Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Conservationist

I can't say I enjoyed this book, but it is very well written. The protagonist is one of those marginally likeable people who, if I met him in real life, I suspect I would size up fairly quickly and then avoid as much as possible. Mehring is a wealthy and self-centered South African industrialist with a robust sense of entitlement. He seems unable to avoid destroying his relationships with all the people he cares about, and he has more than a touch of the mid-life crisis about him.

Throughout the book, his successes turn subtly and not-so-subtly into failures, and the foundational things he has built his life upon shift and change. He cares most deeply about his 400-acre farm, but even that relationship is fraught with the tensions of ownership. Ultimately, the fate of this commanding man depends more upon chance than upon his ability to control his circumstances.

Gordimer masterfully creates an underlying atmosphere of unease with her use of a recurring motif, and this was the most enjoyable aspect of the book for me. Early on, the body of a stranger is found in a remote part of the farm. The police investigate half-heartedly and then bury the man, without marking the gravesite. Although Mehring is offended that they have imposed upon his property in such a manner, he takes no action.

As the novel's events unfold, the body resurfaces in Mehring's consciousness and in the reader's. Mehring falls asleep while reading the newspaper under a tree on his land, and wakes up with a corpse-like close view of the grass and taste of earth in his mouth. After a fire on the land, he wonders if the fire had any effect on the buried body, although when the green reeds grow up again, it will seem "as if nothing ever happened down there," the fire or the murder. He is confident that a message on a water tower "will end up facedown in the mud" unless structural repairs are made. He often thinks about his desire to be buried on his land, and whether anyone will remember where his grave is. He often thinks about the third pasture, where the body is buried.

These small flashbacks are delicately done and very effective. I enjoyed Gordimer's artfulness very much, even though I didn't care much for the character she created. Mehring himself does not appear to notice his on-going relationship with the victim down by the pond or his detachment from the world he lives in. Had he been more self-aware, things might have been different.

Excerpt: It is true any woman would go crazy over the multiple-headed lilies that are suddenly blooming out of these untidy streamers of leaf. Some were burned, in the fire; he remembers kicking at the exposed apexes of the bulbs, thinking they were done for. But no, with the early rain, they are out all over the veld: they don't look like wild flowers, at all, they are something you'd pay through the nose for, from a florist's, stems rising two-foot tall with a great bunch of five or six blooms at the top, white striped with red. He has counted seventeen over on the island that the fire made visible; the new reeds aren't thick enough to hide it completely, yet. And where the river is narrower and the banks are clear of the reeds, red-hot pokers are flowering right out of the water. Down here at the third pasture the place looks like a water-garden on some millionaire's estate.

See what I mean? He isn't thinking about the body, down in the third pasture, but you are.


  1. This one is on my radar because of the Booker Prize thing. But I got bogged down in the Gordimer short stories I read recently and so haven't had the steam for another.

  2. I hear you, Rose City. I wouldn't be ready to sign on for another one right away, either. Her writing is very dense.


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