Tuesday, 27 March 2012

201 Days with Bizos (Part IV): My First Nobel Prize ... Winner

One day in mid January George calls me into his office.

"Are you busy this afternoon?" he asks.

"Not particularly."

"Would you like to come with me to visit a friend?"

"Yes.  May I ask who it is?"

"Have you heard of Nadine Gordimer?"

Nadine Gordimer, born in 1923, is a South African author whose writing focuses on moral and racial issues during apartheid. She is a life long political activist and joined the ANC party when it was banned by the apartheid government. 

She was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature when she was recognised as a woman 'who through her magnificent epic writing has been of very great benefit to humanity.'

"As a matter of fact, sir, I happen to have one of her novels in my backpack."  This is true.

"Bring it with you.  Maybe we can convince her to sign it."  He winks and smiles.

Sweet.  My first Nobel Prize winner.

We go for lunch at our usual spot - Bocaccio's - owned by a charming Greek couple.  George and the owners exchange a few words in Greek and they show him freshly picked (and oversized) tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden. After a delicious lunch (tremazzini for me - beef curry for him) a driver arrives to take us to Nadine Gordimer's house.

Her home is simple but charming much like George's. One of her helpers invites us in to where she is sitting. 

I am in the presence of two living legends.

"Nadine, this is one of our brightest young lawyers, Joseph."

"Pleased to meet you Joseph."

"It's such a ... It's very ... Ummm ... Privilege ... Honour ... I'm Joseph."

I look down at her coffee table and see Milan Kundera's L'identité
bookmarked. I tell her I read it a number of years ago when I studied French literature in university and ask what she thinks. She says it is her second time reading it and that "his writing style is just so interesting." Talking literature with a Nobel Prize in Literature winner. No big deal.

Her small stature is contrasted with a mental toughness that is made very clear over the course of the afternoon.

We settle in and she begins telling us about her upcoming novel No Time Like the Present. We even get a sneak preview of some of the pages. It is 2012 and this is her 14th novel. She is 88.

The two begin reminiscing about the past. They worked together on a number of initiatives during the struggle. There is a very clear and very touching mutual respect and admiration they have for one another.

I am awe-struck and silent. I remind myself where I am over and over again.

As we are about to leave, I quickly speak (perhaps for the first time since arriving).

"Miss Gordimer, would you please sign your book for me?"

Without really giving her a chance to answer, I reach into my back pack and take out a copy of July's People probably her most famous novel and the one that likely won her the Nobel Prize. When I learned I was going to South Africa the previous July, I decided to explore some South African literature. Nadine Gordimer's name came up more than once. So I bought her book. Little did I know then that I'd be sitting in her home just 6 months later.

She asks me for the spelling of my name and writes:

For Joseph Chedrawe

With best wishes
Nadine Gordimer

She then looks up at me and asks, "Do you like short stories?"

"Yes, Miss Gordimer."

She quickly shuffles into the next room and returns with a huge brick of a book. I look at the cover and see it is an anthology of short stories she has written between 1957 and 2007.

"May I give you this?"

My mother has always taught me that it is more polite to first refuse an offer of something - be it food, drink or gift - and then accept if the person offering insists.  But I could never even pretend to refuse a gift from Nadine Gordimer.

"How could I refuse!" I exclaim.  Mom would understand.

She signs it and hands it to me:

For Joseph

Nadine Gordimer

Hoping not to push my luck, I ask if it would be alright to take a photograph with her.

"Oh no, no, please. Not like this," she says, referring to her casual dress.

I am disappointed, but George quickly interjects, "Oh, come on Nadine, it's just so he can show his mother."

He puts his arm around her and stands ready for the photo. I join the photo and her daughter (who is visiting from her home in Italy where she is a teacher) snaps it. The light isn't very good and it's not zoomed enough and it might even be a little bit blurry. But I don't care. This is my photograph and it's special.  (Note that this is the first photograph I've added to any of my blog entries.  Score one for the technologically inept!)

As we walk towards the car, I say to George, "I feel like if I keep thanking you for all these wonderful experiences that it will come across as insincere and disingenuous. But thank you Mr Bizos."

"Well it's important that we share these opportunities with our young lawyers. Thank you for all of your help."

The driver takes me home.

"I'll see you tomorrow morning Joseph."

"See you tomorrow morning Mr Bizos."

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