By Nadine Gordimer
Version: Penguin (Non-Classics)
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Mehring is not a particularly inviting main character. He stretches the definition of protagonist. While he is certainly the principal character of the story, he is not a hero. In fact, one of the frustrating things about Nadine Gordimer’s award-winning novel “The Conservationist” is that there could hardly be a hero, since the book is more a collection of events than a concrete plot. That the work has been praised, and that it is in fact worth reading, is a testament to the extraordinary talent of Gordimer. Plot, as that term suggests rising action, climax, and resolution, is lacking. Characterization, on the other hand, is exceptional. The setting, the description, and a window into the time and place envisioned by the author all likewise standout in this case.
The book is at once insightful and inaccessible. Off-putting and inviting. Written in a very difficult to read style, with page-long paragraphs and unannotated dialogue, the book is complicated by the shifting timeline and sometimes uncomfortable perspective switches within Mehring’s complex though never really evolving mind. For these reasons alone, it might be laborious. But Gordimer’s demands of her reader go beyond writing in an unfamiliar (to this reader, anyway) style. She requires that we follow Mehring through his eyes, revealing as she goes the rise of liberalism in South Africa and the drawn out decay of colonial society.
Mehring’s entitlement is grating at first, but quickly becomes sad as the reader comes to see the changes in the world around Mehring and his inability to adapt. Though he has been successful, amassing a comfortable fortune, Mehring has failed to find a comfortable spot in the world. His wife leaves him for another man and another country (the ever-present archetype of greener grass: America). This fact alone could justify the struggles Mehring faces with self-confidence and loneliness. But his search for a place to be comfortable goes beyond the desertion by his wife. At home, he is also jilted by a son that he can neither control nor connect with. Though the courts have given him custody — a by-product of the trappings of personal wealth — his efforts to sway his son to spend more time with him are mostly ignored. More horrifying still, Mehring discovers that his son’s hippie phase of experimentation includes a curiosity about homosexuality. Faced with this, he limply “confronts” his son, only to be dismissed as out of touch.
As a farmer, Mehring knows next to nothing. He buys the farm more or less on an impulse, though he spends plenty of time in retrospect claiming to have been attracted by this or that higher purpose. The reality is that the exploitation of the workforce already in place at the farm is Mehring’s only hope for maintaining the farm — something he seems resigned to, though he still sees himself as the leader of the operation. Jacobus’ delicate balancing of his boss’s temper with the reality of having a farm to run and a workforce to martial is a feat of impressive skill, especially as it becomes clear just how lacking Mehring’s grasp of the realities of the farm and its inhabitants really is. From the beginning, when Mehring presumes to “see through” Jacobus’ actions and smugly predict his intentions on each visit to the farm, we come to see that in fact Mehring is the one being manipulated. Later, as Mehring pats himself on the back for offering free cigarettes in a purported show of friendship and respect, we can’t help but pity him. Just a few short weeks prior, Mehring had clumsily sought to bond with Jacobus over the New Year holiday, and for a fleeting moment he had come down to his worker’s level. His quick return to the aloof master of a group over which he commands only cursory respect is indicative of a larger point: he seems not to learn, despite the repeated evidence that his approach is deeply flawed and highly ineffective.
Mehring’s sexual escapades are another example of his hopeless search for fulfillment in a world where his perceptions and expectations fall far short of reality. Though he finds his share of interested partners, Mehring utterly fails to find anyone truly interested in him or willing to invest in a meaningful time commitment with him. He preys on younger women, the classic hallmark of predatory, self-loathing-based romancing, with a fervor. However, even the women who allow him — and it does seem to be permission and affirmation he seeks — to explore sexual relationships with them are put off by him in some fundamental way, and remain distanced from him emotionally, as well as eventually physically, in each instance.
Unsatisfied with his business life, or at least unwilling to continue to pretend that he is satisfied with it, Mehring’s retreat to the farm and the life he believes he is crafting is a dangerous trip straight into delusion, as Gordimer shows. He is so socially awkward that he cannot maintain a proper conversation with anyone outside his comfort zone of elitism and vapidity, but as he comes to loathe those qualities in himself, he pulls away from the only social groups in which he might be said to belong. As a result, he seemingly convinces himself that he has been reinvented as an honest and forward-thinking man. In fact, when he considers his successes in business and the beauty of his farm, he sees a sort of renaissance man.
Though Jacobus and the farm workers are obliged to protect him in his bubble, and they do their best, Gordimer is not so forgiving. Thus, the second-to-last section of the book, one more awkward encounter with a young girl, brings all of Mehring’s fears and insecurities to the surface. He curses himself for not having a gun handy — the easiest way out of the trouble he willingly walked into — while acknowledging a deep desire to leave the young girl to face the most dire of consequences while he flees back to the bubble he has so suddenly stepped out of. As he cycles through the stages of fear and acceptance, the reader likewise struggles: rooting for the comeuppance this irredeemable man so richly deserves on the one hand, and hoping on the other for one more blunder out of real-world trouble for a man who seems to mean well just enough to inspire compassion. In the end, this struggle is the book’s most impressive achievement: illustrating vividly the horrors white South Africans had to justify to sustain their position against the reality that many individuals in such positions of power were still human. Flawed, clueless, blame-worthy, but human. Compassionate at times, though often terribly misplaced, but mostly selfish and afraid to try anything but the comfort of what he already knows. Human.