Damon Galgut — The Impostor

August 24, 2008 at 5:54 pm 5 comments

The Impostor is Damon Galgut’s fifth novel; and, like its predecessor, The Good Doctor (2003), it’s a dark, gripping, not-quite-real parable of the South African Karoo. But, for my money, it surpasses The Good Doctor emphatically.

The Impostor

Adam Napier is a down-and-out, a redundant office worker who moves to the country in the hope of writing poetry. But his quiet life is quickly turned upside-down by a chance meeting with Canning, a local landowner. Canning takes Adam under his wing, purporting to be his long-lost school friend — but Adam has no memory of him. Galgut struggles to keep this Father Ted plotline within the bounds of plausibility but (somehow) succeeds. Canning invites Adam to his enormous game park (a kind of Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs), where, it soon transpires, shady business deals are in the pipeline.

The world of The Impostor is one in which everyone (including Adam) is working towards the obliteration of history. Every character – the whole town, it seems – has a mysterious past they would like to forget. Canning even hopes to obliterate the landscape of his game park: it reminds him too much of his hated father. But, through a series of clever plot twists, Galgut hammers home a simple message: the past will come back to haunt you. What goes around comes around. South Africa as a nation may want to forget the past, but it’s not that easy. At the book’s dramatic finale, Adam faces a crossroads and a clear choice: will he risk his own life to protect someone else, despite their past crimes? Can a person ever have a right to a fresh start? Such questions are timely and important.

Galgut’s writing is strikingly minimal: description & dialogue & no frills; I’m sure he’d bag the John Smith’s Award for No Nonsense Prose. He gets away with it because, with only a few broad brush strokes, he paints a remarkably vivid supporting cast. Everyone who reads The Good Doctor remembers the Brigadier. The Impostor is packed with similarly memorable figures: Canning, whose inadequacies are hidden behind a cocky facade; Baby, Canning’s scheming wife, smothered in bright makeup like a doll; the Mayor, whose hyperactivity hides his corruptibility; and Blom, Adam’s paranoid neighbour, who communicates his mental anguish through metalwork sculptures. It’s a shame Adam himself is bland by comparison.

Galgut stands at a similar point in his career to that at which J.M. Coetzee stood when he wrote Life & Times of Michael K. Galgut deserves similar acclaim, and I hope his career follows the same stratospheric trajectory as that of the Nobel prizewinner to whom his style is so clearly indebted.

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Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Galgut Damon.

Alaa al Aswany — Chicago J. M. Coetzee — Diary of a Bad Year

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Self  |  September 18, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Hear hear. I thought this was a terrific book, strong despite being unshowy. “Not-quite-real” sums it up perfectly, and in fact I would have liked a little more uncertainty as the book proceeded.

    I now wish I’d remembered to put in my own review of it William Faulkner’s maxim:

    The past is not dead. It is not even past.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  September 18, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks John — it’s a real travesty the book didn’t get the attention it surely deserved from the Booker judges. And a tragedy that (unless Richard & Judy come along) there’s no other way this book is going to get promoted en masse…

  • 3. Rob  |  September 19, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    I’ve got this one waiting for me on the shelf… with every review I read, it gets a little closer to the right-hand side (nearest the sofa where I usually sit when I read).

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  September 20, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Indeed Rob — I’ve not yet seen a bad review of this one.

  • 5. John Self  |  September 23, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Well, a couple of people who commented on it on my blog didn’t think it was all that brilliant … but I don’t think they went so far as to actively dislike it.

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