I am posting this announcement from the Collection of Maps and Geospatial Information on their current exhibition.
Nadine Gordimer's novel moves through three distinct worlds. As presented in the staccato stream of the characters' consciousness these are sometimes destinations of hope, just as often, worlds rejected. All three worlds are strangely non-specific, each one stripped in varying degrees of the national characteristics we use to define places in the real world. Gordimer doesn't want her geography freighted with our preconceptions, and so constructs a geographic backdrop against which her characters, at turns rootless and yearning for roots, can play out their story. In doing so she leaves us with a difficult challenge: what maps can we display to enhance our understanding of the novel without adding more specificity than the author intended?
We begin in South Africa -- never named in the novel, but some offhand touches of description allow us to identify it. South Africa as nation is almost incidental. Its geography, although unique, is not defining; its bureaucracy could be any bureaucracy. The city, where Julie Summers and Abdu meet, could be any urban agglomeration in the developed world. Its streets could be any streets. We have enough to identify Johannesburg, although our initial identification is from an off-hand allusion to Soweto, Johannesburg's most well-known neighborhood. The rest is purposefully generic: "The Suburbs," or "The Northern Suburbs."
We've chosen maps that help American readers, perhaps unfamiliar with South Africa, orient themselves. Post-apartheid South Africa is only glimpsed in the novel, but we have displayed maps that provide some background for the history and the broad social forces at work in the city and the country. This world, once a hopeful destination for Abdu, rejects him. At the same time Julie discards it "rejects" is too strong a term. Both on different terms "go to another country."
That other country, even more anonymous and unspecified than South Africa, is Abdu/Ibrahim's homeland. Never named, the novel presents the country as little more than a cultural milieu and a physical geography. We see with compelling clarity the Islamic world and the Islamic family challenged by the twentieth century. We also experience the desert at the end of the village as a defining, transforming space. This space is one that Ibrahim has rejected, along with much of his culture, long before, in order to "go to another country," but it is this space which seduces Julie until she embraces it completely.
Ibrahim's homeland is not meant to be identified. Five different reviewers have confidently asserted five different countries, a testament to Gordimer's skill at presenting an Islamic country that is at once generic and convincing. We've decided to pretend that the country is Morocco. The "tomb of Sidi Yusuf" around which the place grew, according to Ibrahim, brings to mind the real tomb in Marrakesh and the environment of the Maghreb, where pilgrimages are made to tombs of Sufi holy men. Marrakesh, quite a large city, couldn?t be Ibrahim?s village, so we postulate a place like Erfoud, east of Marrakesh and on the edge of the Sahara. We have chosen maps to illustrate the many kinds of cartography that can represent a place like that, without insisting too strongly on the place itself.
The third world is the world of Ibrahim?s aspiration. Australia, Canada, Sweden, places where many like him hope to immigrate. We've used Geographic Information System (GIS) software to produce thematic maps of Detroit and Chicago -- the final(?) stops on Ibrahim's itinerary of escape.
We hope you find the maps interesting and useful adjuncts to enjoying The Pickup. Perhaps they will help you understand the state of mind which compels many, either in imagination or in reality, to "go to another country."