From Life Times: Stories 1952–2007
Note: In order to adequately discuss the way this story works, it is necessary to divulge essential details about the story’s plot. If you would rather not be privy to such details prior to reading the story, do not continue below.
Stories, unlike novels, deal in moments. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer compares human experience to “the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of – the present moment.” In many (if not most) short stories, the significant moment involves a change – an action, a decision, or a realization that alters the life of the story’s protagonist, subtly or otherwise.
The significant moment in Gordimer’s story may appear to be the moment at which a hunting rifle owned by the protagonist, a white South African landowner named Marais Van der Vyver, accidentally discharges, killing a young black farmhand. Surely this kind of death – whether accidental or otherwise – is one of the most potent possible moments in anyone’s life. But Gordimer is a subtle writer, and it’s not precisely the young farmhand’s demise that she insists we pay attention to, although this is the incident that lies at the heart of her brief story. However, it must be assumed that writers choose their titles with great care, and in this case, Gordimer’s title prompts us to consider another moment: the moment before the gun went off.
Here’s what we are told of that moment. Van der Vyver is driving the truck that he takes on his hunting expeditions, and the black farmhand is in the back, leaning over the hood of the cab. The gun is perched against the seat beside Van der Vyver, pointing upward. Gordimer writes:
The moment before the gun went off was a moment of high excitement shared through the roof of the cab, as the bullet was to pass, between the young black man outside and the white farmer inside the vehicle. There were such moments, without explanation, between them, although often around the farm the farmer would pass the young man without returning a greeting, as if he did not recognise him. When the bullet went off what Van der Vyver saw was the kudu stumble in fright at the report and gallop away. Then he heard the thud behind him, and past the window saw the young man fall out of the vehicle. He was sure he had leapt up and toppled – in fright, like the buck. The farmer was almost laughing with relief, ready to tease, as he opened his door, it did not seem possible that a bullet passing through the roof could have done harm.
This paragraph conflates the two moments – that before the gun discharged and the effect of the discharge itself – but it is the former that is most important. Gordimer writes that the moment before the gun went off was one of “high excitement,” which is perhaps unexpected since there is nothing much happening in that moment. But the unspoken dialogue that passes between the white farmer and the black farmhand is not without precedent: we are told that other such moments occurred “without explanation,” although Van der Vyver frequently ignored the farmhand’s greetings around the farm.
All of this may seem passing strange, until one reaches the final line of the story, in which the true nature of the pair’s relationship is revealed: “The young black callously shot through the negligence of the white man was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.” Gordimer employs a (perhaps too) clever linguistic trick here: until the story’s final line, the unnamed farmhand had been referred to as Van der Vyver’s “boy,” which is typical of the way South African whites would refer to black workers on their estates. But the revelation that the hand is actually Van der Vyver’s son has a retroactive effect on the entire story – once a reader understands this relationship, all the little details Gordimer has sprinkled throughout the previous four pages suddenly come clear, and the story’s meaning changes.
In the story’s early stages Van der Vyver’s overriding concern is the way the incident will be portrayed in the media. Van der Vyver is a politician who is in charge of the local security contingent, and he is fully aware that the international focus will be on a wealthy, politically influential white Afrikaner’s involvement in the death of a poor black labourer, something he considers “will fit exactly their version of South Africa,” something that will “be another piece of evidence in their truth about the country.”
Gordimer’s story is inseparable from its setting – apartheid-era South Africa – and all the racial tension that setting implies. The volume in which “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” first appeared, Jump and Other Stories, was published in 1991, when apartheid was still very much a fact of life in South Africa, and the institutional racism that was part and parcel of the official policy is at the forefront of Gordimer’s mind here. “Bad enough to have killed a man,” Van der Vyver ponders, “without helping the party’s, the government’s, the country’s enemies, as well.” Van der Vyver’s own racism is contained in his musings about the changes that are already spreading throughout South African society: “[N]othing the government can do will appease the agitators and the whites who encourage them. Nothing satisfies them, in the cities: blacks can sit and drink in white hotels, now, the Immorality Act has gone, blacks can sleep with whites … It’s not even a crime any more.”
The idea that whites and blacks sleeping together is “not even a crime any more” obviously contains irony aplenty in the face of the story’s final revelation about the dead black man’s identity and highlights Van der Vyver’s essential hypocrisy. At the boy’s funeral, we are told that his mother “can’t be more than in her late thirties,” which heavily implies that she was underage when Van der Vyver impregnated her. Although the story does not clarify whether their relationship was consensual (we are given to understand that it was), there is clearly questionable morality at work here. And denial on Van der Vyver’s part, which is all the more distressing in the face of his derisive observation that the dead man’s “young wife is pregnant (of course).”
The full import of this hypocrisy comes home to the reader in the story’s final line, which reverberates backward over everything that has gone before. And holds an ironic beam on the scene over the grave, in which Van der Vyver and the dead man’s mother “stare at the grave in communication like that between the black man outside and the white man inside the cab the moment before the gun went off.”