"There is no privacy more inviolable than that of the prisoner. To visualize that cell in which he is thinking, to reach what he alone knows; that is a blank in the dark."
Privileged whites in post-apartheid South Africa, Harald and Claudia Lindgard have managed to live the better part of 50 years without ever confronting the deepest shadows in their culture or in their own souls. Though they conceive of themselves as liberal-minded, neither has ever taken any active political stand; neither has ever been in any black person's home. Harald sits on the board of an insurance company; Claudia is a compassionate doctor. Neither of them has ever been inside a courtroom before; neither has ever been inside a prison. When their architect-son, Duncan, is arrested for murder, both know that the charge is preposterous. But Duncan himself fails to deny his guilt, and his parents are brought by a harsh and ungainly process to accept the possibility that he has committed an unthinkable crime.
Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun is a gravely sustained exploration of their long-delayed but necessary descent into an intimate acquaintance with the culture of violence that surrounds them and that is "the common hell of all who are associated with it." The novel is a mystery, but not in the usual sense of the whodunit. Here the question of who quickly gives way to why and thence to other, still deeper quandaries of culpability, both immediate and ultimate. The enigmatic Duncan becomes a dark mirror in which his stunned parents must desperately grope for a new vision of themselves and their world--a vision that will not shatter, as their old one has, under a single blow from reality.
Gordimer's prose is mannered and severe; humor is rare, or absent. "As the couple emerge into the foyer of the courts, vast and lofty cathedral echoing with the susurration of its different kind of supplicants gathered there, Claudia suddenly breaks away, disappearing towards the sign indicating toilets. Harald waits for her among these people patient in trouble, no choice to be otherwise, for them, he is one of them, the wives, husbands, fathers, lovers, children of forgers, thieves and murderers." This difficult exposition is the reader's own dark mirror, where we as spectators fumble from one dubious explanation to the next--a twisted reflection always reminding us that, underlying this social tragedy, there is a mystery play in the old sense, and an unanswerable question: What is a human being? Paragraph after paragraph, the reader is led into deeper and deeper perceptions of the sensibilities and the dilemmas of these characters--into a quiet intimacy with their trouble that is sometimes acutely uncomfortable, but which pays off richly in an ending that reconciles our sense of the horror of violence with our desire to believe in the value of each life. --Daniel Hintzsche [via]