Written in February of 2001, some sort of book review I believe…
Growing up in South Africa lends an interesting insight in reading literary works concerning my former homeland, such as Nadine Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time”. In a what first appears to be a seemingly arbitrary introduction, Gordimer tells the story of her waking one night to fears of an intruder, only to realize that the noises she hears are from the creaking as her house, being built on top of the Johannesburg gold mines, begins to buckle under the stress. What is less apparent is that she is trying to show that South Africa is a country that is founded on the principles of exploiting black people for cheap labor to mine the richest gold and diamond fields in the world.
When Gordimer writes that the “passages of gold mines have hollowed the rock” (75), she is saying that the “house’s foundations” (75), the system of apartheid, is responsible for the fear that white people live in, waiting “already a victim” (75) of the next knifing by a “casual labourer…dismissed without pay” (75), or some other such “tsotsis” (77). She then proceeds to tell herself “a bed-time story” (76) about a family living in a very South African city.
The story she tells herself features a mother, a father and a little boy who all love each other very much in typical fairy-tale fashion. However, the tale is not so typical, with the mother and father living in a very paranoid world where every one around them, especially the “wise old witch” (76) mother-in-law (every fairy-tale needs a witch), recommends tighter security around their property and loved ones. What begins to become clear is that as the family improves their defenses and becomes more and more secure, they are also slowly but surely imprisoning themselves, to the point where not even the cat would risk “breaching security” (79).
Gordimer explains the reasons why the society she came from has such an unquenchable desire for security. Examples like the “riots (that) were suppressed” (76) and the “many burglaries in the suburbs” (76) show how it is not just one family’s paranoia, but an entire nation living in fear – continuously upgrading their home security systems to the point where “alarms were often answered – it seemed – by other alarms” (77) like “electronic harpies” (77) screaming at each other on an otherwise peaceful Sunday afternoon. However, these descriptions are not as frightening as the consequences that these elaborate security systems have on the loving family living inside of the well-protected walls.
The point to Gordimer’s tale is made painfully clear when “the little boy” has to be “hacked out of the security coil with saws, wire-cutters, (and) choppers” (79) after getting stuck in the barbed-wire at the top of their perimeter wall. The little boy’s blood clearly expresses Gordimer’s belief that South Africa’s faulty foundations are to blame for the tragedy experienced in her “bed-time story” and everywhere else in her country. Sadly, for me, her pessimistic vision of South Africa’s future is no revelation: after all, I left Johannesburg to live happily ever after in America.
Gordimer, Nadine. “Once Upon a Time.” Literature: Reading Reacting Writing. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers, 1994. 75-79.