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Books: Color Is a Catalyst

3 minute read

THE ZULU AND THE ZEIDE (247 pp.)— Don Jacobson—Little, Brown ($3.75).

Inevitably, the clash of races is one of the great themes of 20th century fiction. Almost too familiar by now, the theme often bogs down in sentiment or sociology. One of the few writers who easily rise above these dangers is South African Novelist Dan Jacobson, and he proves it once again in his first volume of short stories. As in his novels (The Trap, A Dance in the Sun), Jacobson’s writing is skilled, hard and sun spare. He uses the tensions between Negroes and whites as he would if they were the tensions of love or war, to reveal stress points of fear, weakness or guilt in his characters.

Most often the matter of color is not the core of a story. A young white boy cruelly squelches a not-very-bright Negro who tries bumblingly to make a pigeon coop for him; white passers-by discuss irritably what to do with a helplessly drunk white man, unload the problem on two gentle and respectful native policemen. Such cruelty and callousness exist independent of color, but the failings of Jacobson’s whites show with merciless clarity against a black background. In the book’s best story, a young white South African who has migrated to London anticipates with dread the visit of his countrified mother. It is even worse than he expects; she is a liberal on the matter of race, and she turns up with a Negro college student she has met on the boat. Could the son let the Negro stay at his flat for a few days? His refusal is awkward—there is no room, really—but the mother accepts it and says no more. It is only after the son has dutifully squired her on the tourist’s round and packed her back to Africa that he comes to a tormenting realization: “She may well be, in the sad, sandy Eastern Province, even more ashamed of him than he in London had been of her.”

Although Jacobson’s prose occasionally becomes sonorous with ringingly repeated phrases, at its best it is quietly excellent. The collection has its soft spots—notably a story pointedly titled The Stranger, which tells, in the manner of Camus at his most somber, of a rich man, cut off from society by a standard brand of spiritual malaise, who comes to a strange town to die and melodramatically does. But the high spots outnumber the soft ones. In a class with Nadine Gordimer (Six Feet of the Country, A World of Strangers), Author Jacobson, 30-year-old white South African who now lives in England, has emerged as one of the troubled continent’s best novelists.

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