I have just finished reading A World of Strangers by Nadine Gordimer, an original Penguin paperback from 1958 that was given to me by my Mum when she was clearing out some books belonging to her late husband Bill. It is a really fantastic novel and one I would urge others to read. The writing is fantastic, although some of the language and descriptions of black people in the book make it hard to read at times.
The central character is Toby Hood, who we meet sailing out on a ship from England to South Africa, where he will be the representative for his family’s publishing firm in Johannesburg.
On arrival he rebels against his liberal left-wing upbringing and his family’s love of ‘causes’ and deliberately gets in touch with the family friends his mother would least approve of, who enjoy the high-life and lack a social conscience. He is thereby introduced to a set of ex-pats and white Africans and the social whirl of their parties. For instance: ‘The Alexander’s took it for granted that their guests needed a constant stream of refreshment, that the only way they could be expected to continue functioning as guests was by something approximating to the system whereby failing patients are kept alive by a night-and-day saline drip into their veins.’ He meets two very different women as he is introduced to Jo’burg society – Anna, who manages to navigate between the two such different worlds of black and white South Africa, and Cecil, who is completely irresponsible and ignores the existence of her son, and with whom Toby (inexplicably) begins an affair.
At one party Toby is introduced to the man who becomes his best friend, Steven Sitole, a charismatic black man who introduces him to life in the townships. They increasingly socialise together, both in the homes of Steven’s black friends and in Toby’s flat, but as more and more apartheid rules are introduced Toby’s landlady comes calling to tell him he has to leave for bringing ‘natives’ into the building for meals and parties. When Toby says he will do what he likes in his own flat she loses control and screams ‘you can’t bring kaffirs in my building’ and Toby’s friend Steven has to point out that she is right, as there will be a clause in Steven’s lease stating that he cannot. Toby’s friendship with Steven is then brought to a tragic end.
Toby’s lover Cecil totally fails to understand his friendship with Steven (‘You mean you can actually sit down to dinner with them and it doesn’t seem any different to you?’ she asks), whilst his friend Anna is arrested for treason for giving unofficial legal advice to black African women.
Despite the ‘the awful triumphant separateness of the place I was living in’ Toby decides not to return to England and to stay in South Africa indefinitely, as ‘In this African country I had come to feel curiously at home, a stranger among people who were strangers to each other’. He ends up as committed to the need for social change as his family back home in England are, despite his initial attempts to live in the white party set, and he promises his black friend Sam at the end of the novel that he is here to stay.
It’s easy to see why this book was banned in apartheid South Africa for 12 years.