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A Crime of Passion - The New York Times

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★CULTURE CLUB★CRIME TIME★

People like the Lindgards were safe and comfortable under de Klerk; under Mandela, they are, by and large, still safe and comfortable. Yet on a drowsy evening when one of their son's friends comes to the door -- ''Someone's been shot.

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He's arrested. The brutal and instantaneous transformation of their mood is one Americans can only too easily recognize. Duncan, 27, the Lindgards' only child, has been living with his girlfriend, Natalie, in the guest house of a residence shared by three gay men. Carl Jespersen, the oldest of the three, a Scandinavian roue with a vague background in filmmaking, has been shot dead.

Duncan has confessed to the murder and has already engaged a lawyer, Hamilton Motsamai. The murder appears to be a classic crime passionnel: Duncan, having found Carl and Natalie fornicating on the sofa in the main residence, has shot Carl with ''the house gun,'' which by unhappy accident had been left out on the coffee table.

Later Harald learns from Nkululeko Khulu Dladla, one of the two other housemates, that Duncan and Carl had briefly been lovers -- an idle dalliance for the older man; a poignant, exceptional affair for the younger.


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When Duncan found Carl with Natalie, he felt doubly humiliated, doubly mocked. The gun happened to be lying there. In the anguish and fury of the moment, he used it. The murder is not a political act, then, but this elegantly conceived, flawlessly executed novel surely is, for it arrives in the heat of a major South African debate. A nascent gun control movement has been arguing that the more guns there are in private hands, the more dangerous South Africa will become, while the entrenched South African gun culture invokes the country's staggering murder rate to come to just the opposite conclusion: the more guns, the less crime; let there be no house without its house gun.

Analogous to the gun control debate is the death penalty debate. Does capital punishment deter violence or does it, as an example of violence, teach what it would deter? While Duncan awaits trial, Harald goes, ''as if to a clandestine rendez-vous,'' to sessions of the Constitutional Court where the death penalty abolished in the South African Constitution is under review. Harald is obsessed with the debate because he wants one particular confessed murderer, his son, to live.

But whether they are considering defense or deterrence, Harald and Claudia only fleetingly ask what has made their country so violent in the first place. Americans, again, will read with a painful sense of recognition. South Africa, like the United States, has both the Netherlands and England in its cultural genealogy, but neither the Netherlands nor England is remotely as violent as the United States or South Africa.

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Is this because neither European country executes its criminals and both restrict citizen access to arms? Or is it because neither has a black population as large as the South African or the American? This is the racial question that haunts Gordimer's novel. She does not answer it by writing a work of fiction with a slogan buttoned to its lapel.

Her answer emerges as an inference -- possible, not necessary -- from two of her literary decisions. First, by portraying the murder of one white man by another, she reminds her readers that, even granting that race has played a key role in the genesis of South Africa's violence, this violence is by now intraracial as much as interracial. Whites in South Africa are by now acculturated to kill other whites at a higher rate than their cousins do in Europe.

Second, the fact that two blacks -- Hamilton Motsamai, Duncan's lawyer, and Khulu, his loyal friend -- bring a measure of peace into the ravaged Lindgard family suggests that blacks and whites are not chemical elements that must explode on contact. In other words, the roots of South African violence lie in the history of race relations rather than in the biology of race. Gordimer's guarded hope is that what history has done over time, history over time can also undo.

View all New York Times newsletters. Gordimer's more recent, post-apartheid fiction is no less political or more personal than the work that won her the Nobel Prize in Literature in Though she has been honored, and rightly so, for her political engagement, Gordimer has as a novelist the detachment to see that the human situation into which she has been born, whatever its morality, is one of enormous natural fascination and not infrequent comedy.

If she has not had, before now, the opportunity to portray a black lawyer -- a black establishment lawyer, a rich black establishment lawyer -- representing a guilty white defendant, nearly 50 years at her desk writing 11 novels and nine volumes of short stories have prepared her to make the most of the opportunity, now that it has come along.

Harald is taken aback at Duncan's choice of Motsamai: ''In the muck in which they are stewing now, where murder is done, old prejudices still writhe to the surface. Looking at the appointment of someone called Motsamai that way, he can find an answer within its context. Could be an advantage.

If there's one of the black judges on the bench. This is a novel that Johnnie Cochran could read with interest. Yet past the wittily, watchfully enacted first meeting between the murderer's parents and his lawyer, the material of their interaction is often made of other than racial stuff. For example, Claudia, a physician, does not enjoy being anybody's client: ''The advocate knows the accused's mother is accusing him: of being too measured.