In praise of older books: A Guest of Honour by Nadine Gordimer (1970)
The author’s cold-eyed prescience predicted Robert Mugabe and his reign of terror
Nadine Gordimer in 2005: she wrote A Guest of Honour in 1970 and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Photograph: Radu Sigheti/Reuters
I’m watching the TV news. Robert Mugabe’s face is unreadable. Huge glasses hide his eyes. He’s old, but he still radiates power. The military, however, have decided. One way or another, the man who transformed Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and has ruled since independence in 1980 is finished. And immediately I think of Nadine Gordimer’s novel A Guest of Honour.
James Bray was a British colonial administrator in an unnamed central African state. He’s fundamentally a decent person and he sides with the country’s freedom fighters, its would-be liberators. For his pains he is removed from his post, sent back to England with his wife, Olivia. That part of his life is over. Until 10 years later when he meets again Adamson Mweta, the leader of the newly independent nation.
“You – I told you we expect you back now.”
“But what would I do? What use should I be to you.”
“Whatever you like! It’s all ours! We need you: whatever you like.”
So James goes back, the guest of honour at the independence celebrations. Olivia stays in England to await the birth of their first grandchild. The celebrations roll on. Soon James is immersed in his new African life. He is to report on the educational system. So he sets off around the country to observe. And he realises that all is not perfect. Mweta and his comrades are already dismantling the country’s fragile democracy. And James’ personal life is dismantling too. Olivia, far away in England, becomes irrelevant as he falls in love with Rebecca, the woman who is to work with him on his report. His travels reveal the depth of Mweta’s corruption and the erosion of the personal and political freedoms that he had assumed would be respected. Unable to accept this new status quo, his future looks bleak. As one commentator says, “These nice white liberals getting mixed up in things they don’t understand. What did he expect?”
Gordimer wrote the book in 1970. Her cold-eyed prescience predicted Mugabe and his reign of terror. What will come now? Gordimer’s body of work, for which she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, will, I’m sure, provide us with the answers.