Something Out There by Nadine Gordimer, 1984
SOMETHING OUT THERE
by Nadine Gordimer, 1984
Nadine Gordimer's 1984 novella "Something Out There," from the anthology of the same name, shares with her novels a complexity of idea and structure and with her stories an economy and neatness of form. In this exemplary text Gordimer separates South African life into numerous constituent parts and examines each in turn, from affluent golf-playing doctors to gangs of black youths on city streets. For large parts of the text her tone is typically wry and acerbic, but it becomes somber and prophetic at the end. Her satire has seldom been crisper, especially at the points when she writes about that which she knows best: the consciousness, foibles, and lifestyles of prosperous white South Africans.
The phrase "something out there" provides the key to Gordimer's conceptual mechanisms. Through it she responds to the apartheid government's ideological onslaught in the 1970s and 1980s against South Africa's exiled liberation movement. In the popular media and in the parliament, the Afrikaner Nationalists propagated an image of a dangerous, subhuman, foreign force lurking on and within the country's borders. Far from acknowledging the desperate social conditions from which the liberation groups were born, the Nationalists insisted on the mysterious, hostile, and bestial nature of black fighters. Numerous age-old racist stereotypes, including the idea that blacks were kin to monkeys, were employed in this official version of liberation groups.
Gordimer overturns and questions these stereotypes by creating her own countertypes and by knowingly playing on the idea of blacks as apes or objects. Half of the novella is devoted to describing the activities of a small underground cell of revolutionaries, both black and white, who are camped outside Johannesburg and who are planning to blow up an electrical power plant. Gordimer places herself outside the position from which the government's pictures of rebels emanates and offers a set of different perceptions on the nature of who the people are. What she gives us is a homely, domesticated portrait of the guerrillas: their loves, hates, and needs. The descriptions of Vusi producing "muffled, sweet" sounds on a homemade flute or of Charles back from his run, "panting like a happy dog, shaggy with warm odours," established the revolutionaries as knowable, fallible, and laudable—that is, as human.
The novella consists of two interwoven narratives: that describing the guerrillas, and a second describing the path of an errant monkey who is causing panic in Johannesburg's white suburbs. Gordimer employs the figure of the monkey as an astute and often humorous means of exploring white paranoia. Feeling ever more threatened by the prospect of thoroughgoing political change and believing the official bad press about the liberation movements, many white South Africans from the 1970s on expended massive financial and psychic resources on their own security. Only at the end of the novella is the monkey found to be a monkey. Up until that point it is a shadowy and amoeboid shape that steals in and out of white lives, defying burglar bars and alarm systems and stringing the suburban figures together in a consensus of fear.
The supreme irony of the story is that what is so dreaded by the suburban dwellers and incarnated in the monkey does indeed exist in the form of the guerrilla cell. Between the reality of the guerrillas and the willingness or the ability of whites to recognize the former's existence stands the baboon. The divergent parts of South African life have the peculiar quality of being invisible to each other. Gordimer attempts to convey a sense of social totality by making both parts visible to her reader by using the gorilla as a mischievously improbable metaphoric bridge.
The novella functions powerfully through contradictions between interiors and exteriors. The houses in the text are all sites of containment, fortresses against fear and change. By contrast the guerrillas and the monkey are on the loose, marginal and yet ubiquitous in the panic they engender. The monkey's forays into various kitchens signal that what is out there is, in fact, very close by or even inside the heart of white privilege and consciousness. A similar point is made in the episode in which one of the revolutionaries, Eddie, makes a forbidden journey into the city after years of homesickness and exile and mingles with others "like him." Again, the suggestion is that what is "out there" is, in fact, "in there." The allegorical parallelism between gorilla and guerrillas continues until near the end, at which point the baboon is found dead and one revolutionary is killed and three escape. Gordimer suggests that, unlike the baboon, whatever is out there is not wholly destroyed and will return again, as the repressed is always likely to return.
Not only does Gordimer attempt to dilute and question racist stereotypes in the novella, but she also juxtaposes various stereotypes of femininity in South African society. The white revolutionary Joy must be seen alongside the whole gamut of South African women that flashes by in the novella: the slavish young wife of the security policeman whose venison is stolen by the baboon; the "girl," or black domestic servant, who arbitrarily loses her job; the pleasure-bent lover interrupted at her tryst; and Mrs. Naas Klopper, the queenly but gullible wife of the Afrikaans estate agent from whom the revolutionaries rent property. Joy represents the subversion of all of these situations. She is their "something out there," or alternative. This is not to say that Gordimer's portrait of Joy is entirely sympathetic. The author's attitude to feminists is a highly complex and ambiguous one. What Gordimer demonstrates, however, is her knowledge of the multiple ways of being available to women and men in society. She leaves the reader to weigh the options.
—Karen Ruth Lazar