Pale, freckled eggs.
With those 3 words, begins The Conservationist, an epic story that highlights the controversy of ownership and the complexity of race relations in South Africa during the period of apartheid. Nobel Prize winning author, Nadine Gordimer introduces a scene where the absentee farmer Mehring is on his way to visit his landholding, overseen by the black herdsman named Jacobus who he has hired, but he isn’t altogether sure he can trust an employee to protect the white owner’s interests at his own expense. So Mehring berates his employee for allowing the children to have taken the guinea fowl eggs, wondering what else the black children and their parents who live on and work his land, have taken from him. Yet, in the middle of taking stock of what is his, he is notified that he now has responsibility for something he certainly doesn’t want to have jurisdiction over – a Bantu man has been killed and the body dumped on the farm and suddenly, Mehring finds himself needing to reconcile the pros and cons of ownership – the tax breaks he gets for owning a failing piece of property, doesn’t begin to justify the lives that he is stunting or barely supporting but what is the option? For Mehring? For the black workers? While he erects and tries to maintain a fence around his property, there are threats from outside and within – from indolent police officers, envious statements from friends who would like to usurp his authority, fellow Europeans farmers who would take advantage of his generosity, Indian settlers who would displace him, his own son’s refusal of Mehring’s beliefs, and even the land itself seems unwilling to be dominated, refusing to yield after drought and flood.
This leads into the bigger picture of Mehring’s inability to maintain control over what he thinks should belong to him – his ex-wife, his son, even the women he tries to woo. And as such, Mehring becomes a representative for the failing colonial system, which while it takes pleasure in establishing domination under the shroud of darkness, cannot continue in the light of day.
While this is an important story and one that felt truly eye-opening to read, it is a difficult process because much of the story is rendered in stream of conscious narrative where Mehring interjects his thoughts inside of his conversations and plays on a loop statements that have affected him over the years. So we get countless iterations of “If I had your money…” as he surveys his property and recalls the guest he invited to tour it with him and her inability to enjoy it without projecting onto him what she would do if it were hers, which is a clever reference to the foreign invasion that brought both these Europeans to the land in the first place. While for most of the book, she is the only one who voices this hypothesis, all the characters express the same desire in their actions. So the characters are not likable but Gordimer gives us enough details that we can easily understand and even sympathize with all of them, well, except for Mehring, because it’s always easy to say of the rich man, he has other possessions, so it’s okay if he loses this one.
In 1974, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist was a joint winner of the Booker Prize, sharing the award with Stanley Middleton’s novel, Holiday.
- Title: The Conservationist
- Author: Nadine Gordimer
- Awards: 1974 Booker Prize winner
- Format: Paperback