Tag Archives: South African fiction

The Imposter: Damon Galgut

“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.” 

the imposter

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. 



Filed under Fiction, Galgut Damon

The Sludge of Time & Damon Galgut’s The Imposter

Here I am reading Damon Galgut’s The Imposter and I came across this passage. It’s a story of Adam, a white South African man in crisis mode, who lost his job and his house, who decides to pick back up writing the poetry he dropped 2 decades earlier. Adam’s younger brother sees him as a charity case and suggests that Adam move out into the boonies and take up residence in a dilapidated house bought years earlier. Surely, with oodles of time on his hand Adam will start churning out some epic verse…? But no, the time weighs heavily and instead of Adam getting lots done, he accomplishes zero… well at least so far.  I’m not done with the book yet, so perhaps things will look up for Adam.

But here’s a great passage about how a lack of demands can have detrimental results, and this quote seemed pertinent to the times:

“In just a few week he had lapsed into inertia. It was very hot; a massive weight of sun pressed down on everything. The light at noon cut human faces to the bone. The effort required, even for simple daily tasks, could seem too much.

He spent hours and hours entirely on his own. In his old life, in the city, everything had been arranged around particular points in the day. Now those points had gone. Not long after he’d arrived he had taken off his wrist-watch and left it somewhere, intending to pick it up later. But there had never been a reason to pick it up.

Time changed shape. Now he could sit and ponder something for what seemed like a moment, but when he came back to himself, several hours had gone by. 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.”


Filed under Fiction, Galgut Damon

The Good Doctor: Damon Galgut

In Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, set in post-apartheid South Africa, two doctors, one high on idealism, and the other opting to bury himself in a dead-end job, both end up in the same ramshackle rural hospital. Who is the ‘Good Doctor’ here? Idealistic, young Dr Laurence Waters whose arrival sets off an uneasy chain of events or the narrator, burned-out middle-aged Frank Eloff, who prefers the status quo–even if that means years spent avoiding his estranged wife and the promising career expected of him?

The good doctor

When Laurence Waters arrives he’s clearly shocked by the state of the small rural hospital. and according to Frank, who’s been stuck in a self-imposed stalled career, it isn’t a “real hospital.” The nearest town in an hour away, and that’s where the “real hospital is,” the one where “people go when they’re sick.”

And then you arrived and you saw. Maybe the first clue was a disturbing detail; a crack that ran through an otherwise pristine wall, or a set of broken windows in an office you passed. Or the fact that the fountain was dry and full of old sand at the bottom.

Frank expects Laurence’s initial “bewilderment.” He’s seen it so many times before whenever new doctors arrive.

So the bewilderment that Laurence Waters felt wasn’t unusual. I’d been through it myself. And so I knew that the feeling would pass. In a week or two, the bewilderment would give way to something else: frustration maybe, or resentment, anger. And then that would turn into resignation. And after a couple of months Laurence would be suffering through his sentence here, like the rest of us, or else plotting a way to get out.

But Laurence’s emotional state doesn’t quite form as Frank predicts. Laurence and Frank share a room together, and Frank is at first resentful at the intrusion but then finds that he enjoys the company. Soon, however, Laurence begins a programme to take medical care to the locals, and this shifts the delicate status quo within the hospital and the community.  The narrator realises, uncomfortably, that “Laurence’s involvement and effort showed up a lack in me.”

As the novel explores Laurence’s idealistic attempts to alter the hospital and the community, the plot raises several moral questions. Is idealism harmful or even practical? How much moral compromise is acceptable?

The plot introduces some extraordinary secondary characters: Frank’s father, an aging celebrity doctor who thinks he can fix the world (as he used to do) with a chat with the right people, and Laurence’s American do-gooder girlfriend whose specious intentions are revealed when she meets a vicious dictator and treats him like some sort of rockstar.

The novel is at its strongest when showing the unacceptable worlds that Frank lives in. There’s a moment when he visits his father who is a living remnant of the old order:

Betty carried the brown, limp leaves from the mantelpiece to the door.



“You’re dropping petals, Betty. All over the place, Please, please…”

And the old lady in the nice blue uniform set the dying flowers down and got on to her knees. She started crawling across the floor, picking up bits of flowers as she went.

“There, Betty, my father murmured, pointing patiently, … there … another one there…”

While I sipped the sour coffee, hearing the rim of the china cup clink against my teeth.

This scene brings up the silent question: how does a white man used to apartheid fit into this ‘new’ still unstable South Africa? Frank has a sexual relationship with a local black woman and yet what is their connection? Is she his sex partner, his girlfriend, or is she a prostitute who asks for money? This is a stunning example of how Frank cannot penetrate black culture–how he remains an outsider, no matter what he does.

For this reader the novel was weakest in its portrayal of Laurence–a character who didn’t quite gel for me. He didn’t seem real–almost a caricature of an idealistic young man who is basically clueless and does more harm than good, and since he is a main character, this is unfortunate. Still I’ll remember this book for its troubling, complex moral landscape and some terrific secondary characters.


Filed under Fiction, Galgut Damon

In the Garden of the Fugitives: Ceridwen Dovey

“If the person you want can never be yours, what else is there to do but learn to be alone?”

Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives is an epistolary novel between a wealthy dying American man and a 39-year-old woman who originally hailed from South Africa but now lives in Australia. It’s been 17 years since they last had contact, and now the relationship is re-awakened by the imminent death of 70 year-old Royce. Royce’s compulsion to write to Vita is fueled by an admitted “craven need for absolution.” For her part, Vita acknowledges that Royce is “one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me.” It would seem that the novel’s focus will be what occurred between them, and while that’s true, that aspect of the novel is overshadowed by their individual pasts. At first the letters are packed with recrimination and vitriol on Vita’s side while Royce takes a position of humility. Soon the correspondence slips into two narratives with both characters wrestling with demons of guilt, regret and obsession, but this is also a novel about power: the power of youth and beauty, the power of money, the power of class and race, and the power to do whatever it takes to get what you want.

So how did these two seemingly disparate characters establish a relationship in the first place? Vita’s family (her father was an activist) left South Africa and moved to Australia. Vita attended university in Boston and very quickly latched onto a desire to be a documentary filmmaker. This goal seemed within her grasp when she won a Lushington Foundation fellowship. This is how she met Royce. The Fellowship was his to give, and it was founded in memory of Kitty Lushington a woman he loved and followed to Pompeii. She died in an accident on Vesuvius.

In the garden of the fugitives

As the exchanges unfold, the two correspondents may occasionally answer some issue in a previous letter (actually long e-mails, but don’t let that put you off), but mostly they tell their own stories. Royce’s story is painful, and also unreliable. As for Vita: she struggles with identity, displacement, guilt, a stalled career, and finally an obsession. Where did her documentary film making career go? We know she lives in the small town of Mudgee working on an olive farm. What went wrong?

As we try to nail down the truth of exactly what happened to both of these people, the book is, at times, a slippery read. Royce admits:

We can fill in each other’s gaps and somewhere between us may lie the truth of ourselves. Our memories are always imperfect, Kitty used to say. We have to leave ourselves clues-photos, scrapbooks, journals–or our very own pasts become inaccessible, though we lived through every moment. What hope, then, of deciphering somebody else’s past, let alone the history of an ancient civilization.

We follow Royce as he recalls, through his letters, how he tagged along to Pompeii, puppylike at Kitty’s heels. At first he professes that it’s enough to just be in her presence, but later, he hopes to catch her when, and if, she falls from another relationship. Through Royce’s letters, we see the ephemeral Kitty obsess on the plants found in Pompeii’s Garden of the Fugitives, and underlying the archaeological aspects of the novel is a delicate thread concerning the dangers of placing our own narratives onto others. We also begin to see why Royce was attracted to Vita in the first place as there are definite similarities between the two women, and it would seem that Royce who lost Kitty, perhaps hopes that he found someone to replace her.

While Royce’s letters are packed with details about Pompeii, Vita’s letters are full of details of her attempts to make documentaries. Vita’s films say more about her life than she realises, and while she films landscapes and various processes of production, she struggles with putting people into her films. Vita’s struggles ultimately reveal how the male-female dynamic enters her career:

In a class on feminism my second year at college, the teaching assistant a woman in her mid-forties, had asked all us peachy-faced girls in her study section if we’d ever felt discriminated against as women. Not a single one of us put up a hand, and we refrained defiantly, with a hit of swagger: things had changed, the world belonged to us, we had always been treated as equals.

The assistant, who had been raised in a commune set up in permanent protest outside a weapons factory in Sweden, looked at us sadly. “Mark my words,” she said, “the doors will start to slam shut in your faces the day you are no longer considered youthful. Only then will you see how misguided you were to equate being young and female with being empowered. You may turn  your back on feminism now, think you don’t need it, but by god you’ll need to once you start to age. The opportunities you thought were based on merit will dry up just as you do.”

I’d looked around the classroom and seen on the faces of my fellow female students no alarm, nothing but the pity  I too was feeling for her. We all believed that her prediction was the product of personal disappointment and we felt safe in the conviction that for us it would be different.

The archaeological details about Pompeii were fascinating, but I didn’t quite connect with the massive national guilt felt by Vita (perhaps you have to be South African to understand), but Vita’s feelings of displacement, “caught between identities,” were powerfully conveyed. Vita’s displacement, which was buried when she lived in America, floats to the surface when she returns to South Africa and she finds herself “still outside the country looking in” despite being incorporated into a white South African family who’ve managed to morph with the new political reality.

This is not a fast read and requires patience as the stories unfold. I mentioned in the first paragraph that this is a story about guilt, obsession, and regret, but it’s power that connects Royce and Vita–he has the money, the position, the influence, but she also has power which she has yet to understand. The thread concerning the power of placing our own narratives on to other people (easy to do when they are dead), is amplified through the stories of the dead at Pompeii, but it’s also a potential hazard when making documentaries which include human narratives. In one scene, two female student filmmakers naively film a BDSM segment in which the subject subverts their power and control, but conversely, there’s a scene in which Vita hesitates to place a black worker in the frame when making a film about wine-making. On some level, I suspect, she understands that making a film in which workers feature steals a certain power from her subjects. They participate, but do they choose to participate? And interestingly Vita’s relationships all seem to pivot on power.

This is an exquisitely written, cerebral, intelligent novel, bitter-sweet in its exploration of how we discover truths about ourselves when it’s often too late.

Review copy


Filed under Dovey Ceridwen, Fiction

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.

Just one quote from Damon Galgut’s superb novel, In a Strange Room. This 3-part story is ostensibly about 3 journeys taken by a South African character named…Damon, but it’s also about relationships and impermanence with parallels drawn between journeys taken and relationships endured. For my full review go to Mostly Fiction. I’m pimping the book here because it’s so very, very good. (Disclaimer: copy from publisher) I really can’t praise this book enough for the way in which the author concentrates on distances between people who are cast together in journeys–two of which are as hellish as the relationships between the characters.

For another take on the book (equally positive) go visit Kevin, and if, like me, you’re curious about Galgut’s other work, go here to Charles Lambert’s blog. 

In a Strange Room is, by the way, a Booker Prize loser.


Filed under Fiction, Galgut Damon