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Nadine Gordimer: Burger’s Daughter

This is generally considered to be Gordimer’s best book. It was also her most controversial, as it was banned by the South African government and then, when it received much acclaim abroad, the government had to lift the ban. The Burger of the title is Lionel Burger, a committed communist and, at the beginning of the novel, serving a life sentence for his political activities. He is apparently based on Bram Fischer. His eponymous daughter, Rosa, has been brought up in a household, which is firmly committed to struggling for justice. Indeed, at the beginning of the novel, the fourteen-year old Rosa is waiting outside a prison to bring a hot water bottle to her imprisoned mother, containing an illegal message. Gordimer gives what seems to be an objective portrait of the stoic girl, waiting patiently, without showing any emotion when, all the time, as she later tell us, she is suffering from menstrual cramps.

Rosa’s very existence is defined by the struggle and, more particularly, by the fact that she is Lionel Burger’s daughter. While she is equally committed, it is clear that she finds it difficult to be herself. Indeed, this is one of the key themes of this book – the need to suppress private emotions when making a public commitment to change. When her father (whom we never meet) dies in prison, her view starts to change. It is triggered by seeing a poor black man beating a donkey. It brings home to her all the needless suffering and pain, not only in South Africa but also in other countries and, more importantly, makes her realise her own impotence in the face of this violence. Her response is to leave South Africa and head off to France and her father’s first wife. There she enjoys a more idyllic life – a love affair, a life of relative ease and, of course, escape from political activity. This cannot last – it is not the real Rosa – and it is Gordimer’s great skill to make her realise her responsibility to fight against apartheid in a way that is far from obvious.

Responsibility and commitment, as well as a private versus a public role for individuals are the keys to this novel. The key events of South Africa – Sharpeville and Soweto – form a strong background to the novel, particularly to show that there is a struggle and that it is important and that we (and Rosa) cannot ignore it. But Gordimer tells it with such great skill that it remains not only a first-class novel but also an important novel of ideas.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Jonathan Cape/Viking