Damon Galgut is one of those authors who justifies the existence of literary prizes. Without its multiple shortlistings – Booker, Impac, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – few, at least in the UK, would have come across his fine 2003 novel The Good Doctor. Since then his backlist has been drip-fed to us, while he laboured over his next novel. Here it is at last, worth the wait, and perhaps the best new book I’ve read this year.
When reading The Impostor I began to think about the other South African novelists I have read: not a long list, probably beginning and ending with the big ones, Coetzee and Gordimer. I set to wondering why it is that their books – like Galgut’s – seem imbued with a dry, almost monochrome air, as though bleached by the harsh sun. Certainly Galgut is as somber as his Nobel-winning fellows. It might be something to do with South Africa being so freighted with significance in its modern history: the writer can be more spare, allow the reader’s knowledge to provide texture and, um, colour.
This, in fact, seems to be a central theme of The Impostor: how people respond to history. For Adam Napier, through whose eyes the story is told, the upheavals in South African society give rise to change in his own life: they were, after all, the reason for the loss of his job (“It was a deep, cold shock to discover that the young black intern he’d been training for the past six months was, in fact, being groomed to replace him. His boss had been apologetic, talking about racial quotas and telling him it was nothing personal. But how could it not be personal?”). He moves from Johannesburg to a rural area, where he takes over a tumbledown shack owned by his brother.
The air inside was dead and heavy, as if it had been breathed already. The furniture was a depressing mixture of old, clunky pieces interspersed with the tastelessly modern. The four rooms were functional and barren. There was no carpeting on the concrete floor, no picture on the walls, no softness anywhere. All of it was immured in a thick, brown pelt of dust. There was the distinct sense that time had been shut outside and was only now flowing in again behind them, through the open front door.
Here, Adam feels “the absence of history … there was only the land, rolling and vast and elemental.” He takes to writing – or planning – poetry, and solitude makes his mind “a little loose, a little displaced on its foundations.”
It wasn’t a bad feeling, to be sure – and that was the danger. You went a bit further and it felt okay, so you went a bit further still. This was how people lost track, the mental rivets popping out one by one. It crept up on you, the slow dereliction of the senses, till one day you were holed up in a ruin, beard all the way to your knees, defending your territory with a shotgun.
He is surprised one day, then, to be dragged back to reality by hearing himself addressed by an embarrassing schoolboy nickname, and to encounter Canning, an old schoolfriend whom Adam can’t remember. Galgut’s balance is superb in their opening scenes – the starting blocks of the story – where the reader is not always sure whether this is all really happening. (To add to the postmodern self-awareness, the author even appears as a set of initials carved into a school desk in Adam’s memory. “Who was DG and why are his initials haunting him now?”)
Canning lives with his wife Baby in an artificial nature reserve which he inherited from his father, and the palatial home he has built on it “is like an old colonial dream of refinement and exclusion, which should have vanished when the dreamer woke up.” His response to the freshly-minted history of South Africa is to view the point of change as an end rather than a beginning. “What I wouldn’t give to rewind to that time,” he says, ostensibly (and also) about his childhood. “Before we grew up and realised how complicated the world was.” Canning plans to exact a revenge on the past for letting him down, which will drag Adam into a very modern world of corporate greed and political corruption.
There is also a Greeneish thread in the book (the spirit of Greene often seems nearby when reading Galgut) of unsatisfying adultery, as Adam, Baby and Canning form the never simple ABC of a love triangle. Simultaneously, Adam is battling the new officious regulations of the region and struggling to find beauty in his poetry and also his garden, which resists his attempts to remove its own history:
He bends down and tears one of the little plants out. It comes away easily, a translucent filament topped with two bright leaves. It is months away from becoming the tough, thorny adversary he’s been dealing with. But it will: the future is encoded in its cells. Generations of seeds are lying dormant under the surface, waiting for his labours to release them. The very means of clearing the yard is what will fill it again.
If this seems to be hammering the point that ‘the past is not dead; it’s not even past’ then this is, for me, the book’s only weakness. Galgut never omits an opportunity to raise the spectre of history, and while it’s entirely satisfying – exciting, even – to see how he approaches it from many angles, and how everything is in the right place, at times I would have liked fewer authorial nudges. Similarly, if you’re going to write a book called The Impostor, where a key question for the reader is clearly going to be who or what in the novel that word can apply to, then don’t include a line like, “He is not the only one whose connection to Canning is built on lies; he is not the only impostor.”
But this is a minor quibble, and even these over-enthusiastic elements begin to fade as the surprisingly gripping (almost too gripping) plot takes hold, and reaches its terrible, inevitable but appropriate conclusion. Galgut can also pull out a just-so phrase when he feels like it: a line of mountains “stood out like a strip torn from the sky.” The Impostor is a magnificent achievement: feel free to picture me sighing and smiling in pleasure at the mere memory of it as I type this. It should outdo The Good Doctor in prize shortlists and might even win a few. History will be the judge of that.