone must be to blame. If Duncan says he’s guilty” (The House Gun, p. 66). Rather than coming together in this time of crisis, Harald and Claudia grow isolated from each other in their bewilderment. They are driven apart by guilt and confusion:
I have the feeling you’re in some way suspicious of me. You’re trying to … get me to explain, because I’m his mother. I ought to know, I should know why.
And I’m his mother. I ought to know!
(The House Gun, p. 51)
Harald and Claudia’s union is damaged not just by their mutual self-recrimination and accusations, but also by their different approaches to the problem: Harald, a devout Catholic, seeks a religious answer; Claudia, a rationalist, looks to psychology. Unhappily, both approaches yield results. The more they examine the matter, the more Claudia and Harald find flaws in themselves and in each other.
In their rehearsal of critical moments from Duncan’s childhood, moments that might furnish clues, both Lindgards remember the first time something terrible happened: Duncan wrote home to them from boarding school that one of his classmates had hung himself. Shocked then, as they are now, that such a thing could happen to a child from a “good” background, they made a pact with their son: they told him—and each other—to keep open the channels of communication. “Whatever happens to him, whatever he has done … he can come to us. There’s nothing you cannot tell us… . We’re always there for you. Always” (The House Gun, p. 69). This covenant, though, has not prepared any of the three for what has come to pass. Harald and Claudia, to their shock, feel “a malignant resentment” against their son, for making them the parents of a killer (The House Gun, p. 63). Meanwhile, Duncan has not been forthcoming: he “had not been able to tell them anything that was leading him towards that Friday night when something terrible happened to him” (The House Gun, p. 159).
At the same time that the Lindgards reassess Duncan’s childhood, they discover increasingly more unsettling information about his adult life. Natalie, they learn, is a deeply troubled young woman—one who had just given up a child for adoption and had a nervous breakdown shortly before she and Duncan became lovers. Since moving in with him, she has had several affairs with other men—affairs he found out about. When questioned by the lawyer, Motsamai, with Harald present, she hints darkly at a life with his son wracked by unrest and power struggles. Natalie resents Duncan’s interference in her affairs; she says he thinks he owns her.
Friends of Duncan corroborate and expand on the young woman’s story. Natalie, it turns out, had not just had a breakdown, but had tried to kill herself. “Duncan found her and took her to hospital. He brought her back to life. Literally. She owes her life to Duncan; or she blames him” (The House Gun, p. 113). These bits of information—both the suicide attempt and the resentment—lend a grim reality to jottings in a notebook of Duncan’s that Harald has found and secretly read. In the notebook is a quote from Crime and Punishment (also in Literature and Its Times) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The quote concerns a woman named Nastasya: “She would have drowned herself long ago if she had not met me… . She doesn’t do that because, perhaps, I am more dreadful than the water” (Dostoyevsky in The House Gun, p. 47). Far from living with a woman he may not be serious about, the Lindgards’ son appears to have been locked in an ongoing life-or-death psychodrama.
Motsamai’s interview with the housemate Khulu yields even more surprises. Before Duncan took up with Natalie, apparently, he and Carl—the murdered man—were lovers. Duncan took the relationship more seriously than Carl, and was quite upset when Carl called it off. The scene on the sofa thus gains yet another layer of complexity: Duncan has been betrayed not just by his lover and a friend, but by two lovers. Harald and Claudia are accepting parents; their son’s bisexuality in and of itself does not disturb them. However, the number and extent of the ways they do not know their son appears never-ending. Their search to understand him and his actions therefore seems hopeless: “Discovery is not an end. Only a new mystery” (The House Gun, p. 120).
Despite the rocky ground onto which their relationship is thrown by Duncan’s actions, Harald and Claudia do find a cause that reunites them. Motsamai, who has become almost as much a friend as a lawyer, points out a possibility they have not yet considered—their son may face the death penalty. There has been a moratorium on executions since the scrapping of the old constitution, but the penalty is still on the books. The Constitutional Court is about to hear a challenge of the penalty’s constitutionality—and Motsamai expresses confidence that executions will be outlawed, but the Lindgards realize that they are “two creatures caught in the headlights of catastrophe. Nothing between Duncan and the judge, passing sentence, but Motsamai and his confidence” (The House Gun, p. 128). As the first of The House Gun’s two parts draws to a close, Harald takes to haunting the sessions of the Constitutional Court in which it considers the death penalty, and both parents begin to work even more closely with Motsamai, with one goal in mind: to “get him off” (The House Gun, p. 144).
Part 2 of The House Gun opens with a voice we have not yet heard: Duncan’s. The only living witness to the murder, he is no less tortured and confused than his parents as he tries to figure out exactly how all this has come to pass. We learn that when he reentered the main house on Friday night, he found Carl lying there on the sofa—the same sofa he had lain on the night before with Natalie. Carl smiled at him, shrugged, said “Oh dear, I’m sorry, Bra[brother]”; and Duncan remembers that “it was exactly the manner, the words, with which the man had announced the end of the months they had lived as lovers” (The House Gun, p. 155). He shot Carl, he thinks, simply to stop the sound of the other man’s talking.
The second half of the novel focuses on Duncan’s trial, which we see through the perspective of Harald and Claudia—although Duncan’s thoughts intervene. Natalie is the first witness called, and her testimony is key to setting the tone of the trial. How the judges and the assembled throng feel about Natalie may, the Lindgards know, be a critical part of how they judge Duncan. The young woman begins her time on the stand in charge of the situation: beautiful, poised in front of an audience, she testifies to Duncan’s jealousy, his controlling behavior, his barely suppressed violence towards her. She characterizes her sex with Carl as something natural and comforting, in stark contrast to her troubled relationship with Duncan. Under Motsamai’s questioning, however, she admits both to being pregnant and to not knowing who the father is—Carl or Duncan. Moreover, she does not care to know: the child is hers, “nobody’s business but mine” (The House Gun, p. 195). Motsamai parlays this testimony into a portrait of Natalie as self-centered and callous, totally indifferent to her erstwhile lover’s feelings. Instead of being seen as victim, she becomes reimagined as villain.
Duncan’s official plea is “not guilty”. Motsamai will argue that the psychological trauma of Carl and Natalie’s actions caused him to “blank-out” at the time of the murder, leaving him unable to assess the nature of his actions. Both the prosecution and the defense thus call to the stand psychiatrists who have examined Duncan. The psychiatrist for the prosecution testifies that Duncan is a man “in whom self-control has been strongly established since childhood”, and that the evening of the murder was no exception (The House Gun, p. 200). He spent the day in his cottage, she says, plotting revenge—and then seized the opportunity to take it. The psychiatrist for the defense, in contrast, states that Duncan has had a long history of emotional stress, and that Carl’s provocation of him was a tremendous emotional blow. “As forceful as any external blow to the head”, it precipitated him “in to a state of dissociation from reason and reality” (The House Gun, pp. 228, 202). Claudia and Harald, listening to these two very different versions of their son, “cannot distinguish which Duncan is being described in truth” (The House Gun, p. 205).
Khulu, the only member of the household who could be presumed to be somewhat impartial, turns out to be a bastion of support for the Lindgards, both on and off the stand. Throughout the trial, he sits with Harald and Claudia in the courtroom, sheltering them from crowds during breaks. As a witness, he testifies to Natalie’s mood swings and Duncan’s infinite patience with her. In Counterpoint to Natalie’s testimony, he tells the courtroom that “she tortured him [Duncan]. Really” (The House Gun, p. 224). Moreover, as a friend who knows Duncan well, he testifies that when Duncan reentered the house Friday evening, he could not have been planning to kill Carl: “It is not in his nature. Never. I swear on my own life” (The House Gun, p. 225).
Duncan himself, when called to the stand, testifies that all he can remember about seeing Carl and Natalie together is a feeling of “disgust, a disintegration of everything” (The House Gun, p. 211). He spent the day in the cottage, he says, just thinking—“trying to explain, so that I could put—things—together again, understand myself” (The House Gun, p. 211). He rehearses again his confrontation with Carl: Carl’s friendly dismissal of the events of the night before, his offer of a drink; “I suddenly picked up the gun on the table. And then he was quiet” (The House Gun, p. 214).
Duncan’s case has been heard by a single judge, assisted by two judicial assessors. After all the witnesses have testified and the attorneys have made their closing remarks, the sitting judge sums up the case at length and notes that his verdict depends on two points of interpretation: “Did premeditation of revenge occupy the accused during the day he spent alone in the cottage?” and “Whether or not harmful intention was premeditated, when the accused picked up the gun … was he in a state of automatism in which … there was total loss of control?” (The House Gun, pp. 264-65). On the first point, he finds that no, the murder was not premeditated. On the second, however, he finds that although the crime was committed under conditions of extreme stress, Duncan still must bear criminal responsibility for his act. The judge notes that the murder has been facilitated by the culture of violence in South Africa: such disputes might formerly have been settled with an argument or a punch, but now they end in tragedy because “the guns happen to be there” (The House Gun, p. 267). Duncan is guilty, with extenuating circumstances. He is sentenced to seven years in prison, the lightest sentence that could reasonably have been hoped for.
In the final pages of the novel, all three Lindgards take the first steps towards adjusting to the realities of their new lives. Harald and Claudia get used to having a son in prison, while Duncan still tries to make sense of it all and set things as right as possible. Pondering the seemingly endless cycle of violence—not only in his own country and time, but throughout history—he seeks to “break the repetition” (The House Gun, p. 294). Likewise, the Constitutional Court seeks to break South Africa’s repetition of violence by finally declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. To this end, Duncan asks his parents to do what they can to help Natalie’s child, a son. Whether the child is his or Carl’s does not matter. No one else may understand, he realizes, but for him, this is the only way to “bring death and life together” (The House Gun, p. 294).
Guilt and responsibility
Much of Harald and Claudia’s unease in The House Gun centers on their own sense of guilt. They are Duncan’s parents. Therefore, if he has killed, then they are the progenitors of murder. Each of them is revulsed by the idea of murder: to Harald, it is the ultimate violation of his religious faith; to Claudia, it runs counter to every humanist ideal she holds dear as a doctor, “the purpose of [whose] life is to defend the body against the violence of pain” (The House Gun, p. 13). Are they responsible? they wonder. Have they failed Duncan by not keeping him away from damaging influences? Have they failed society by setting loose a killer in its midst? Long before Duncan’s trial gets underway, the novel portrays another kind of criminal prosecution. As Harald and Claudia question themselves, and one another, “the townhouse [becomes] a court, a place where there are only accusers and accused” (The House Gun, p. 96).
Moreover, this sense of guilt grows. It spreads outward from the immediate situation of Duncan’s action to encompass larger questions of personal responsibility. Duncan’s crime catapults the Lindgards out of their safe, middle-class world into a community of suffering neither would ever have imagined themselves part of. Claudia’s free-clinic patients, many of whom have sons or a brother in prison, suddenly share more of a bond with them than Harald’s politely sympathetic colleagues at the insurance firm—“most of [whom] had sons and daughters of their own for whom such an act would be equally impossible” (The House Gun, p. 49). This violent rearrangement of Harald and Claudia’s world forces them to face head-on their own previously unexamined lives of privilege. The linchpin for the Lindgards’ self-reassessment is in many ways Hamilton Motsamai, Duncan’s lawyer, “the stranger from the Other Side of the divided past” (The House Gun, p. 86). Subject to his professional authority, a circumstance that could never have pertained under the old dispensation, Harald and Claudia uneasily remind themselves that they are not racist, not prejudiced. Harald’s faith tells him that all men are equal in God’s eyes; Claudia treats black patients with the same compassion as white ones. In years past, they dutifully voted against the government, which they agreed was not doing its duty.
Yet, as Harald is forced to acknowledge, he has never challenged racism in others; Claudia “did not risk her own skin by contact, outside the intimate professional one, with the black men and women she treated” (The House Gun, p. 86). Neither ever joined a protest march, spoke out in defense of his or her convictions, or fought against apartheid in any visible or meaningful way:
They thought of themselves as simply not that kind of person; as if it were a matter of immutable determination, such as one’s blood group, and not failed courage.
(The House Gun, p. 49)
Now, the familiar power dynamic of black and white inverted, the Lindgards are forced to ask themselves, should they have acted differently? Up until now, Harald and Claudia have never been in a position to be hurt by their own liberal complacency. The suffering of many in their country was tragic, to be sure, but “none of it had anything to do with them” (The House Gun, p. 126). With Duncan’s fate potentially hanging, though, on the question posed by the new Constitutional Court’s first case—should capital punishment remain legal?—the Lindgards realize that being concerned about human rights “in the general way of civilized people” is not enough (The House Gun, p. 126). Their son’s life depends on their nation’s collective morality—and that collective morality, they begin to see, depends on the moral behavior of individuals, such as themselves. In The House Gun, Gordimer begins with the basic skeleton of a courtroom thriller, but transforms and enlarges the central “whodunnit” into something vastly more profound. Even before Harald and Claudia are willing to accept that Duncan “believes or knows he’s guilty”, they are pressed into a realization that “he is not innocent in the sense of the context of the awful event, the kind of milieu in which it could take place” (The House Gun, pp. 41, 30). Moreover, as they, and we, come to understand, they are equally guilty: perhaps not guilty of bad parenting, but guilty nonetheless—for all are ultimately responsible for, and to, the time and place in which they live.
Sources and literary context
Gordimer’s work has always been political, and often loosely drawn from historical events and characters. The main character Rosa Burger, for example, in her novel Burger’s Daughter, is based on lise Fisher, daughter of the real-life anti-apartheid activist Bram Fisher. In The House Gun, the capital case before the Constitutional Court—as well as the court members themselves—are quite real, through the core of the novel, says Gordimer, is apolitical: “It has to do with intimate human relationships and how we know one another” (Gordimer in Garner, p. 2).
This seeming contradiction—of intense historical and sociopolitical specificity, on the one hand, and of classical realist attention to the minutiae of ordinary middle-class life, on the other—is a thread that has run throughout Gordimer’s career. More than being merely a polemicist or argumentative type of fiction, Gordimer’s stories have always concerned themselves with tracing the complicated connections between the political and personal, the public and private. The House Gun, as many critics have noted, continues this pursuit in its exploration of the way the Lindgards’ private conflicts are forced into the glare of public attention, their family dynamic becoming unexpectedly and inextricably linked to larger political concerns: violence, individual guilt and responsibility, and the legacy of apartheid.
Gordimer is often compared to Alan Paton and J. M Coetzee (white South African writers of her generation; see Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country , also in Literature and Its Times). In her attention to power, social justice, and inequality, she also shares much with postcolonial writers from other regions, such as Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe and Egypt’s Naghib Mahfouz (see Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Things Fall Apart , also in Literature and Its Times). It is still too early to predict how the changes in South African government will alter the Country’s literary landscape, but Gordimer’s fiction at least promises to retain a political dimension. While “South African writers are wriggling free of the stranglehold of political angst”, she seems committed to the notion that—try as one might to escape it—the political emerges as a critical aspect of any encounter (Bristowe, p. 21).
South African critics have tended to assess The House Gun in relation to broad literary and cultural concerns. Looking at the style of Gordimer’s writing, David Medalie points out the modernist tendency in much of Gordimer’s later fiction, especially when it investigates the breakdown of common understanding of the world that underlies most pre-modernist, realist fiction. Herein lies The House Gun’s refusal to neatly sum up the questions of guilt and responsibility that preoccupy it. The novel presents post-apartheid South Africa “as a place of perplexing indeterminacy”, where the relationship between one’s identity and one’s context is ultimately unclear (Medalie, p. 644).
In contrast to this very literary analysis, Ronald Suresh Roberts focuses on The House Gun’s portrayal of a “racially scarred society”, in which the elder Lindgards, while not literally imprisoned, “remain caged in post-apartheid whiteness” (Roberts, p. 22). Roberts praises the novel as “unprecedented in its nuances”, in its exploration of racialized identity: in it, he says, Gordimer makes “her boldest move” yet towards “exposing, demystifying and demeaning the particular ideology of whiteness” (Roberts, p. 22).
THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION
South Africa’s transition from old regime to new was not, as one might expect, without hurdles. The old government had not been overthrown. It had voluntarily relinquished power. Also the new government, although in practice dominated by the African National Congress party, was in theory and name a “Government of National Unity”. Former political prisoners, people who had seen their friends and relatives killed, ordinary citizens who had never been able to achieve their dreams, were now expected to work hand in hand with the very people who had formerly oppressed them. These people, in turn, were expected to cooperate with a population they had been raised to think of as inferior and dangerous. At both the governmental and the larger societal level, deep wounds cried out to be healed, and power structures still had to be negotiated. A balance needed to be struck between moving forward in cooperation, and yet still acknowledging past wrongs, wrongs of all kinds, committed by all sorts of people.
The solution was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995 and operational until 1998. The commission was charged with the task of hearing testimony from anyone and everyone, from people on the street to former Prime Minister Botha himself, about their experiences and actions under apartheid. “Focusing not only on those violations committed by the former state, the [commission] chose instead to focus on violations committed by all parties to the conflict” (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report”). The commission, the Minister of justice stated, was “a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation” (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission’”). The examination of actions and consciences as well as testimony and confession, and the admission and apportioning of guilt were central to the nation’s process of self-healing.
The House Gun was hailed by many American reviewers as a powerful exploration of a political and social context at once highly particular and at the same time painfully familiar. As one critic noted, the novel’s setting—a society highly concerned with crime, with decent people debating the role of guns and capital punishment in the culture of violence—would resonate forcefully with American readers thinking about their own country. Another reviewer compared the novel to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, also about parents whose child had committed murder, noting that “both masterful novelists create compelling portraits of unravelling middle-class lives” (Hartigan, p. 496). A few critics applauded The House Gun’s skillful portrayal of the psychological and emotional state of its characters, but were less impressed with the novel as social commentary. They found Gordimer’s efforts to grapple with post-apartheid realities somewhat forced: “She…tries to shoehorn into her narrative political and social observations that ultimately have little to do with the story at hand” (Kakutani, sec. F, p. 1). But even such reviewers tended to forgive what they saw as the occasional lapse into didacticism, observing that nonetheless “the message of this powerful novel rings true” (Publishers Weekly, p. 52).
Barbarin, Oscar, and Linda Richter. Mandela’s Children: Growing Up in Post-Apartheid South Africa. London: Routledge, 2001.
Beinhart, William, and Saul Dubow, eds. Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa. London: Routledge, 1995.
Bristowe, Anthea. “Escaping the Intellectual Swamplands”. The Sunday Times (Johannesburg), 21 April 1996, 21.
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1993. 1993. http://www.polity.org.za/govdocs/legislation/1993/constitO.html (14 March 2002).
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. 1996. http://www.polity.org.za/govdocs/constitution/saconst.html (12 March 2002).
Garner, Dwight. “The Salon Interview: Nadine Gordimer”. 1998. http://www.salon.com/books/int/1998/03/cov_si_09int.html (11 March 2002).
Gordimer, Nadine. The House Gun. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Government Gazette. The Firearms Control Act 2000. Cape Town, South Africa: Government Gazette, 2000.
Hartigan, Rosemary. Review of The House Gun, by Nadine Gordimer. Antioch Review 56, no.4 (fall 1998): 496.
Kakutani, Michiko. “The House Gun: A Fatal Triangle in the Long Shadow of Apartheid”. The New York Times, 16 January 1998, sec. F, p. 1.
Medalie, David. “’The Context of the Awful Event’: Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun”. Journal of Southern African Studies 25, no. 4 (December 1999): 633-44.
Publishers Weekly. Review of The House Gun, by Nadine Gordimer. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 43 (20 October 1997): 52.
Roberts, Ronald Suresh. “An Intimacy of Menace”. Mail and Guardian, 13-19 March 1998, 22.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report”. 1998. http://www.polity.org.za/govdocs/commissions/1998/trc (14 March 2002).
_____. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. 2002. http://www.doj.gov.za/trc (10 March 2002).