[Wikipedia summary of plot: "The novel is set during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans have violently overturned the system of apartheid. The story follows the Smales, a liberal White South African family who were forced to flee Johannesburg to the native village of their black servant, July."]
What do we call July's People now?
In 1981, when the novel was published, it might have been called prophetic or predictive—as it was intended. Yet the specificity of the novel's vision—that of a thoroughly armed insurrection of South African blacks against the white government, aided and equipped by Soviets and Cubans—prevented it from assuming, at the moment of its publication, the quality of an allegory, of a dystopia in the sense we are used to. Instead, in one of the two reviews in The New York Times, by Anne Tyler, the novel was praised for its description of the actually existing tensions already present in the populace—the novel was, first and foremost, seen as a report on the current state of race relations, and only secondarily as a near-future nightmare. In fact, Tyler neatly brackets off the predictive aspects of the story—whites forced to flee from their homes, battles surging through the streets of suburbs and cities alike—as "a wonderful adventure story."
In the other NYT review, by Anatole Broyard, the predictive element is again subordinated to its descriptive function: "''July's People' is Nadine Gordimer's projection of what it will be like if or when the time comes for the whites to leave Johannesburg. And since she writes more knowingly about South Africa than anyone else, this may be history in the making that we are reading." What is important about the novel, it seems, is that it transmits Gordimer's knowledge of what South Africa is like; the imaginative work of thinking what might happen next is simply a product of that knowledge, no different from a "projection" of likely scenarios at the end of a policy brief or an article in The Economist.
By 1991, when Gordimer received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the situation in South Africa and neighboring countries had changed to the extent that this particular future was no longer capable of seeming like a "projection" or extrapolation of the current state of affairs. It had become a work of imagination and had begun to assume an allegorical meaning. The Nobel Prize citation actually uses the term dystopia to name the "vision" Gordimer presents in the novel's last scene: "To Maureen and what she stands for, the future appears to hold out the opposite of utopia, a dystopia. This is not Nadine Gordimer's only vision, but it is one which she has found it necessary to give expression to."
"And what she stands for"—this is allegorical language, and, in fact, the Nobel citation is full of it, full of the image of Gordimer not as reporter, but as artist, the maker of consciousnesses: "Above all, it is people, individual men and women, that have captured her and been captured by her. It is their lives, their heaven and hell, that absorb her. The outer reality is ever present, but it is through her characters that the whole historical process is crystallized."
In both the 1981 reviews and in the 1991 Nobel citation, Gordimer is recognized for her powers as both artist and reporter, but within those ten years the ordering of those two roles reversed, and I think we can see in this reversal a macrocosm of the kind of balancing act that occurs within the Nobel citation itself.
The equilibrium of these roles—reporter/activist and artist/visionary—is neatly kept throughout the Nobel citation; it assures us that "she makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation. She feels political responsibility, and does not shy away from its consequences, but will not allow it to affect her as a writer: her texts are not agitatorial, not progandistic. Still, her works and the deep insights she offers contribute to shaping reality." This is tremendously balanced: she is political and thus her writing affects reality, but she "will not allow it to affect her as a writer"—she won't allow what political consequences her writings have dictate what she writes.
Yet implicit in the citation is an acknowledgment that at least in terms of what she chooses to write about, Gordimer's politics are extremely consequential. She writes of a firmly historicized situation, and in order to achieve what the committee calls "wide human relevance," Gordimer must first be turned into a writer of character, not of history (again, "The outer reality is ever present, but it is through her characters that the whole historical process is crystallized"). Then, because that doesn't fully resolve the deep historicity of those characters, she must be turned into a creator of a dystopian vision. And this despite the fact that the kind of violence which Gordimer described was perhaps closer to reality in 1985-1989 than it was the year the book was published—i.e., the reality of violence in South Africa was fresher in 1991 than the book itself. And let's not even mention that, in 1991, Mandela had been released but universal suffrage was still not achieved.
And where does that leave us in 2009? Reading July's People now, the book I kept thinking of was actually Saramago's Blindness. Gordimer's construction of dialogue often leaves it completely unattributed, and this is frequently confusing, creating an effect somewhat similar to passages in Blindness where (because of the state of the characters), speakers cannot be matched up with their words. Also, the character of Maureen bears more than a passing resemblance to the ophthalmologist's wife in Blindness: I wouldn't be entirely surprised to find that Saramago was influenced by Gordimer's book.
Yet July's People crucially lacks—and never aspires to—the symbolic and referential ambiguity necessary to create and sustain a "dystopic vision." Unlike Blindness, unlike even 1984, one can't read the events, characters, or dynamics of July's People onto other historical or ideological situations; the imaginative energies which turn something like 1984 into a permanent prediction and permanent critique (of totalitarianism or absolutism in any form) are directed to other purposes in July's People. In simpler terms, the adjective 'Gordimeresque' (in the sense of 'Orwellian' or 'Kafkaesque') is impossible.
Yet because of Gordimer's Nobel, we expect her to be a writer of "wide human relevance" and so it is difficult not to read July's People in the terms we have come to associate with the widest human relevance: character/consciousness and dystopia. The increasing historical distance to apartheid, to the 1980s, to Communism, and even to Gordimer's award itself seems to require that we increase the weight of its allegorical/dystopic valence, even when this is obviously invalid.
I think reading July's People now becomes a sort of challenge to check this balancing, to re-evaluate why we even feel the need to balance the roles of artist and reporter in the first place, to understand that balancing as itself an upholding of the pre-eminent value we place on what is, in the last analysis, a narrow understanding of "wide human relevance." Because it is so difficult to add the kinds of weights and values (of character/consciousness, of allegory/dystopia) we so customarily add to any novel to balance its historicity or localized context, this balancing act requires a certain amount of conscious effort to accomplish, is laid bare, and can be resisted.