Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
324 pages, $22.00.
Ms. Gordimer’s latest novel is so contemporary that it verges on the prophetic. Her principal characters are a white woman lawyer who has worked for years in behalf of Africans seeking housing and land rights and a black couple whose anti-apartheid activities have entailed years of exile and considerable danger. These people are far from paper-doll symbols of South African society. They carry the three-dimensional impedimenta of temperaments, tastes, old loves, new entanglements, embarrassing relatives, and transport problems. They are real inhabitants of a real country that is rapidly changing and requires them to change as well. Thanks to their life on the run, the black couple have come home as multilingual international sophisticates who may or may not find appropriate places in the indigenous government they have struggled to establish. The lawyer can continue working to find living space for Africans, but the rules have changed, and she cannot be certain that her services will still be desired, although the housing situation will clearly be dire for years to come. Her bright and charming African assistant, provided with an apartment in a building previously inhabited solely by middle-class whites, soon has friends and connections sleeping on the floors, and his situation is typical. One cannot turn away homeless brothers. Meanwhile, the superficially simple leader of a band of squatters proves to be an adroit organizer and negotiator, and rises like cream. Ms. Gordimer writes, as usual, with extraordinary clarity and intelligence, an infallible eye for illuminating detail, and a comprehensive understanding of the balance that people in a shifting society must maintain between public action and private inclination.