By Damon Galgut
Atlantic Books £12.99, 320 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39
Strangers have a habit of suddenly pitching up in Damon Galgut’s books. At the start of his mesmerising new novel The Impostor, the stranger in question is a policeman who, “one hungry hand extended,” steps out from behind a tree to entrap the novel’s protagonist, Adam, in a minor traffic violation.
The setting, as in Galgut’s Booker shortlisted The Good Doctor, is the bleak South African hinterland where Adam is intent on a new life. But given the chance of bribing the policeman and moving on, he refuses. This stubborn decision could end up costing the impoverished Adam thousands of rand. And it raises a question that impinges on the readers’ consciousness throughout this spare, tautly written book: why doesn’t Adam pay? In the interstices of this mystery there unfolds a story that journeys to the very heart of the new South Africa.
Adam is a lost soul. A half-hearted idealist whose job has been taken by a black man and whose house was needlessly repossessed. He is one of South Africa’s losers, on the way down while his penniless brother, Gavin, is on the up. Having refused to work for Gavin, he agrees to occupy his brother’s unkempt house in the semi-desert of the Karoo. There, he decides, he will create “Beauty with a capital B” through poetry.
The town in which he arrives is an ugly place where the Christmas lights, although permanently on display, are only switched on at Christmas. It is peopled by old-fashioned racists or new style mystics surrounded, as they always were in the past, by the mass of the dispossessed. Only a new toll road, clean and big and blue, along which Adam cannot afford to travel, seems capable of looking forward.
The house Adam occupies is full of ghosts. It is enclosed by the weeds his mysterious neighbour, the frightened blue man, Blom, has conquered but with which the lethargic Adam can never quite get to grips. His poetry, his Beauty, similarly evades him – until, that is, he runs into a former schoolfriend, Canning, who invites him out to the game farm he has unexpectedly inherited from his tyrannical father. There Adam does find his Beauty, not in poetry but in the shape of Canning’s fascinating green-eyed, black-skinned wife. Almost against his will, he is sucked into the couple’s marriage, becoming Canning’s confidante and witness to the Oedipal revenge that he plans to wreak on the land his father had loved.
Among the many layers of this ominously compulsive world – a world where the active make good and the passive are lost – everything is misnamed. Just as the new political order in the form of the town’s oddly ineffectual black mayor has re-christened the town, so does Adam’s neighbour sit uneasily in his frightened disguise. Meanwhile Canning calls Adam by his hated, bed-wetting school nickname, Nappy, though Adam can never quite bring himself to call Canning by his first name Kenneth. Canning’s wife, Beauty, has chosen for herself her descriptive Christian name.
Each of these false notes insinuates itself through the medium of Galgut’s understated style, delivered without the slightest fuss. The prose is, in fact, so unadorned it sometimes verges on the pedestrian – “The place was old”, for example, “and many different acts might have happened in this room”. Yet the deliberate plainness of the language is what gives this novel its menacing power. As the narrative moves through a world that is unrelentingly on the take, the reader sinks down into its miasma of unmet hope. Not one impostor, but many, each of them trying to move on from the past.
The past is the refrain that runs through this book, in darkness and confusion. Adam can never quite place Canning in his history, whereas Canning holds tight to what Adam once did for him. Everybody seems to share a similar duality – the guards and the thieves are the same people. Only the eyes in the woods, and the eyes in the bedroom, that belong to servants “past their time”, remain as they always were.
History, the novel tells us, even its worst atrocities, will eventually cease to be of importance. Yet without even a hint of hectoring, Galgut has made that history matter. The result, The Impostor, is a masterclass in good writing where the things that are being related and the manner in which they are related are perfectly entwined.
If the dénouement is a trifle rushed – consigned to unimportance like nothing else is in this gem of a book – then the hypnotic power of Galgut’s storytelling soon makes us forgive him.
So why did Adam not pay the policeman’s bribe? The answer: Because. Because of the world that Damon Galgut has conjured up. That contradictory, dazzling, infuriating place that is South Africa and Galgut its chronicler, every bit its equal.
Gillian Slovo’s next novel ‘Black Orchids’ will be published in November