There is a book that I grew up with. Its jacket is green with four people splashed on it. The people aren’t photo people, by this I mean they don’t look how human beings look but rather they are an approximation of humanity. They are made of shapes, perfect geometric shapes, with curves that look like an architect’s drawing. They have masks instead of faces, theatre masks which they use to cover themselves from sight, hiding something as surely as we all do. The figures are black and white and they put me in mind of chicken steaks.
As a child I read a lot but I could never pick this one up. I was always too shallow, knowing the proverb about books and their covers but not heeding it even when deciding what to read. One thing brought me back to it again and again making me promise myself I would read it. That thing was the legend printed at the top of the book, “winner of the 1991 Nobel prize” it said. This was enough for me to want to read Nadine Gordimer and I promised myself that I would read Some Monday For Sure. Finally I was old enough and I did. Am glad I picked it up after some time in this world, glad I read it when I had realised that, at least for me, emotional depth played just as big a part if not bigger than narrative urgency in the beauty of a book. A book, by the time I read this one, was not something about detectives solving a case or a wizard learning his magic but a tome on life and a good book no matter what its subject was always about life. I had passed through that teenage belief that the problems I had were all my own and that no one, no matter what they said had gone through the kind of things I had. I was getting firmly on the path of believing that everyone had and that the only reason I didn’t believe them was that I just didn’t listen well enough. I was seeing myself in books everywhere, people with my problems and my insecurities, people who had the same hopes as I did and harboured the same fears. I was meeting myself everywhere I went. In moments of honesty when I admitted to feelings that I normally wouldn’t someone else would pipe up and let me know they had been there, I would do this for others too and pretty soon I realised that I could understand myself through them. Reading had become as much about making sense of myself as it had about making sense of the world and this was the gift a really good writer could give.
It was having reached this point that I finally picked up the book. I was blown away. There was so much emotion in each page, such an understanding of the complex art of being human and being sad and realising that these were the things we got in life and that all we could do was try to make ourselves happy with them. The places she, Nadine Gordimer, set her book in were sad places, places full of heartbreak and a longing for something better. She once wrote that a writer "is 'selected' by his subject -- his subject being the consciousness of his own era." And the consciousness of her era was pre-apartheid South Africa with racial relations so tense and so entrenched that they provided fodder for such rich literature and in that literature such protest that one of her books was banned by the apartheid government. Fiction can be used to make an emotional argument and the argument she made and made well was that this was not the right state of affairs, something had to give and it would on some Monday for sure.
Like a lot of the things I had growing up, here’s looking at you innocence, I lost the book. This was occasioned by a moving of house and a generally careless character that I have carefully cultivated since childhood. However I remember some phrases from the book. One in particular may stay with me forever. It was the description of a black intellectual and he was, “a man who drank to deaden the pain of his intelligence.” It was not just the rhythmic cadence of the phrase that struck, not its mere memorability as a bunch of words strung together as beautifully as the world’s best tapestries but the descriptive efficiency of the phrase. It told me so much about this man drawing with one sentence a portrait of him that almost walked out of the page and into the bar.
He was of course a smart man. Razor sharp, the kind who had school go so easy for him that we were all jealous. He understood string theory and the writings of Socrates. He could have been a surgeon or a lawyer, a professor in any field he damn well pleased if only he hadn’t had too much faith in his mind. Because he believed in his mind more than the rest of us did, he put it to work. He looked up and around him and objectively surveyed the world. In everything he saw there was sadness, every single shadow was sans sun and this pattern repeated itself everywhere.
What kind of intelligence drives a man to drink? The very kind that drove Ivan from the Brothers Karamazov to begin cutting up stories of little children being tortured by life and their loved ones. This was a man who believed in the right of his argument. Of all the arguments he, Ivan, made in that book there was one against the culture of torture of children. He and life convinced me that parents do not have a right to beat children. One argument basically being that we all, no matter how good at parenting, will hurt our children. Our failings as human beings will bring us up short of the happiness that they deserve, we will give them scars and pain, disappointment and resentment and we will do it by mistake, in spite of our best intentions. So how can we live in a world that allows us to do it on purpose? One that allows us to visit violence on them? Allows us to visit that kind of harm that is physical in its manifestations, emotional in its results and psychological in its scars. A triumvirate of pains that results from the need to “discipline”. This is the just and fair world we live in and this is allowed in it. Well not so much anymore in many countries but a lot more of the world’s population is situated in places where no one would bat an eyelid if you batted your child. Many smart people see a little of Ivan in themselves, though it is probably true that everyone who reads that book sees a little of each of the characters in themselves. However Ivan in the quality of argument he makes is completely empirical. He does not as Sherlock Holmes would criticize twist facts to fit theories. He gives the facts and when the overwhelming horror of what is going on in the world is apparent he lets Alyosha ask himself if this is justice. He even rejects the whole concept of higher harmony because, “ It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'!”
In The Brothers Karamazov though Ivan was presented as incomplete, he suffered a spiritual emptiness that can be crippling. He saw the world for what it was and would turn it away for he did not see justice in it. Yet the thing that had brought him to this conclusion was his intelligence. You can’t just shut off intelligence and that is what the character in Nadine Gordimer’s story knew. Perhaps he too had gone through a period of spiritual crisis ending in loss, perhaps he too had read Ivan’s treatise on the nature of the world and found too much truth there for the overarching moral of that novel to deny it. What remains true however is that what he saw gave him pain. And if we look around us isn’t that the state of the world. In our saddest moments we question it all. At the moments when I feel the most empathy for anyone else in the world, when I think of people who through no fault of their own get stuck in a life they cannot get out of, when I think about the unfairness of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, at those moments it is almost too much pain to bear Let’s consider just that aspect of the world for a while. About 18,904(according to the World Health Organisation) infants died every day for the year 2011. 18,904 children under the age of 5 lost their lives each day. This means about 18,904 fathers and mothers had to see their children die, not in a month or even a week but every day for a year. 18,904 tiny coffins and cremation urns. When you consider that this happens in the world how can you be happy? How can it be fair that you in such a place are happy or content? Ralph Ellison’s invisible man asks himself towards the end of that book, “how does it feel to live without illusion?” the only answer he can give is, “painful and empty.”