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Nadine Gordimer: The Conservationist

The book starts with a long account of an unnamed farmer – it is only when we are quite a few pages into the account that Gordimer slips in (in a phone conversation) that he is called Mehring – talking with his herdsman, Jacobus, and discovering that a dead body has been found on the farm. And it is only in the next chapter that we find out who Mehring is. Indeed Gordimer starts off the chapter by saying Mehring was not a farmer. Mehring is the director of an investment fund and has bought the farm as a weekend amusement and as a tax loss. He likes to pretend that he is part of the land – hence the deliberately ironic title of the book – but, of course, he is not. And, of course, it is the black workers on the farm who are connected to the land and about whom we learn a lot but about whom Mehring knows virtually nothing. Equally, he will know nothing about the black corpse found on his land (and nor will we). The body is buried on his land and the symbolism of an unknown black man casually buried on a rich white man’s land is not lost on us. Gordimer continues coming back to this point. The corpse is uncovered when floods sweep over the grave and Mehring, as the symbolic representative of his people, is troubled about the body. In short Mehring is a troubled man – troubled about his former mistress, Antonia, and her liberal views and troubled about his son, Luke. Ultimately, as Gordimer shows us at the end, it comes down to sordid sex and rape of the land, while the blacks quietly rebury the corpse, reaffirming their strong ties to the land, which Mehring and his kind can never have.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Jonathan Cape