“He sulks, or is it lonely sadness in that profile? She is distanced and distressed. Love engraves a profile definitely as the mint does on a coin. She is ashamed of her parents; he thinks she is ashamed of him. Neither know either, about the other” (38). Language, race, gender, class, and the essence of Ibrahim and Julie’s separate identities are the factors that engrave the profile on their love in Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup. A love that Julie, in the end, –thank God—does not choose over her own understanding of truth, over her own fulfillment.
Gordimer’s style heightens the reality that however their bodies might have found a common geography, this upper class, liberal white woman and this poor immigrant Muslim man who meet in South Africa (her home) cannot understand each other, contain differences that may have nothing to do with the countries or families they come from. Hazy dialogue, blending of feeling, action, and dialogue and her often terse descriptions are three elements of style that help to bring this message to the surface. She does not use quotation marks or speech tags and though she sometimes sets off speech with dashes, she often doesn’t separate the spoken parts from the rest of the narrative, as in this passage where Julie floats the possibility that they consider having the children his mother wants from them, “Are you crazy? And the moment spoken, he feels its cruelty stab back at him. He throws the razor onto the towel, holds his breath and plunges his face into the steaming water. When he lifts his head, she has taken up the razor and offers the towel. As he dries his face, it’s as if the whole exchange has evaporated” (169). Exchange? There is nothing to set off the words spoken, no acknowledgement of her reaction, of how she might be impacted. He doesn’t even experience the potential cruelty of his tone and words as something done to her—it “stabs back at him”. He spends the entire exchange looking in the mirror or with his face submerged in water, doesn’t even acknowledge her minor act of tenderness in offering him the towel and razor. While Julie is willing literally and figuratively to go to another country for their love, they just cannot see each other clearly, a fact that is recognizable in how their interactions are so often reported in sketch detail.
Apart during those days, at weekends they often drove into ‘the veld’, as they became accustomed to hear her calling the countryside, whether it was grasslands or mountains. There they walked, lay watching the clouds, the swoop of birds, were amused, as lovers are, by the difference in their exchanged perceptions of what each took for granted. (33-34)
Grasslands or mountains? Indiscriminate birds. “As lovers are”. Abrahim and Julie are sketched rather than fleshed out which not only demonstrates the unbridgeable space between them, but also the universal quality of their struggle as man and woman carrying their unique identities in a world of boundaries, where we want love. Julie’s struggle to find her own identity as a woman is the crux of this story. She is a woman who “dream[s] in green” (213), who finds delight in the simple act of walking through the desert in the morning to bring back fritters for all. I was so afraid that Gordimer was going to destroy Julie, that this was going to be another story about a woman who loves too much to survive this life with her identity intact.
In the last pages of the novel, Ibrahim still thinks love is that “weakness that is not for him” (266) and as a luxury only the privileged can afford. When Julie brings the two plane tickets that will take them to his home to him, he sees her as a naïve child. He always sees her as a child, naïve. From the beginning, he underestimates her because of her privilege, accuses her of not taking things seriously enough, of seeing her life as a camping trip, an adventure. He judges her for not taking advantage of her family connections more. He uses those same connections to obtain visas he seeks to get them to yet another new country—America.
She moves to the desert for him. She loves him without condition or reserve. She hands him the razor and the towel. She interacts on a more human level with the women in his household than he is capable of. Embraces the children. Learns to cook their food. And all the while, he still doesn’t see her, doesn’t even seem to like her, submits to her love only because he sees her body like another country and he is always looking for another country than his own. Thinking of how his Uncle and mother set to keep him there, he sleeps with Julie, “the trap that was set to snap on him by the family, his mother the beloved—his body swelled with the blood of accusation and rage, a distress that gave him an erection, and that with a confusion of shame and desire, using her, could only be assuaged in wild love-making which she took for something else, so little did she know” (200-201). It was way before this point that I was hoping that somehow they would be separated, that the separation would be her choice.
Though Julie loves Abrahim, in the end she decides not to go to America and to his shock and rage, decides to stay in his home, in his country, in the desert, where she is content, where “all drifts together and there is no onlooker” (172).
It is ironic that in the end it is Julie who seems wisest, strongest. It is also ironic that in spite of his pushing her to connect with her family for selfish reasons, she finds a home within his through teaching and sacrifice. The title is ironic too because ultimately this book is not so much about “the pickup” as it is about Julie. Julie, who, as I put this book back on the shelf, will stay in my mind as an example of someone who knows the line between sacrifice and submission in love. I was afraid this wouldn’t happen. She spent too much of the novel sacrificing, against the backdrop of what we knew, having access to Abrahim’s thoughts. That he thought himself superior to her in wisdom and wasn’t capable of seeing her, as he didn’t see her the first day, “I don’t think I really looked at her. That day” (94). In the end she chooses to stay in his home, where she has found friendship, family, and the fulfillment that comes from teaching children.
I was amazed by how Gordimer blended thought, action and dialogue, sometimes even in one sentence, how she blended the vague and the specific, the analytical and the descriptive, the precise and the vague. Amazed by how all of this ultimately increased the impact of how the gulf between Julie and Abrahim had to do with so much more than the circumstances of their births.