The Conservationist

This a book that should be mandatory reading for anyone with even a passing interest in social justice.

I get it, that's a big claim, but I have a feeling that when bell hooks coined the phrase "white supremacist, capitalist, patriarch" she had people like Mehring in mind. Gordimer skillfully delineates the borders of his privilege in this volume, speaking no nonsense and cutting straight to the meat of the issue. And while Apartheid is dead, racial segregation is a thing of the past, and questi

This a book that should be mandatory reading for anyone with even a passing interest in social justice.

I get it, that's a big claim, but I have a feeling that when bell hooks coined the phrase "white supremacist, capitalist, patriarch" she had people like Mehring in mind. Gordimer skillfully delineates the borders of his privilege in this volume, speaking no nonsense and cutting straight to the meat of the issue. And while Apartheid is dead, racial segregation is a thing of the past, and questioning of gender roles is becoming more widespread, The Conservationist still has power and social relevance. Take this conversation, for instance, where Mehring talks to his mistress about his sexual desires:

-Shall I tell you something, Antonia? You don't know it, but there's a special pleasure in having a woman you've paid. Now and then. I can't explain it. It's very clear-cut. For that one night, or that one afternoon or day, whatever it is. You've bought and paid for everything.--There will be absolutely no unfulfilled emotional obligations on either side, hanging on afterwards.--No, no, you see deep meanings in everything. Sorry to disappoint you. Just the feeling that you're not only taking this woman, you've also paid for her-...

-My god, you want to convince me you can buy anything. Mehring and his wholly-owned subsidiaries.-

which is not only typical of Mehring's attitude throughout the novel, but the attitudes of many men about sex. They think that there is some secret formula to be with someone, that romantic connections become ownership. As in Mehring's case, all it leads to is unhealthy relationships and bitterness. Mehring doesn't want just sex to be about money, he wants his wealth to allow him to control every facet of his

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life. He sees his black workers as objects, but also as inferior and unable to survive without him- he never really trusts Jacobus even after years of successful work together. He sees women, if not needing money, needing coercion to sleep with him- he sexually assaults a sleeping teenage girl on a plane. His wealth breeds the need to possess, and he feels like no item or person should be beyond his grasp. Gordimer does an excellent job of building the pressure in his head, he starts out fairly innocent, but by the end it's clear that Mehring is not at all decent.

Mehring's life stands as an astonishing allegory. As Gordimer wrote The Conservationist, the anti-Apartheid movement was beginning to gain footing. Mehring stands for the class of people fighting against them. So I'm fascinated by Gordimer's choice to not flat out smear him. Protest literature has a tendency to make the world black and white, but it's clear that the intent here is not to bring out rage but to inspire thought. Mehring is relatively kind to his workers. He gives them nice shoes when they ask, he gives Jacobus good food, and he is undemanding when he feels failed by Alina. And yet in his mind there is still disgust aimed at the people who support him. If even good bosses hate their workers, there is a systematic, internalized prejudice she's calling out here.

And yet, for such heady topics, this is not a novel without hope. Mehring's narrative arc opens and closes with images of failed fertility; first eggs stolen from nests, and in the end, an unproductive farm wrecked by fire and flood. Each has a profound impact on Mehring. I propose that in these images, Gordimer implies a failure for Mehring's toxicity to be passed on. Because the natural world comes with order, the symbols of his grasp on the land have been destroyed. Because the social world comes with order, people like Mehring's grasp of South Africa are weakening. Terry refuses to think the way his father does, Antonia refuses to be with someone so backward, and the forces that make social change happen punish Mehring for thinking of them as something within his realm of control.

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Category: Review

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