The Impostor, By Damon Galgut

The past resurfaces in this poetic South African novel
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The Independent Culture

South African fiction frequently focuses on the nation's latitude of stark, sinister hinterlands. Set deep in the country's sun-cracked veldt, The Impostor, Damon Galgut's first novel since his 2003 Man Booker-shortlisted The Good Doctor, is a fine addition to this literary tradition. It is an unsettling story of self-deception and pinched opportunities. However, what sets this book apart is the clear, but never forced, binding of an unforgiving landscape to the social fractures within its grasp. The dramatic, geographic and political shards pieced together in this book all feel connected to "South Africa's big change".

Adam, the novel's protagonist, is a man in freefall. Having lost his job and home, he decamps from the city to his brother's country house. "He was sloughing off his previous life, like a skin that didn't fit him anymore." However, any hope of a bucolic idyll is quickly dashed. The surrounding terrain, which is "like the surface of some arid, airless planet", could wither a man's soul. An already claustrophobic atmosphere is heightened by a chance encounter with a peculiar man named Canning. Adam has no memory of him, even though this rich, flabby creature swears to the undying importance of their childhood bond. With the dubious help of an eastern European criminal, Canning is covertly shaping a nebulous business enterprise out of a big game park. Solitude soon seems a welcome alternative to the web of intrigue in which Adam finds himself entwined.

Alongside Galgut's poetic understanding for his country's striking landscape, is the deftness of his approach to the racial divisions and political manoeuvring that permeate the "new hope". We witness the moral corruption of apartheid discovering fresh, fertile turf. If Galgut's vision is to be believed, it's no surprise that the current South African administration has been wary of criticising Mugabe. Its own ethics sit on a well-entrenched fault line. The Impostor never shies away from the sad fact that while the crowds cheer Mandela in Trafalgar Square, his supposedly regenerated homeland remains a country in flux: still not reconciled to its past and woefully unsure of its future.