Damon Galgut: The Impostor

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.

The Impostor

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 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.


  1. With a review like that, how can one resist going out and buying the book?! I find your “bleached” comment interesting – a very good way to describe the spareness of Coetzee’s work. I wonder how much has to do with the South African landscape itself informing the work of these writers?

  2. Ooh yesh! I’m looking forward to this one … Might read it this coming weekend. I thought much of The Quarry was superb, although overall very flawed.

    I read Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist last week (had to read it before the Best of the Bookers thingymajig). Took me a wee while to get into it for sure but, you know, I absolutely loved it at the end.

    Next time you have a long train journey, John, take it and finish it. You’ll thank me, I promise!

  3. I received a letter from my Dad just this morning in which he too recommended this John. How can I ignore both of you?! Very interesting review, I’m not up on my South African writing at all so I think it’s high time I got started.

  4. This book does sound good, I have not read Galgut before but I will be interested to compare it to my experience of Coetzee and Gordimer.

  5. Thanks everyone. Now I’m slightly worried that I’ve oversold it! All I can say is that I really enjoyed reading it last week, and when I went back to it over the last couple of days to write the post above, it had actually gone up in my estimation. Do post your thoughts here if you read it.

    William, I’m very impressed that your father still writes letters! All I get are text messages from mine…

  6. You definitely made me want to read the book. But it’s unavailable – at least for now. Unfortunately, here in America I sometimes have to wait quite a while before even the best books from the UK come out. Some years even, not every book on the Booker longlist comes out. And last year, I had to wait until December for two of the six shortlisted books to come here (Darkmans and Animals People), and I’m sure they only came because of the shortlist. I think I should move further upstate so I can cross over to Canada to partake, especially if you’re about to embark on the longlist when it comes available!

  7. Well in theory I suppose you could order these books from Amazon UK, Trevor, and have them shipped internationally – but that would be costly, particularly with two dollars to the pound. I see that The Impostor is published in a month in the US, so you won’t have long to wait.

    Mark, two points:

    1. Well done on making the top 100 in the Independent/Hospital Club media list!

    2. I have in fact a long train journey coming up later this week, followed by a week away. Naturally all my thoughts are toward what I shall take with me to read! Gordimer notwithstanding, I’m thinking of a few long books which I know I’ll never get around to otherwise, like Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati or Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Decisions, decisions!

  8. Great review! You have quite successfully aroused my interest in Galgut. The only South African writer I’ve read a lot is Coetzee, but he’s dry, humourless and way too heavy for me. I would like to take a shot at your new recommendation.

  9. I like South African literature although it can be a bit hit and miss at times (Gordimer is a miss for me). I liked Gulgut’s ‘The Good Doctor’ though and would be keen to check this new one out. It reminded me of ‘Anil’s Ghost’ (Ondaatje) in some ways, perhaps just the atmosphere or tone. Have you read any Andre Brink? he probably my favourite S.A. novelist – the landscape always seems to work like an additional character in his writing and leaves you with such a strong sense of place.

  10. That’s the spirit, Mrinal and chartroose! Hope you enjoy it.

    Jem, I haven’t read any Brink. I did consider his latest novella The Blue Door, but it was something like £12 for about 100 pages and I’ve been bitten like that before. I’d be interested in your recommendations from his other stuff though.

  11. I hate big price tags on short books. I sometimes think it would be great to pay per weight, but then who would buy ‘Darkmans’!

    My favourite Brink was ‘An Instant in the Wind’, but most recently I read ‘The Other Side of Silence’ which was stunning if terribly bleak.

  12. I thought I would get ahead with my Booker Longlist reading and so I picked
    up this one and the Tim Winton at the airport and read them both a couple of weeks back. Oh well. How I wish I had gone for the Sebastian Barry instead.
    This was a book that I wanted to really enjoy but had to settle for slightly less. I had previously read The Good Doctor and enjoyed it and I was hoping this offering would be something special.
    I am afraid that I did become a little pre-occupied with a minor detail from the opening pages of the book. Within the short first chapter we do not learn
    an awful lot about Gavin, but Damon does point out that he has a moustache no less that three times. Moving on to the second chapter and two pages in there is ‘the smug little moustache’ again. It must be a metaphor for the type of money-dominated, property-developing person that Gavin represents. And now I could not wait for Gavin to re-appear and for us to be re-introduced to this wondrous snor, this dazzling schnurrbart. But when he returns there is no further mention. Has the dippy, other-worldly Charmaine insisted that he shave it off? Does it really matter? Not sure but it would be nice to know.
    Another trivial observation concerning the character of Baby. I felt that I had met her before. The trophy wife who indulges herself by asking you to paint her nails. South African version of Bunny in The Big Lebowski?
    But in general I just found the story line too far-fetched with the level of Canning’s infatuation and the scale his development master plan.

  13. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it Andy – I didn’t notice the amazing disappearing facial furniture myself. And I thought Baby was a bit more complex than Bunny! I agree that the storyline was far-fetched but that was one of the things I liked about it – right from the moment Canning and Adam meet, you’re never entirely sure if all this is really happening: not quite on the scale of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, but something from that angle. I remember a critic making a similar observation about The Good Doctor.

  14. Finished this last night and was a little disappointed. I just felt I’d read all this before, to be honest – the clash between past and present, the dubious nature of progress in the new South Africa, the dual characters and the soul-searching over identity and history. It all seemed terribly bleak by the end, and I’m not quite sure things are quite so awful over there. Galgut explored it with ‘The Good Doctor’ very well, which itself seemed very close to Coetze’s work.

    Maybe it was finishing Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives’ last week that made ‘The Imposter’ look so weak. Bolano was mentioned before in Asylum and I have to say that novel makes everything else I’ve read in a long time look pretty threadbare. It’s a masterpiece.

    I’ve now moved on to Aleksander Hemon’s new novel ‘The Lazarus Project’ which, so far, is very good too.

  15. I can imagine how Galgut could look a little … pale-blooded (to coin a phrase) beside Bolano, though that’s just from skimming the latter and reading about it. The publisher sent me a copy in hardback in May last year before I’d ever heard of him, but it never arrived for some reason, which I viewed with equanimity at the time given its length. Perhaps time to invest in the paperback.

    I read The Lazarus Project last month before going on holiday but haven’t written about it (yet) as I didn’t feel I got a complete grasp of it. That is, I absolutely loved the 1908 sections, and felt the modern day chapters paled somewhat in comparison, but in the end (unforgiveably) rushed the second half in order to get it finished before I went on hols! I think I will need to reread it before I can commit thoughts to screen, but I look forward to hearing what you make of it in the meantime, gavin.

  16. I’m not terribly familiar myself, Max. All I know is that he died recently but his books are only now being translated into English. There was a collection of stories, Last Evenings on Earth, and the aforesaid Savage Detectives. I’d read that the latter was very impressive but rather uneven, though gavin might disagree (and would have the benefit of actually having read the book to support his view). His last book, I think, is called 2666 and will be published in English next year. It’s a rather alarming 1,100 pages long.

  17. Thanks John.

    1,100 pages? Given I’m still working through the 3,000 page A Dance to the Music of Time, that might have to wait a while. I’m already rather regretting having bought Vikram Chandra’s 947 page Sacred Games which looks interesting but which it will not be easy to find the time for.

    By the time I get to it, I fear it will have turned from contemporary to historical fiction.

  18. Any clue why this was left off the longlist? It seemed like such a shoo-in.

    I suppose with Portillo in charge there were always going to be a few surprises…

  19. I have no idea Jonathan. As soon as I read The Impostor I, like you, thought it was a dead cert. Its exclusion is, to me, unfathomable and speaks poorly of the judges. But not as poorly as some of the books they did include. See elsewhere on my blog for posts on all the Booker longlist titles (last couple to go up over the next few days). I’ll never make that mistake again.

  20. A much-belated thanks for the bigging-up of this marvellous novel, fully justified. Exactly the kind of book that works for me: sinister, unsettling, elusive, dreamlike, weirdly compelling. It has an internal logic all of its own that works beautifully (mention has already been made of Ishiguro) and draws up its own interlocking parameters that are perfectly calibrated. Pitch-perfect, often hilarious exchanges of imperceptible dialogue, if only it had been longer…but it works wonderfully well as it stands. A genuinely great novel.

  21. Thanks Lee; yes, a wonderful book for all the reasons you state. I must say I am intrigued (I think that’s the word) by the garish – one might even say bling – paperback cover which Atlantic have given it in the UK. I have incorporated this into the body of the post above.

  22. Odd cover. Interesting that it should consider ‘Baby’ to be the focal point, if that’s what it’s attempting to convey, one can never tell…it doesn’t work for me at all. It looks like a kind of Maeve Binchy meets diluted espionage/dubiously bandwagon-hopped third world politically wishy-washy sex-fest ‘thing’. John Le Carre meets Jilly Cooper. Completely inappropriate, in other words. For what it’s worth, I would’ve quite liked a worn, warped school photograph with two faces blanked out. The cover on mine, which heads up your review, is pretty good.

  23. Yeah, I, like Jem, lurve South African literature. It seems to go where, dare I say, novels by English writers refuse to go. I’m just totally fascinated by the total honesty of writers like Gordimer, Christopher Hope, and of course, Coetzee and now Galgut, whom I stumbled by accident. With The Imposter, I like the fact you are not quite sure, whether Galgut is actually critisising the new admin in SA and/or concerned about how future of the ‘white man’ will be in this new political dispensation. Before reading white South African literature, I was of the opinion that white writers could not propertly depict black characters, but how wrong I was!

  24. I read the Good Doctor a couple of years ago and found its rather cool prose intriguing. I’ve just finished `The Imposter’ and thought it was brilliant. In fact I read it in two days it was so compelling. I think the description of his style as `bleached’ is an apt one. There ‘s a simplicity and clarity to the writing and yet there are deeper meanings echoing in the simplest phrases. I found in particular the description of his tentative encounters with his neighbour Blum both touching and menacing. I’m not sure if his books are rereadable because they are about atmosphere which I don’t think can be repeated a second time. I’ve only read one Coetzee his style did remind me a little of him but I found Galgut a more humane and sympathetic writer. I don’t know if you have ever come across Another Country by Karel Schoeman. This is by an Africaans writer and as far as I know not much of his work has been translated. I found the Picador edition of this book by chance and it turned out to be one of the greatest novels I’ve read – up there in the top ten (Madame Bovary being number one!). It’s a very simple story set in the 1890’s about a man with TB who goes back to Bloemfontein to die. It’s sounds depressing but it’s not in fact and it’s a most beautifully written . ( I’ve just looked on the back of the copy and there’s a quotation from Coetzee who talks about Schoeman’s ” superlative art”.)

  25. Mary, that’s quite a recommendation! I’ve ordered a used copy of Another Country (I recall fondly James Baldwin’s novel of the same name). That is just the twelfth book I’ve bought this year, so it had better live up to it! 😉

  26. Thanks for that Mary as ‘bleached’ is most definitely the ‘apt’ word to describe Galgut’s work. I’ve just finished reading Small Circle of Beings and other stories by Galgut, and again the stories are brilliant and the style as usual, what I would describe as either sparse or spare but I think bleached is more appropriate.

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