This is the kind of book that college professors love to assign to their undergrads. Similar to Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz, in which Artemio’s life and death serve as metaphors for the historic arc of the Mexican Revolution and the corrupt PRI party it spawned, the anti-hero of The Conservationist is Gordimer’s metaphor for a South Africa apartheid system that is impossible to conserve despite the wishes of its White population.

In fact, I’m sure there is some college undergrad out there who is writing a paper about Gordimer’s imagery of the colonial aesthetic of non-native plants destroying the sacred bond between native Africans and the local flora and fauna. But what is impressive about Gordimer – and what I think she’ll always be remembered for – is her ability to write so seemingly effortlessly from the male, female, Black, White, and Indian voice. Sometimes she even seems more comfortable writing as a man than a woman (always stressing that men have no rational control over their sexual compulsions).

mitchell park durban

Mithcell Park, Durban

I bought the book from a used bookshop on Florida Road in the Morningside neighborhood of Durban. Two blocks up is Mitchell Park where each night wealthy White South Africans in lycra and workout suits go jogging and speed-walking with dogs the size of horses. Across the street is Vida e Caffe where the same couples and groups of friends gather each morning to catch up over their first cup of coffee. The whole area is a slice of Europe spooned up and put down on Durban’s best plot of land.

While walking around the neighborhood and reading The Conservationist I had the sense that South Africa’s battle for and against Apartheid had less to do with power and more to do with taste. So long as the garden aesthetic – the boutiques, the cafes, the wine bars – of South Africa’s best neighborhoods isn’t threatened, most White South Africans are able to endure the idea of a Black ruling class.