cover image Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories

Nadine Gordimer, . . Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20 (177pp) ISBN 978-0-374-10982-0

Thirteen stories from South African Nobel Prize–winner Gordimer offer a staccato demonstration of how people’s origins, inheritances and histories—and the loss of them—are inescapable. The title story centers on the white, twice-divorced academic descendant of a London diamond prospector who visits his forebear’s mine in Kimberly, South Africa, and wonders about who in the township, black and white, he may be related to. The narrator of “Dreaming of the Dead” is haunted by famous former companions (the late intellectuals Edward Said and Susan Sontag), while the grieving widow of “Allesverloren ” (or “All Is Lost”) seeks out her husband’s former lover to unearth a message from him. The daughter of “A Beneficiary,” meanwhile, finds an unsettling letter among the effects of her late mother, an actress. Cultural inheritance shadows the marriage of a Hungarian couple that emigrates to South Africa in “Alternate Endings: Second Sense,” and also the son of “A Frivolous Woman,” who resents his flamboyant German-Jewish émigré mother’s easy adaptability. Again and again, Gordimer puts big, sweeping disasters (the Holocaust, apartheid) in the pasts of flawed, ill-equipped characters and shows how their choices have been little more than wing beats against history. The results are terrifying, sometimes acidly funny and often beautiful. (Dec.)