I've intended to write about Nadine Gordimer's very short story "Loot" for years, ever since I first read it in The New Yorker, and for some reason I actually thought I had written a post here about it. I recommended the story to a friend a few days ago and intended to include a link to my post about the story when, after a bit of searching, I realized I'd never written the post. Now I will fix that mistake.
From the first sentence, "Loot" is a story about time and history, about legends and imagination. "Once upon our time," it tells us, there was a Great Event -- the greatest earthquake every recorded, the greatest of all measured "apocalyptic warnings". Not only is it a Great Event (indeed, the Greatest of such events), but it is ours: we possess it.
The second paragraph details the effects of this greatest event of ours. Most giant earthquakes at sea produce floods and tsunamis, but not ours -- our special earthquake does exactly the opposite, causing the sea to pull back and reveal all it had hidden beneath it in the "most secret level of our world". (From our world the sea steals things, hides them.) The list of revealed items is egalitarian both in type and era: ballroom candalabra and toilet bowls, barnacled swords and Kalashnikovs, automatic dishwashers and baptismal fonts, wrecked ships and aircraft and tourist buses.
The narrator tells us that "it is given that time does not, never did, exist down here where the materiality of the past and present as they lie has no chronological order, all is one, all is nothing -- or all is possessible at once." Time and class don't matter at the bottom of the ocean, where all these items are equally useless -- all can be possessed because none have value or cost -- but the revelation of them to human eyes inspires assessment and desire. Value is born, apparently with no cost.
And so people "rushed to take; take, take." Look at the punctuation there: semi-colon, comma comma. The first take is the initial desire to own, the curiosity of wondering what an item might be worth, but with the initial possession comes pure desire, the need to quickly grab as much as possible just for the sake of possessing, the madness of brute avarice. People's justifications follow, but anything can be justified.
The nonhuman world doesn't understand ("gasping sea-plants gaped at them") and the people do not notice that all that is here are inanimate objects. The water took the fish back, leaving only the things. These people, deformed by desire, are no longer natural. Their allegiance is not to the living or the dead, but to that which never lived.
Possession and desire give them comfort -- these are people whose houses and livelihoods have been destroyed by the earthquake, people who have been made helpless by nature, but they can forget that in the bounty and the mad, blind, unappeasable ache of their yearning.
Obsessive greed blinds them, and the sea returns and swallows them up into its indifferent equality, making the people the equal of the things they so coveted.
But this is just the first section of the story. It is, the narrator tells us, "what is known" from what was reported by witnesses and journalists. It is what was turned into a story, legend even. The second part changes the focus from the objective to the personal, from wide-angle to zoom.
The narrator gives us this transition as a particular sort of knowledge: "But the writer knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination."
We move from fantastic facts to fantastic fantasy, two sorts of knowledge, one a general sort and one the sort known only by a particular type of person: the writer.
Interestingly, the next paragraph, admittedly written, begins like a tale told: "Now listen..." The writer takes on a persona and pretends to be wielding words made of air, not print; words that appeal to ears, not eyes. The writer pretends to be telling an old tale, to be using the mode of the oral storytellers, but it is a tale for our time. We are given a character, a man who has desired a specific object his entire life, but he does not know what the object is. This differentiates him from the people who went to the sea-bed in search not of something but of anything. He wants something, but in its mystery it could be anything.
He has things in his house, some of which he appreciates and some of which he doesn't. Most notably, there is the print of Hokusai's "Great Wave" behind his bed, which "if it had been on the wall facing him it might have been more than part of the furnishings". His bed is not the sea-bed, the wave is but a representation of a wave.
He is a man full of time: retired, living in an old house above the sea. He has escaped the excitement of his earlier days. He is content, but that contentment and quiet is shattered by the earthquake, the Great Event: "the sight from his lookout of what could never have happened, never ever have been vouchsafed, is a kind of command." The reality of the impossible impels him to join humanity again, to join them on the sea-bed, to search, again, for all he desires. Quality and value are gone ("detritus=treasure") when the past is stripped bare.
He wants one thing, not anything, and so he is different from the other looters and holds nothing in his hands until finally he finds his object, which the narrator tells us in parentheses and with a question mark might be a mirror. Something to look at himself with. "It's as if the impossible is true... It could be revealed only by something that had never happened..." What he sought could only be revealed by fantasy.
He finally has what he wants, and just then the wave returns, linked by the narrator's words to the Hokusai print: art enters reality and claims a victim, dragging the man and his precious possession down to timeless, meaningless death. He is complete now, finally, and outside history.
The next paragraph tells us that this man was not anonymous: he was known "in the former regime circles in the capital". Along with his corpses are other corpses, old and new, including "those dropped from planes during the dictatorship" -- anonymous, forgotten, unrecognized, hidden by "the accomplice of the sea". The sea is not the disinterested creature of a nature separate from humanity; it is, or has been, also a tool used by humans to support their power.
"No carnation or rose floats." No symbol of love or mourning, no sign of the living who care for the dead. The old regime is gone, but the waters still do their job. Neither oceans nor dictators memorialize what they hide, destroy, devour. Is the people's avarice so awful it deserves such punishment? Is the old man's sin worse than the dictator's? The members of the old regime still live in the capital, still pass news back and forth, but the old man has left the realm of the human, our world and our time.
The New Yorker version of the story ends here, but the version in Gordimer's eponymous collection adds one more sentence, one that for the second time echoes Shakespeare's Tempest: "Full fathom five" (cf. "sea-change of the writer's imagination" above). Shakespeare's old man gave up his magic powers of control and creation and rejoined humanity. Gordimer's old man's fate is, perhaps, more bitter.
The old man and all the other drowned desirers are now rich, strangely so, turned into objects, preserved outside of time, unremembered and unknown by anyone beyond the sea-nymphs, those creatures of fantasy and imagination.