The Conservationist is Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s sixth novel, published in 1974. When awarding literature’s highest honor to Gordimer in 1981, the committee specifically singled out this novel along with Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1981) as those more representative of her unique qualities as a gifted storyteller informed with a profound and sensitive awareness of the challenges faced by the oppressed. The novel itself earned Gordimer’s Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize.
Almost completely lacking in a traditional plot, The Conservationist is instead an analysis of the inherent and unsustainable racist policy of Apartheid personified into the life short narrative of the otherwise unremarkable white South African industrialist Mehring. The central character is South Africa in miniature: entitled and privileged despite knowing almost completely ignorant of everything around him. He has no understanding of the black laborers who run his farm and his knowledge of how to do the basic management on that farm pales in consideration to the black steward who manipulates himself mercilessly by hiding his own superior intellect whenever the boss is around. Mehring’s white wife, mistress and son are all fleeing South Africa, representing the slow but inevitable and inexorable march progression toward the loss of white minority rule and the collapse of Apartheid.
Like so much else of Gordimer’s work, The Conservationist faced a controversial path toward publication in South Africa. In fact, the original publication was delayed by ten weeks as the country’s official Board of Censorship made their determination on whether its citizens should be allowed to read the book or not. The Conservationist has since gone on to be recognized by many critics as the peak of her career as a novelist.