South African writer Damon Galgut first grabbed the attention of British readers a few years ago with his grimly gripping tale of thwarted idealism, The Good Doctor. Poised somewhere between a thriller and a parable, and written in a ruthlessly pared-down style, the novel took a scalpel to the ideals of post-apartheid South Africa, exposing a world of corruption and rapacity behind the talk of ‘new dawns’ and ‘reconciliation’. The book was shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize and won a string of other awards. Its success was taken as a portent that a new generation of South African novelists was emerging, one that would topple the old guard of Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and André Brink.
Five years later, South Africa is still waiting for its new generation. But Galgut has ploughed on and, in The Impostor, has produced a novel that is every bit the equal of its predecessor. Perhaps wisely, Galgut hasn’t strayed too far from the template that he established last time. The plot is once again fast-paced and breathless; the action again takes place in a remote community (although this time a lifeless town in the Karoo, not a hospital). And the story again centres on an awkward friendship between two very different white men – one a passive, ironic observer of the society that is crystallising, the other an optimistic schemer who believes he can refashion that society in his own image.
Adam Napier is a timid fortysomething who has come to the Karoo in the hope of writing poetry. Having slogged for years in an office in Johannesburg, he was recently sacked to make way for a black intern, a victim of ‘Africanisation’. He tells himself that his attempt to write poetry is a positive move, a return to his ‘true calling’. But others, such as his go-getting property developer brother Gavin, suspect it is an act of desperation.
Adam begins his rural vigil by cleaning out the house and avoiding the neighbours. Then, out shopping one day, he bumps into a strange, ungainly man who claims to know him. He is called Canning and he identifies Adam by his nickname at school – ‘Nappy’. Canning tells Adam that they went to school together and were close friends. ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment. I knew it would come, sooner or later,’ he announces, portentously. Adam, perhaps implausibly, has no recollection of Canning, but for want of anything better to do he accepts his invitation to dinner. He discovers that his old school friend has inherited a vast game reserve outside the town, where he lives with his sexy black wife, Baby. Adam takes to spending weekends with the couple and it isn’t long before he becomes thoroughly entangled – in every sense – in their lives.
Canning is a memorable creation, a sort of African Gatsby, but without the glamour. An odd combination of infantile dreamer and corrupt businessman, he has a formless, ‘smudged’ quality that Galgut nicely captures. Adam is not the only person who fails to recognise him; even his business partners don’t seem to know who he is. Yet he is overseeing an outlandish – and environmentally destructive – scheme to overhaul the game reserve that will make him obscenely rich. Canning’s attitude to Adam is similarly blurred: on the one hand, he regards his old friend with puppyish sentimentality, describing him as ‘my hero’; on the other, he sets Adam up as the fall guy of his property machinations – with lethal consequences.
The Impostor is written in clean, efficient prose that clearly owes something to Coetzee. Galgut has a knack for the image that cuts to the quick of a character. At a party, Adam sees Canning slouching drunkenly against the wall, looking as if he is ‘propping up the building’; a famous golfer, who takes Adam for a ride in his helicopter, ‘appears to power the engine with his own self-regard’.
This is also a novel that works on several levels. In one sense, it is a conventional crime caper, the story of an innocent man who gets sucked into a world that he doesn’t understand. In another, it is a critique of contemporary South Africa, a country that, as Galgut depicts it, is beset by cruelty and a spirit of brutish materialism. Early in the novel, while staying with his brother, Adam wonders which of them better represents the ‘soul of the country’: himself, the poet, or Gavin, the ‘crooked property developer, obsessed with cheap fittings’. Galgut’s unequivocal answer is the latter.
But there is a third level on which the novel works, that of the fable or parable. There is, as has been noted before, something about Galgut’s fiction that ultimately evades interpretation. It has a dreamlike quality; his plots seem propelled by a logic of their own. In his superb short story ‘An African Sermon’, the protagonist, an idealistic preacher, is forced to conclude of the bizarre sequence of events that he has witnessed: ‘There was no clear moral theme, no uplifting lesson to be learned. There were only shadowy motives and more questions, one behind the other, receding back into the darkness.’ These words could be applied to this novel, and, indeed, to all Galgut’s work.
The new South Africa has not delivered everything that it might have. Adam, who greeted its arrival with joy, has lost his job, while his home in a neighbourhood that once bubbled with multicultural grooviness has since become a slum, has been repossessed. In a moment of condescension, Adam’s boorish brother offers him the use of a rundown house in a small town on the edge of the savannah. Adam wants escape and fertile ground to write poetry. Instead he enters a soulless town inhabited by fugitives more desperate than himself: a strange neighbour who craves company, and Canning, an old schoolfriend whom Adam can barely remember. Galgut builds his novel into a study in dread as Canning’s dodgy dealings and troubled childhood surface and an eerie presence mutters dark thoughts. The action is compelling in itself, and Galgut handles it with brilliance, but The Imposter gives its drama weight by tying it to an angry commentary on modern South Africa, despairing at corrupt politicians, downtrodden “coloureds” and a landscape trampled underfoot.