“Maybe the soul of South Africa wasn’t a poet; maybe it was a crooked property developer, obsessed with cheap fittings.”
South African Adam Napier’s life is a mess. He’s left youth behind, and in the new political landscape, he’s lost his job and then his house in Johannesburg. Adam’s younger brother, Cape Town property developer Gavin, who has a made a bundle on shady deals, invites Adam to stay, and then offers him a job.
There was an irony in this. Until just a few years ago, Adam had been the staid, dependable, predictable one, while Gavin was financially straitened and directionless. Now they seemed to have changed places. But their history went back further and deeper than that and it didn’t take Adam long to sense that Gavin was using his weakened state to try and settle some obscure moral score.
Adam turns away from Gavin’s offer sensing, quite correctly, that the job will involve moral compromise and submitting to his brother’s patronage. Rejecting a lucrative career as a carpetbagger, Adam impulsively decides he’s “after something else.” He wants to return to writing poetry–he’d published a book of poetry years earlier; “he saw his way forward clearly in that moment.”
Somewhat surprisingly Gavin offers Adam the use of a dilapidated house he owns in the boonies. Adam accepts. At first he’s optimistic, but this mood is rapidly replaced by despair. Alone in this tiny, crude house, surrounded by hostile, tenuous weeds and a barren landscape, Adam’s mind implodes. He’s stuck in a special sort of hell where time has no meaning. “The world shrank very quickly to the size of the house,” and he is forced to face his failures:
He was trapped somewhere that was nowhere, in which the light was too blindingly stark, and in which it was always Sunday afternoon.
Adam deep in the slough of despair, meets two people: a neighbour, a white man, living in hiding, and waiting for his past to arrive. His incongruously neat garden appears to defy the laws of nature, and he makes some strange, tentative approaches to Adam. The second person Adam meets is Canning, a former schoolmate. While Adam has no memory of Canning whatsoever, Canning refers to an incident which he claims ‘saved’ his life.
Canning is a very wealthy man, and he invites Adam to his home, Gondwana, a vast inherited game farm. Adam is stunned by its beauty:
They make a sharp turn, and then everything is different. A cleft opens in the side of the mountains, a long sward of green that glows brilliantly against the dark stone. There is the smell and feel of water. And then the sight of it–a flickering glimpse of a river through trees. The vegetation is vivid and dense, rising in vertical waves. It is shocking, all this verdant profusion, after the epic emptiness they’ve been driving through. It’s like a tropical island that has been towed in from somewhere else and moored incongruously here.
At first the meeting with Canning appears to offer Adam a lifeline. He is a frequent guest at Gondwana, enjoying the luxuries of a life he could not afford, and he meets Canning’s black wife: an emotionless cipher named Baby. She seems to have little in common with her husband–although Canning was clearly smitten enough to abandon his first wife and children for Baby. Every artist needs a muse, and unfortunately Adam is strangely attracted to Baby in a very self-destructive way.
While Adam left Cape Town to avoid the pursuit of money and its corrupting tentacles, ironically, he finds himself embroiled in an even bigger mess with Canning. Canning is a weak man, haunted and twisted by hatred for his father. Weak men don’t make direct strikes; they go for the underhanded choice and then quibble and whine about it later, and that’s exactly what happens with Canning.
I’ve read a few Damon Galgut novels and this is my favorite so far. His novels present these moral dilemmas: idealism vs. pragmatism, idealism vs. survival, but even beyond that, as a writer somehow the moral quagmires of Galgut’s plots draw the reader in to the labyrinthine of our darkest motivations. Who is the impostor here? At one point Adam, ashamed of his squalid home gives his neighbour’s address as his own–a minuscule decision which has monumental ramifications both literally and morally. In this novel, no one is what they seem, they are all impostors on some level or another. But perhaps Adam, idealistic Adam, is the worst impostor of all.
This book will make my best-of-year list.