Saturday, December 27, 2008

Desert and desire become one

Review of The Imposter, Damon Galgut, Penguin

This is a quiet, powerful story, a novel trimmed of excess, where every word means what it should. A handful of characters dominate the terrain of The Impostor, set in a small, sleepy Karoo town. This is a pared down novel, running at just over 200 pages and yet huge in impact. It draws you in from the moment you begin, and keeps you mesmerised. Quietly. There is no gore; there are, seemingly, no cliffhangers.

And yet, peer beneath the surface and Galgut exposes the gore inherent in all our lives. This is a novel steeped in the realities of life in South Africa today, with its edge of corruption, its contradictions and its searing beauty against complex realities. “The guards and the thieves were the same people – there’s South Africa in a nutshell,” says a character halfway through the story.

It opens on the day that Adam Napier drives into a sleepy Karoo town. He’s going to take up residence in the abandoned home that his wealthier brother Gavin bought some years ago. On the way there he is stopped by a traffic cop for running a stop street and is outraged when he’s asked to pay a bribe to ensure the fine goes away. But Adam won’t pay, he’s just lost his job and his home, one of the reasons he’s moving into this abandoned house. The scene sets the tone, revealing Adam as an upright and somewhat indignant man. It’s only one of the traits that will set him apart in a country and a place where it’s sometimes just so much easier to pay a bribe.

Adam, who once published a book of poems as a young man, is determined to begin writing poetry again after 20 years of silence and working in a faceless corporation. Forced out by affirmative action, injury is added because he didn’t see it coming, that the young black junior was being groomed to replace him. Choosing to spend the first night in the house, even before the electricity and water have been turned on, Adam experiences the first of many strange nights, with only his thoughts for company and a yearning to again write the poetry that just won’t come.

His neighbour is a silent man in blue overalls and with steely grey hair, a man nearing old age. The first sighting is accompanied by a look that does not lead to an introduction, but the quiet shutting of doors. Adam’s life carries on, quiet days followed by quiet nights, with only his own thoughts and regrets for company. Then one day he bumps into Canning at a local shop. Canning, left money by the father he hated, inherited a game farm, Gondwana, just outside town.

Adam will spend the first of many weekends there, drinking toxic blue cocktails and admiring Canning’s black wife, Baby. Canning reveres Adam from their boarding school days, although Adam can barely remember him. But Adam returns again and again, drawn by desire for Baby.

Events move slowly, inevitably to a climax. Things are not what they seem at Gondwana, and changes are afoot. Canning will benefit from this new South Africa … and not just by acquiring a desirable black wife. Part of the beauty and power of this novel lies in Galgut’s finely-tuned use of language. The Karoo comes alive under his pen, a stark harsh Karoo baking in the sun, full of spiky plants and hard, tough earth. Dialogue is carefully pared down and measured. There are no superfluous pages of conversation, and Galgut has an ear for South African idiom and expression.

As Adam tries to makes sense of the changes that will befall the game farm and all their lives, he is taken on a helicopter ride with Canning. “It comes to him that time is the great distorting lens. Up close, human life is a catalogue of pain and power, but when enough time has gone past, everything ceases to matter. Nothing that people do to each other will carry any moral charge eventually. History is just like the ground down there: something neutral and observable, a pattern, a shape.”

With The Impostor Damon Galgut once more firmly establishes himself as a writer of immense and strange power. A writer who can carry the mettle of greatness without a wobble.

(Published in The Star Tonight, May 2008)

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