Galgut delivers the goods

Mail & Guardian reviewers take a look at new fiction releases

The Impostor
Damon Galgut (Penguin)

Jane Rosenthal
Damon Galgut’s last novel, The Good Doctor, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. His new novel, easily as good, is set in some nameless dorp within easy reach of Port Elizabeth, which conforms to the usual pattern of such places with a farmer’s co-op and a coloured/black woongebied (location). Like most dorps these days it has a black mayor and developers sniffing around for opportunities to make money while promising to provide jobs and upliftment — a familiar scenario.

It also has some old and semi-derelict houses on the outskirts of town, with large gardens and windpumps to irrigate fruit trees and vegetables. It is to one of these modest little houses that Adam Napier retreats when he suffers the indignity of giving up his comfortable job to a young black intern — a man whom he has personally trained to oust him. Such are the ironies of life in South Africa. As Adam himself says near the end of the book, he is learning what it is like not to have power.

The storyline is fairly plain, but has a complicating and unexpected twist in the tail, an uncomfortable fold in the plot. Initially it seems stark and pared down to a fault, but soon enough Galgut reveals that on this apparently straightforward story of a few months in a man’s life he has hung a complex investigation of corruption and revenge in the political dimension and integrity and good faith in the personal zone.

When Adam finds himself unexpectedly caught up in the wheels of transformation, he begins a slow slide into poverty and depression. It is his brother, a self-employed and rather dodgy developer-builder, who gives him the use of this little house on the outskirts of the dorp. Here he is supposed to write some poetry and get rid of a sea of weeds that is lapping at the steps of the back stoep. He has a solitary male neighbour in a similar house next door, but they do not speak and after weeks of intense solitude Adam is quite grateful to bump into an old acquaintance in the co-op. This is Canning who claims to have been greatly helped and influenced by Adam at school.

Throughout this novel a question hovers in the reader’s mind: Who is the impostor? Adam feels himself to be in a false position with Canning, the man he has re-met in the co-op. But Canning, though he offers a sort of seemingly guileless affection and hospitality to Adam, is deep in the mire of revenge and corruption. His beautiful unspoiled game farm outside town is to be turned into a golf estate. This enterprise is not so much to make, as to launder, money for some big wig in organised crime — but Canning will get rich enough in the process. Others involved are nouveau riche investors, some dangerous criminals, and officials of local and provincial government who have the power to affect the outcome of the environmental impact assessment.

Galgut parades the full catastrophe of this scheme, including the “previously disadvantaged” now employed as semi-military guards and menial workers in a recently built housing scheme called Nuwe Hoop. The booms and the bulldozers are there too.

Adam manages to survive his solitude and depression in his little house; too disaffected even to notice the interesting jumble of humanity in the dorp — not mentioned in the novel — he devotes himself to poetry, the weeds and going out to Canning’s place at weekends.

When he eventually discovers what is afoot there, he is righteously disgusted. But by then he himself has become implicated, both knowingly and unwittingly, in the mesh of this golf- estate project. To extricate himself he will have to pay a strange and shocking price.

The man in the house next door, like Canning and Napier, is not entirely what he seems. In fact the only character whose intentions are simple and clear is Canning’s wife, who calls herself “Baby”. A former sex worker, she is still using her favours to climb the ladder of security with ruthless simplicity and her own sort of integrity.

Galgut has fashioned a new version of the story of Adam and Eve, as it is through Eve (Baby) that Adam has lost his innocence forever and is banished from that primeval paradise now transformed into a golf estate. It’s rather a dry little joke, if indeed it is a joke, but Galgut’s allegory makes some telling points while he delves into the nature of human existence.

For me the enduring image from the book is of the two little houses on the edge of the dorp, both sheltering impostors, with the dogs of war from both the old and new regimes lurking outside. In the end it is a cool and discomforting read, but interesting.

A Carrion Death
Michael Stanley (Headline)

Barbara Ludman
A Carrion Death is a crime novel set in Botswana, but it couldn’t be more different from Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful series featuring Mma Ramotswe. Retired academics Stanley Trollip (Minnesota) and Michael Sears (Wits) have woven diamond mines, sinister businessmen, dodgy politicians, Angolan hit men, a beautiful, amoral and ambitious woman and several corpses into a novel that at least one reviewer has compared to a Wilbur Smith epic.

The manager of a game lodge on the edge of the Kalahari is showing an ecologist around the area when they stumble on the remains of a body largely consumed by hyenas. Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana CID is sent to investigate. His nickname comes from his supposed resemblance to a hippo; like Mma Ramotswe, he’s traditionally built — and more so. He’s an engaging character, the best in the book: the product of a posh private school, he recalls days on the cricket pitch, distrusts his boss and sings along to opera CDs on his drives into the bush.

This trek, to examine the corpse, he considers a wasted journey — there’s very little left of the body for identification. However, the trail leads to a connection with the Hofmeyr family business, the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company. When Bengu’s old school friend Angus Hofmeyr goes missing in the sea off Plettenberg Bay soon after handing control of the company to his sister, Bengu takes a hard look at the family firm.

Trollip and Sears are longtime buddies who dreamed up the book while sitting around a campfire in the bush one evening. For those who are slightly put off by the need for a glossary defining words like “Afrikaans” and “koppie”, as well as the use of the word “witchdoctor”, there’s a reason why the book was published abroad: the authors told an interviewer that the South African publishers they contacted either ignored the manuscript or rejected it. But an American agent picked it up and made an easy sale — Botswana is the flavour of the decade for African crime novels. There’s another on the way from the Trollip/Sears team, also featuring Bengu.

Breath
Tim Winton (Picador)

Jane Rosenthal
Breath is a strange and beautiful novel. Much of it is about surfing, and it is set on the Western Australian coast where there is sufficient forest to sustain a small sawmilling town.

The story goes about two boys growing up in this conservative backwater, Loonie, the neglected son of the local pub owner, and Pike, the only offspring of a gently loving sawmill worker and wife. Their friendship is rooted in comradeship and competition. Simple as this may sound, this tale, narrated in the first person by Pike, the less daring but more graceful surfer of the two, is full of warmth and strength. They start off by holding their breath underwater in the river, hanging on to tree roots, developing useful lung capacity — which surfers need for the times they are dumped and then tumbled along the seabed.

They are soon drawn to the sea and the first time they watch surfers Pike reflects: “I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.”

Full of magnificent descriptions of the sea, it is also about the grace and daring needed to test the limits of existence as they take on the huge waves. It’s also extremely tough, even bleak, on the limitations of love and friendship. And it touches lightly on sons and their fathers, both biological and those adopted as mentors.

A few times in the novel an Australian expression crops up: “bet you wouldn’t be dead for quids” — something you say when someone is really happy. But for some, and Winton examines this in some detail, flirting with death enhances life. Unsurprisingly, Pike and Loonie are “half in love with easeful death” and they find that the lure of the waves and the high rush of the risk can be addictive.

They find mentors in a couple, Eva and Sando, living in a wooden house in the forest. “Hippy warrior” veterans of surf and ski, this couple let the boys hang around, feed them, take them surfing at ever more dangerous places and are a powerful influence. How things turn out between the four of them is the subplot to the grander theme of the ocean and daring to dance on its fringes. That there’s more to life than surfing is quietly indicated by the falling apart of Loonie and Pike’s friendship, the hurts of Sando and Eva’s marriage and a look at what an early addiction to adrenaline can do to one in later life.

Tim Winton was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2002 for his novel Dirt Music. His take on humanity is wry but gentle and amazed. The teenage Pike, goofing off in a cemetery with his girlfriend, recounts “… for the first time in my life I began to feel, plain as gravity, that not only was life short, but there had been so much of it.”

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