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Nadine Gordimer: A Guest of Honour

A Guest of Honour is Gordimer’s longest novel and also the only one completely set outside South Africa. It is set in a fictitious African state that has just become independent. Colonel James Bray had been the colonial administrator in the country but had been recalled to England because of his sympathies for the independence movement. He is now back in the country as the guest of honour of his friend, who is now president, to celebrate the independence of the country. He will also be asked to act as an adviser on education to the new country. Unfortunately, there is a dispute between President Mweta and his former right-hand man, Edward Shinza, whom Bray also knew well. He soon finds out there are ideological differences between the two with Mweta seeking to expand the economy, with foreign investment, while Shinza remains committed to helping the people. Mweta is soon going the way of other African leaders, to complete control of the economy but without improving the lot of the people. The president and his friends do well, while the people are no better off than they were under their colonial masters. It is not long till repression raises its head, with a Preventive Detention Bill.

Bray, meanwhile, while uneasy, is happier at being in Africa than in his distinctly boring English retirement. When he has an affair with a white woman, it is African sexuality – and the image of Shinza – that he thinks of. Gradually, he moves more and more into the Shinza camp, following the ideology he supported when he was living in the country in colonial times. Of course, it goes horribly wrong, with Gordimer making her standard point that whites need to be very, very careful when intervening in African politics and Bray does pay the price.

Gordimer’s superb telling of the development of the country from independence to being a repressive state, with a black elite no different from its white predecessors, except in colour, makes this novel one of her best and, while it is not about South Africa, it could certainly apply to many post-independence African countries. But it is also her portrait of Bray (An honourable man will end by not knowing where to live is the quotation from Turgenev that she uses at the beginning of the book) that makes this book special.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Viking