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The Conservationist

3.38  ·  Rating details ·  2,259 ratings  ·  243 reviews
Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects. His wife, son, and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewarsship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.
Paperback, 267 pages
Published February 24th 1983 by Penguin Books (first published 1974)
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3.38  · 
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 ·  2,259 ratings  ·  243 reviews

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Do not let the sea of 3-stars fool you into decrying the unpleasantness or the apparent plotlessness of this novel.
Not all of us read for pleasure after all. Besides it is an achievement of extraordinary proportions when an author manages to stretch the 'show don't tell' narrative device almost to the breaking point yet never failing to accentuate the core themes so realistically.

Nadine Gordimer puts her reader in a trance-like state with her hypnotic, lyrical descriptions of minutiae in an un
A good story, competently told, can’t be faulted. But ‘good’ is sometimes not enough. We might want more than that. We might want a story to carry an impact, not only on us but also on its own subject matter, the time it was set in, the land it describes, the politics of that time.
The Conservationist carries such an impact. It hits us in the soft part of our bodies beneath the sternum, winding us, leaving us doubled in two, coughing and gasping. And it hits us early and often. There is no let-u
Aug 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you've read Mantel's Wolf Hall, you know there's a bit of adjustment at first once you realize "he" almost always refers to Cromwell because you're inside his head. Such is the case here, though the reader is granted a reprieve now and then when an omniscient voice takes over in some chapters. I say reprieve because it's tough being in Mehring's head and I felt relief when he engaged in dialogue (not that often) with someone other than himself.

Inside his head, the reader also needs to determi
Aug 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, south-africa
The Conservationist is a literary exercise in unsettlement.

When the body of a black man is found in Mehring's farm outside of Johannesburg, you realize that Gordimer is writing with a capacity for gruesome metaphor. There is the immediate symbolism of the body itself, or how the land was taken violently and how unease and resentment still lingers between White and Black. Mehring is an industrial magnate playing at farming and toting along his mistress - he pays the black farmhands to do the wor
-Why not just buy it and leave it as it is?...
If I had your money I'd buy it and leave it just as it is.-
-No farm is beautiful unless it's productive.-
-You hear these things and believe them because they sound 'right'. That's your morality.-
The flirtatious sneer in her voice unexpectedly gave him an erection. (Even then perhaps? ...the beginning of these - inappropriate - reactions now, being pecked on the cheek by some child he's known since she was in napkins.)
-And what's yours my dear? You're
This a book that should be mandatory reading for anyone with even a passing interest in social justice.

I get it, that's a big claim, but I have a feeling that when bell hooks coined the phrase "white supremacist, capitalist, patriarch" she had people like Mehring in mind. Gordimer skillfully delineates the borders of his privilege in this volume, speaking no nonsense and cutting straight to the meat of the issue. And while Apartheid is dead, racial segregation is a thing of the past, and questi
Julie Christine
Sep 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is a novel to admire, to tremble in sheer awe at the power of Gordimer's language, her mastery of sensuality, and the importance of its themes: the skewering of apartheid during a time when the anti-apartheid movement floundered, leaderless and without much will (early-mid 1970s). It is a tough novel to love. I felt alienated by the dense language and the stream-of-consciousness writing and frustration at being trapped inside Mehring's morally bankrupt brain. Which of course is the paradox ...more
Inderjit Sanghera
May 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
Reading like a series of impressions, the disjointed narrative style is counterbalanced by the ethereal imagery which Gordimer conjures up; whether it be the stifling, suffocating South African heat or the rambunctious river torrents, Gordimer conjures up a South Africa which appears to be spiralling towards violence, a South Africa seen mainly through the eyes of Mehring; an empty vessel of a man whose inner self is nothing more than a hodge-podge of greed and venality, a man who seems to be pe ...more
David Sasaki
Oct 04, 2008 rated it liked it
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 o
Jun 09, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: 1974
I am ambivalent about this book.

On the one hand, it had some brilliant parts. The overall themes of apartheid are incredibly subtle but powerful. Many of the passages are very poetic and evocative. At the end I could honestly say that I felt I'd been through a good experience. She does a great job showing the awkward relationship between Mehring and his black workers. The dead man found at the beginning haunts the rest of the novel--and it works brilliantly.

On the other hand, most of the time I
Sarah Curnow
Aug 20, 2013 rated it did not like it
I MADE myself keep reading this despite not particularly enjoying it and finding it frustration. There is a review on Amazon which summed it up for me "I read every boring word on every boring page of this boring, boring book - and only because my mission is to read every Booker prize winner. Otherwise, I would have hurled this book into the bin after twenty pages. NOTHING HAPPENS, except a tedious interior monologue from someone about whom you constantly think 'who cares?' To add insult to inju ...more
Someone in my book club said of this novel that it makes you feel dumber while you're reading it but smarter once you've finished. I just found that to be really spot-on. No doubt, this is a difficult read, both in style (long, rambling sentences, extended stream-of-consciousness passages, non-English words scattered throughout) and in substance (it's about apartheid, and also, not much actually happens). The best way I found to describe it is that it's like an impressionist painting -- when you ...more
Alex Rendall
Apr 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: booker-prize
The 1974 Booker Prize was the first to be awarded to two novels jointly; Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist is the first of the two that I have read. The novel’s title is interesting, in that Mehring, Gordimer’s white South African farm owner protagonist, would almost certainly not consider himself to be a conservationist, in the environmental sense. At times boorish and misogynistic, Mehring is absolutely opposed to any changes in the status quo of apartheid South African political organisat ...more
I finished this while in hospital recently.

There's something going on, and you don't know what it is, do you Mr Mehring? Mehring farms tax breaks for fun in the High Veld. He doesn't need it to make a profit; it would defeat the object if it did and anyway he's already a rich man from his status as a pig-iron magnate. But his world is falling apart in some vague way. His wife has left him and gone to New York, his son who has funny ideas about overturning the natural order has gone to join her,
Sep 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
More like a 9/10. Gordimer writes brilliantly and I always find her subject matter interesting. This book about South Africa, as usual, might seem a tiny bit dated, as it was written, I believe, between 1972-74, but it captures the agonies of the time from the perspective of a somewhat clueless, but mostly well=meaning, middle-aged white man.
Jun 14, 2018 marked it as unfinished  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: booker-winners
I got to page 44 out of 267. Alas, I’m 0 for 2 on South African Booker Prize winners; I also tried J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, hoping to write up one or more of them before the Booker Prize 50th anniversary celebrations. Nice landscape descriptions, but despite the discovery of a body there’s absolutely no narrative momentum, and one doesn’t warm to Mehring at all. My favorite passage, with the ironically apt adjectives noted in bold, was “The upland serenity of high altitude, ...more
Nov 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
Mostly follows the interior monologue of Mr. Mehring, a wealthy white colonial industrialist in South Africa, who has bought a farm 25 miles from his city apartment. His farm is managed by a group of extremely poor indigenous Blacks lead by Jacobus, who all seem to have infinite patience. Mehring's life is so removed from them he barely empathizes with them. And he has grown distant from the members of his own class who spend their spare time partying and trying to fix him up with single eligibl ...more
Jayne Charles
Jul 24, 2011 rated it it was ok
I really struggled with this. It needs to be read slowly, analysed line by line to tease out the meaning, and I really tried to stay with it but in end the current pulled me under.

It's a tale of farming in South Africa, of pig iron, of differing standards of living and of questionable goings-on under aircraft blankets. Told in a series of random though patterns that's only just this side of James Joyce, it's difficult to work out what is happening at any given time, who is talking and who they
3.5 stars.

1970s South Africa. Mehring is a rich, white industrialist and it is his perspective we are privy to in this novel. He bought a farm out in the country because that’s what rich people do, and it offers him tax benefits. He perceives himself to be someone who has worked hard to get where he is, who puts his sweat and effort into the running of the farm, but his character is slowly revealed to us through flashbacks and moments.

Really, he is just someone who has come off ‘lucky’ on the o
Apr 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
It has been several years since I read this novel, and what sticks in my memory vividly is the portrait Gordimer creates of a self-satisfied, white property-owner in apartheid-era South Africa. We see the world through his eyes, and we see how well it serves him, keeping him wealthy and comfortable. While he may notice that some suffer and are oppressed, he is not moved to do anything that would make a difference for them. Instead, he justifies his indifference with a sense of racial and class s ...more
I read The Conservationist in a kind of appalled fascination, repelled by the language South African Whites use to talk to and about the Blacks in the book. Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize winning author of this Booker Prize winning story, depicts her characters routinely using the language of master and servant in the most disparaging way, a kind of amused contempt exacerbated by its casual delivery. Reading it, one feels besmirched simply by being privy to the perspective of its White anti-he ...more
To quote Homer Simpson as he watched Twin Peaks:

“Brilliant. I have no idea what's going on.”

The Conservationist is a much, much less straightforward book than July's People, and at times is this just totally weird stream of consciousness, the sort of thing that could alienate a lot of readers. I was enthralled, absolutely enthralled. There's a dead body, the politics of apartheid, and wave after wave of inclement weather and societal malaise. Gordimer comes off almost as this Eastern European or
Rick Patterson
Jan 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is what a Nobel Prize winner reads like. Gordimer doesn't run off at the mouth into poetic culs-de-sac like some Booker winners have done in the past, but she paints beautiful pictures that make you fall a little bit in love with a land that you have (probably) never seen. Although Mehring is not a comfortable protagonist--he is not a people person and at one point chants "My possessions are enough for me" (or something to that effect), which could make him a materialist caricature--by the ...more
Courtney H.
Mar 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: bookers
The Conservationist is perhaps the subtlest Booker I’ve read thus far, and this is saying something; subtle storytelling seems to be a particularly admirable trait in the eyes of the Booker committees. In many ways, the real story of The Conservationist takes place around the edges of Mehring’s story – just as he tries to control the land but finds it growing apart from him and away from him, he can’t quite control his own story. He is never the true story, even of his own narrative. Apartheid ...more
José Toledo
Jun 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The Conservationist is Nadine Gordimer's most intense, and certainly most poetic, novel. Its meticulous details and documentary exactitude combine to create an elaborate web of meanings where each object detailed or evoked carries symbolic implications for the society that South Africa was at the time of the novel's publication, and which forty years later still resonate with moral relevance. It is this same elaborate style which also avoids explanations and leaves the reader free to interpret. ...more
David Seruyange
Nov 14, 2010 rated it it was ok
It's not often that I put a book down but unfortunately The Conservationist got the better of me. I used to travel a lot and if I'd have been on a few flights with layovers and sufficient amounts of coffee I would have worked my way to the finish but as the kind of book from which to grow in a personal way while enjoying oneself it fell flat.

Gordimer writes from a very particular niche, a white South African woman who was able to allow the subtleties of her story to reveal some insights into li
Oct 07, 2007 rated it really liked it
The Conservationist is set in South Africa under apartheid. Though it is written in the third person and occasionally provides insight into other characters' thoughts and experiences, perspective is largely limited to Mehring, a rich, white, middle-aged businessman. He is a loner who lives and works in the city but owns a large piece of farm land, which is inhabited and run by a group of poor black families and their various associates. Mehring is not a likeable host for the story; he is abusive ...more
Feb 05, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, nobel, booker, africa
When you write from a divided home, it is inevitable that the divide manifests itself in your writing. Writers from South Africa, I suppose, therefore feel compelled to return to apartheid in some form- either in Coetzee's Disgrace or in Gordimer's 'The Conservationist'.

In fact, Conservationist did remind me terribly of the other. The white man with a loosely strewn together life, a farm with black workers, the divide and the mutual acceptance across the divide.

The book primarily consists of sel
Dec 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical, 2018
Welcome 2018, and what a way to welcome the new year. "The Conservationist" is a challenging read, but completely worth the effort that is required.

With a style that is almost poetic, Gordimer captures South Africa, the beauty of the country and the turmoil created by the people. It follows Mehring, a privileged white businessman, who buys a farm mostly for a tax write off. Through his eyes, the reader grows to love the land, but the reader also gets to see the harshness of nature - which is pa
Jul 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
A subtly menacing tale of an unaware bigot and exploiter. As much as he talks about his money, his life seems tacky, tattered and random, like the hand-me-down farmhouse he never bothers to redecorate or fully inhabit. Money brings him no joy but is his only bridge to others. His industrial position allows him to view himself as all generous and benevolent rather than what he really is, the stingy user of people as objects. People rarely register except for what they can do for him. Prefers wome ...more
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Nadine Gordimer was a South African writer, political activist, and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. She was recognized as a woman "who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity".

Gordimer's writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. Under that regime, works such as Burger
“You don’t have to be a believer in a lot of superstition and nonsense - there’s a difference between thinking to oneself and thinking as a form of conversation, even if there are no answers.” 0 likes
“She put her hand on him, just under the left pectoral muscle, half patted, half slapped, half caressed. — This is what I believe in - flesh-and-blood people, no gods up in the sky or anywhere on the ground. ‘Development’ - one great big wonderful all-purpose god of a machine, eh, Superjuggernaut that’s going to make it all all right, put everything right if we just get the finance for it. The money and the know-how machine. Isn’t that it, with you? The politics are of no concern. The ideology doesn’t matter a damn. The poor devils don’t know what’s good for them, anyway. That’s how you justify what you condone - that’s what lets you off the hook, isn’t it - the Great Impartial. Development. No dirty hands or compromised minds. Neither dirty racist nor kaffir-boetie. Neither dirty Commie nor Capitalist pig. It’s all going to be decided by computer - look, no hands! Change is something programmed, not aspired to. No struggle between human beings. That’d be too smelly and too close. Let them eat cake, by all means - if production allows for it, and dividends are not affected, in time. —” 0 likes
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