THE nature, the cost, and the value of political commitment: These themes have formed the core of South African writer Nadine Gordimer's considerable oeuvre of novels, from ``The Late Bourgeois World'' (1966), to ``Burger's Daughter'' (1979), and more recently, ``A Sport of Nature'' (1987), to her many stories and essays. While politics was a peripheral concern of Gordimer's earliest work (her first novel, ``The Lying Days,'' was published in 1954), by the 1970s, political concerns took center stage in novels like ``A Guest of Honour'' (1971) and ``The Conservationist'' (1975), which were instrumental in gaining their author a worldwide reputation as a voice of conscience from South Africa. Gordimer is a self-declared radical, a member of the African National Congress (the ANC), vice president of the writers' organization, PEN International, and the recipient of numerous prizes, honors, and honorary degrees. Several of her works have been banned (and later unbanned) in her native country.
Yet there is a kind of detachment about Gordimer's writing that precludes the expression of hot outrage over racial injustice, intense sympathy with the victims, or stinging disillusionment with revolutionaries turned terrorists, opportunists, or both. Indeed, the more politically engaged Gordimer has become as a writer, the more detached her authorial voice.
Her latest novel, ``My Son's Story,'' is about the ways in which political commitment slowly but ineluctably transforms the lives of four members of a black South African family. The schoolteacher/hero, Sonny, and his gentle, dignified wife, Aila, are, in South African terms, Colored, as distinguished from what he and she call ``real blacks'' or Africans.
Intelligent, sensitive, and charismatic, Sonny is the first man in his family who does not earn his living through manual labor. He and his wife are perfectly matched: Both have an innate sense of self-worth, both feel a strong sense of obligation to serve the community, and they understand each other implicitly.
At first Sonny admires the ``real black'' activists from a distance: ``The trouble was, he didn't feel himself inferior - inferior to what, to whom? He was so preoccupied with an inner life that he took little notice of the humiliations and slights that pushed and jabbed at him at the moment he ventured outside the community.'' The children, Baby and her younger brother Will, who narrate the novel, are brought up in a charmed circle of books, stories, chess (for Will), dancing lessons (for Baby), and familial love.
Gradually, Sonny's concern as a teacher for the well-being and the future of his pupils leads him to become a participant in their protests and a spokesman for the antiapartheid cause. He becomes relatively prominent in the movement, and spends time in prison: a hero to his family and his people.
Sonny's political involvement has also brought him into contact with a white freedom fighter, Hannah Plowman. The novel opens with 15-year-old Will's discovery that his father and Hannah are having an affair.
Although Alia has been the perfect wife and is far more beautiful than the somewhat pudding-faced Hannah, Sonny and Hannah are drawn together by their shared commitment.
The intensity of their hidden relationship slowly saps the strength of family ties and sets Sonny's daughter, son, and wife on unforeseen courses of their own. Politics, passion, and the passion of politics transform their souls.
But if they are transformed into heroes and heroines, something of their genuine warmth and innocence is lost in the process. ``Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart,'' as Yeats said of the martyrs of the Irish Easter uprising in his poem ``Easter 1916.''
Will feels his father's defection as a betrayal of family and self-respect. Yet at the same time, he is able to portray the powerful, even virtuous, attractions of Hannah and Sonny's love by leaving his own perspective behind and entering imaginatively into their state of mind and heart in writing about them. ``My Son's Story'' is actually more a story about Sonny the father than about Will the son, but it is Will's story insofar as he is its narrator.
Like Yeats, Gordimer perceives that political commitment can usurp the place of love because it is itself a kind of love. Even before she meets Sonny, Hannah has fallen in love with her work: monitoring the plights of political prisoners. Witnessing their struggles, visiting them in jails, visiting their families and loved ones, extends her feelings ``in a way she would not have known possible for anyone .... She was in love. Not as the term is understood, as she had been in love, at 23, with her lawyer, and they had ceased to love. In love, a temperature and atmospheric pressure of shared tension, response, the glancing contact of trust in place of caresses, and the important, proud responsibility of doing anything asked, even the humblest tasks, in place of passionate private avowals. A loving state of being.'' Yet, as the story unfolds, love is love's undoing.
``My Son's Story'' is a thoughtful, poised, quietly poignant novel that not only recognizes the value and cost of political commitment, but also takes account of recent developments in South Africa and Eastern Europe in a way that Gordimer's previous work did not. Sonny's family is shown to have gained the slight benefits of being allowed to use previously prohibited public facilities. Sonny's affair with Hannah can take place without the threat of criminal prosecution. Sonny also expresses concern that the socialist experiment has failed in Eastern Europe while followers of his liberation movement still demand and believe in a utopian socialist dream.
If this novel, like her previous work, can be faulted for its tendencies towards abstraction and detachment, it should also be praised for its ability to look dispassionately at the changing faces of passion.