A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When Adam moves into the abandoned house on the dusty edge of town, he is hoping to recover from the loss of his job and his home in the city. But when he meets Canning – a shadowy figure from his childhood – and Canning’s enigmatic and beautiful wife, a sinister new chapter in his life begins …
I have to admit from the start that I am a serious fan of Damon Galgut’s writing. I fell utterly in love with it when I read his novel, The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. The fact that it didn’t win is something of an indictment on the judges as it was the best of the list, by some considerable way. He was robbed. In my opinion. So it’s a delight to be able to review The Impostor for Vulpes, which incidentally has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa region) for Best Book.
It’s also a delight at last to have an example of literary fiction that is (gasp!) readable. Eminently so. It’s an added astonishment that Galgut writes from a political South African perspective but possesses the enviable gift of making the novel first and foremost about people, a gift which unfortunately other literary writers who have a political interest utterly fail to do (witness my two earlier reviews of books for Vulpes here and here).
As a main character, Adam is very sympathetic. He’s a young man in the middle of a personal crisis who finds himself out of his comfort zone, in a strange town, a strange house and with strange acquaintances. As such, he becomes our guide in an unfamiliar world, and there’s a constant echo of edginess as he makes his way over a new emotional landscape:
In the daytime he was a rational and sceptical man and he didn’t believe in presences. But now, at night, with strange walls enclosing him and a strange roof creaking overhead, a lot of things seemed possible. It was as if another person, from another time, was buried under his skin. This person was squatting by a fire, with a vast darkness pressing in.
Always in this book there’s a wonderful sense of the fragility of being human, and the overwhelming powers of nature and history that are ranged against us, which I loved. The only thing that rather irritated me about Adam is that he is – at least in part – a poet, or a would-be one. And I do find it annoying when authors write about characters who are themselves writers. It smacks suspiciously of laziness and literary incest. Can’t they do research on another type of profession? I therefore admit to being surprised when the magnificent Galgut does it. I hope he doesn’t do it again. But if he does, then perhaps he should do a little more research into the poetry world: having a poetry book that sells a few hundred copies is actually something of a success, not the failure it’s marked down as here. Harrumph. Still, as I’ve said before, even Homer nods … And at least Adam doesn’t end the novel as a famous and successful poet – anything but indeed. Frankly, that would have been way too much for my no doubt bitter and twisted soul to bear. However the unhappy creative decision to make Adam a poet was in some way eased by this wonderful and succinct throw-away comment:
Canning’s father liked to shoot animals, of course, which is a pity; but it could’ve been his way of fixing that essential Beauty in place. Perhaps not so different to a poem, when you came down to it: just another kind of shooting.
Well said indeed. Anyway, the main character’s poetic career is only one small slip, and meaningless really when compared to the range of good things on offer in this novel. Because Galgut’s writing manages to be both subtly lyrical and accessible. As well as precise and punchy. It draws you at once into the world he creates, both in terms of emotion and setting. For instance, consider this when Adam is exploring his new house:
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.
Who but Galgut can make a practical description of an empty house also stand as a political description of the country it’s in? There are aspects of this novel that are simply deliciously dark, as if you’d opened a box of Lindor chocolates and were lucky enough not to have to share them with anyone. For instance I particularly enjoyed the shadowy figure of Canning and the way he both manipulates and hero-worships Adam, whilst at the same time remaining obsessed with his hatred of his dead father, the vast inherited estate he lives in and his oddly distant marriage. The fact that Adam cannot even remember him clearly from school is all too human and adds an essential note of relationship imbalance and suspense to the plot.
I also found the following passage all too true, especially in terms of the dangerously narrow focus of my own writing and increasingly middle-aged life:
He had started to dislike people younger than himself, wrapped in clothes and styles and values that he didn’t understand. He was turning into the kind of person he’d always dreaded becoming: small-minded, focused relentlessly on himself. He foresaw an old age of tiny obsessions as his body gave in, bit by bit, and his sense of tragedy shrank to the scale of his own life.
Hmm yes, how frighteningly near the bone that feels, I can tell you. I’m sure I was a much nicer person in my twenties … Ah well. Anyway, Galgut is certainly a writer who makes you think, and deeply. On top of all that, he is also acutely skilled at describing how time feels when you’re in a state of depression:
It happened more and more that whole days disappeared behind him without trace, measured in the atomic drift of dust, the creeping progress of branches as they stretched towards the sun. And the sun itself, in its vast stellar motion, became a blotch of light that moved imperceptibly across the wall. He watched the light move. Or he saw a fig fall from a tree, and it fell and fell without ever hitting the ground.
But it is in making the political personal that Galgut excels. Adam is confused by the new South Africa, and his role in it. Through Canning, he meets several movers and shakers of the local political world, but each of these encounters is described purely through means of the human interactions, as well as the uncertainty and simple bemusement that Adam experiences. Here he is musing on Canning’s lifestyle:
The supporting cast is numerous and nameless. Everywhere in the background there are servants dressed in khaki. They are the guards at the gate, the labourers in the fields, the workers repairing fences. They are, he understands, the community of people from Nuwe Hoop, at the gate to the farm. Outside the fence they are individual in their poverty, but inside, in their generic pale uniforms, they are like a single entity, a chorus without a voice. Closer to the centre, there is Ezekiel and Grace, for some reason the only two servants allowed to work in the echoing, empty lodge and the surrounding buildings. They have names and a dim past, which trails behind them when they walk, though their lines are few and indistinct. In the middle of the stage there is Canning and his wife, with their cryptic dialogue, their mysterious exits and entrances. They seem to have usurped the main roles by accident, like understudies suddenly thrust into the spotlight. His own part in this is as yet obscure.
Because of this novel, I felt I understood a hell of a lot more about the human dynamics of a foreign country than I ever would from a hundred treatises.
I also think Galgut treats sex very sensibly and well. It made me extremely happy as a reader to see that Adam’s first sexual encounter with the enigmatic “Baby” is not in fact described at all. Bliss. All you see is the moment when Adam makes that decision and how it impacts him afterwards. Yes. In this book, with this character, that is precisely what should happen. And I wish more authors had the courage to attempt it these days. During the affair, some later sexual encounters between the two are described, but only in terms that make sense to Adam and at key points when something else equally important is about to take place. Clever stuff.
What else can I say? Actually, pages more, simply about how good this book is, about how whole futures are seen to turn on almost insignificant moments, about how the awkwardness and imbalance of male friendship is almost painfully well described, about how Adam’s emotional journey is delicately and profoundly conveyed, about the cleverness of the plot, and that perfect and very powerful ending, and so on and so on – if I were allowed to run on in such a way, that is. But the bottom line is that this is a novel I can’t recommend highly enough by a writer of major importance. Because reading Galgut is, and I suspect always will be, a rare pleasure – he’s a writer I can trust. And a veritable jewel in the small but significant crown of good modern literary writers. It’s like getting into a ship in preparation for a long sea voyage (and believe me, I’m no sailor …) and then discovering that your captain is in fact Shackleton: you instantly know it’ll be a fascinating trip; you’ll discover a hell of a lot about the world and yourself; you’ll be changed for the better; and – most important of all – you’re 100% guaranteed to get back alive and kicking. Plus reading Galgut will be a lot warmer. What indeed could be more reassuring?
The Impostor by Damon Galgut (Atlantic Books, 2009), ISBN: 978 184354 7839
[Anne is much heartened that, in spite of her worst fears, it is true that some literary fiction is indeed classy. To discover a veritable Damon Galgut groupie, please click here.]