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7 February 2011
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Review: Beethoven was one-sixteenth black

Madhvi Ramani reviews the new book from South African author and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer; Beethoven was one-sixteenth black.

Nadine Gordimer

Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer is most famous for writing about race, identity and politics in her home country, South Africa. However, in her newest collection of short stories, Beethoven was one-sixteenth black , she has gone truly universal. Not only does she refer to such a plethora of places and nationalities that the book seems as if it is set in ‘Somenowhere’ (the term Gordimer uses to describe the setting of dreams), but she focuses on shared human experiences, skilfully capturing the transient yet transcendental nature of life.

In Safety Procedures , a story about a businessman’s flight abroad, Gordimer subverts our post 9/11 expectations; his plane is brought down by a violent storm rather than a terrorist attack. Similarly, she draws attention to our place in the natural, eternal world in History, a story about a parrot who records the conversations of a village restaurant, and in Tape Measure, which is narrated from the point of view of a tape worm.

Even in Dreaming of the Dead , in which Gordimer dreams of a dinner party of deceased writer-friends including Edward Said, Anthony Sampson and Susan Sontag, nature’s death takes centre stage. Edward Said, writer of Orientalism, is more concerned with writing music - the most transcendent of art forms - in the afterlife rather than with post-colonial issues. Although the dinner party is lively with talk of the ‘opposing legitimacies between Palestinians and Israelis’, ‘hegemony’ and so on, there is an empty space at the table. It is this conspicuous absence, this lack, that we anticipate being filled throughout the story. Who is the person that Gordimer is waiting for? Probably Reinhold Cassirer, her late husband, to whom this book is dedicated. In the end, the reader, like Gordimer, is disappointed by her failure to materialise her beloved into being; death is final.

Beethoven was one-sixteenth blackIt may be due to Gordimer’s recent loss that the themes of death and the past haunt this book. A Frivolous Woman is about a son who finds an old trunk filled with the masquerade costumes of his deceased mother and echoes L.P Hartley’s famous “The past is a foreign country”. In Allesverloren , a widow digs into her late husband’s past in an effort to re-know him, only to be disappointed by the realisation that ‘all is lost’.

The themes of nature and the past come together in the title story where a white man in post-apartheid South Africa attempts to find a trace of black blood in his family, demonstrating that “history’s never over; any more than biology.” The Beneficiary , a more positive sister-story to Beethoven was one-sixteenth black, is about a daughter who goes through her late mother’s letters and discovers that the man who she thought was her father may, in fact, not be. Ultimately, love transcends genetics as she comes to discover that the relationship between them has “nothing to do with DNA”.

Perhaps the ungraspable yet ever-present nature of the past is best described in Gregor , in which Gordimer discovers a cockroach behind her glass computer screen and names it after Kafka’s protagonist in Metamorphosis. The image of a cockroach crawling around under Gordimer’s typing illustrates the influence that the past – both literary and primal - has on her art.

The short story form that Gordimer has chosen for this book aptly represents the post-colonial world as it is a mix of narratives involving diverse people and places, whilst highlighting their common humanity. Most interestingly, she takes the already-democratic short story form to another level by refusing to give her collection a definite ending. Instead, she ends with three stories about an extra-marital affair, using a different sensory perception each time. In this way, Gordimer successfully reveals both the arbitrariness and the meaning of life in this slim, insightful book.

Beethoven was one-sixteenth black and Other Stories is published by Bloomsbury and currently out in hardback.

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