The Impostorby Damon Galgut
“Fast-paced and breathless . . . Canning is a memorable creation, a sort of African Gatsby, but without the glamour.” —William Skidelsky, The Observer
A powerful novel about contemporary South Africa, from the acclaimed, Man Booker Prize-short-listed author of The Good Doctor.
Damon Galgut is one of South Africa’s most exciting new literary voices. In The Impostor, his first novel since The Good Doctor, Galgut leads his readers into the developing heart of post-apartheid South Africa, a landscape being reshaped by new waves of money and power. Adam Napier leaves Johannesburg looking for a fresh start. Jobless and directionless, but with a head full of literary ambitions, he moves into his brother’s dilapidated house on the edge of a backwater town. One day he encounters Canning, a man who claims Adam saved his life in their school days, but whom Adam does not remember at all. But he plays along and, for a time, enjoys all that Canning has: a vast fortune and game preserve inherited from his father, and a beautiful, mysterious younger wife to whom Adam is compulsively, dangerously drawn.
A spellbinding achievement from one of the defining members of a new generation of African writers, The Impostor evokes a glittering world in which the moneyed old guard, newly empowered black Africans, and shady foreign businessmen jockey for a piece of the new South African dream.
“Galgut is a beautiful writer, and an important one. The Impostor is a real achievement, a political parable on an intimate scale.” —Colum McCann, author of Dancer and Zoli
“[Galgut] creates an antipastoral, postapartheid noir . . . At the heart of this tightly wound novel is a story of betrayal—within an individual, among friends and neighbors and within a society. With Adam, Galgut has created a transcendent loser, a contemporary cousin to Bellow’s magnificent Tommy.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Fast-paced and breathless . . . Canning is a memorable creation, a sort of African Gatsby, but without the glamour.” —William Skidelsky, The Observer
‘spare, hypnotic prose . . . [a] Dostoyevskian narrative about individual moral choices.” —Rachel Hoer, Literary Review
“[A] gripping tale of secrecy and obsession set in the African savannah.” —Melissa Katsoulis, The Sunday Telegraph
“Outstanding . . . a major writer worthy to be referred to as a kindred spirit of the great Coetzee.” —The Irish Times
The journey was almost over; they were nearly at their destination. There was a turn-off and nothing else in sight except a tree, a field of sheep and lines of heat rippling from the tar. Adam was supposed to stop, but he didn’t stop, or not completely. Nothing was coming, it was safe, what he did posed no danger to anybody.
When the cop stepped out from behind the tree, it was as if he’d materialized out of nowhere. He was clean and vertical and peremptory in his uniform, like an exclamation mark. He stood in the road with his hand held up and Adam pulled over. They looked at each other through the open window.
Adam said, “Oh, come on, you can’t be serious.”
The cop was a young man, wearing dark glasses. He gave the impression, in all this dust and sun, of being impossibly cool and composed. “There is a stop sign,” he told Adam. “You didn’t stop. The fine is one thousand rand.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of money.”
He smiled and shrugged. “Your driver’s licence, please.”
“Can’t you let it go? Just give me a warning or something?” He searched for the man’s eyes, but all he got was dark glass.
“I have to follow the rules, sir. Do you want me to break the rules?”
“Uh, well, it would be nice if you stretched them a bit.”
The man smiled again. “I could get into trouble for that, sir.” After a pause he added, “You would have to make it worth my while.”
“If you want me to break the rules, you have to make it worthwhile.”
It was spoken so casually, in such a conversational way, that Adam thought he’d misheard. But no: it had been said, exactly as he thought. He was stunned. He’d heard about this sort of thing, but he’d never had to deal with it himself. He sat rigidly behind the wheel, trying to think it through, his sense of time frozen in the vertical white light, while the man stalked around the car, looking at the headlamps, the tyres, the registration. When he got back to the window, the cop said, “And I notice your licence is out of date. That would be another thousand. So, what do you think? Let’s say . . . two hundred, and we can forget the whole thing.”
Adam was suddenly outraged. “No,” he said.
“Absolutely not. I’m not paying you one cent.”
The man shrugged again. The smile was still there, flickering faintly around his plump little mouth. “Your driver’s licence, please,” he said.
Adam managed to read the registration number of the cop’s car, which was parked behind the tree, as he pulled out, and he recited it to himself as he drove on. But he didn’t have a pen and paper to hand, and by the time he reached the next service station, a few kilometres further, he wasn’t sure any more whether the sequence of numbers was correct. Nevertheless, he wrote it down on a scrap of paper he got from the waitress in the tea-room adjoining the garage. He was repeating it, trying to match it to the memory in his head, when Gavin and Charmaine came in. They had pulled over when he was stopped and had watched the whole scene in the rear-view mirror. “What was all that about?” Gavin said.
“He wanted money. He just asked for it, straight out like that.”
Gavin snorted. “How much did you give him?”
“I didn’t give him anything.” Adam glanced anxiously at his brother. “What would you have done?”
“Well . . .” Gavin said, moustache twitching. “It’s a lot cheaper than the fine.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Okay, okay, whatever.” Gavin looked around. “I’ve got another problem. I’m wondering if we’re actually on the right road. I was pretty sure till the last turn-off. But all the road signs are mentioning some other place with a name I never heard of.”
“Ja, same place,” said the waitress, who happened to be passing. “Just the name’s changed. It’s because of the new mayor. He changed it a year ago. A lot of people are upset about it.”
“I bet they are,” Gavin said. “They’re doing it everywhere. Big waste of money. Now they’ve got to reprint all the maps.”
Adam only half-heard this conversation. His mind was still preoccupied with the cop. No threat had been made, yet the man felt somehow threatening. He stood like a dark gate-keeper at the door to Adam’s new life, blocking the path, one hungry hand extended.
As it happened, the town was only a kilometre or two further on. The road had been wandering aimlessly over the plain towards a distant line of mountains, as if trying to find a way across. But not far beyond the service station it went over a rise and on the other side was the town. It was built in a low valley, so that the landscape concealed it. There was a brief glimpse of a scattering of buildings, none more than a storey high, except for the church steeple, which rose like a strict, admonishing finger. On the far side of a river in the middle of the valley was the township, connected to the main town by a single concrete bridge. Across the top of a nearby hill the old name of the town had been spelled out in white stones, but somebody had started to rearrange them into the form of the new name and abandoned the job halfway through.
They turned off the road they were following and into the main street. The first and only stop was outside the church, where they pulled over. Some of Adam’s unease, which had lingered from the encounter with the traffic cop, seemed to find a focus there. The street, with its single supermarket and bank and butchery and post-office, its beauty salon and hotel and bottle store, clenched at his heart. Although it was the end of August, there were Christmas lights hanging tiredly on the streetlamps, still left over from last year. The road, which they had been following for so long, narrowed at its end on a vista of yellow scrub, in which a drunk man fell over, got up and staggered a few steps, then fell over again.
Gavin got out and came over. “Cheery, hey?”
“Well,” Adam said. “It is Sunday.”
Gavin blew through his moustache and shook his head. “Let’s go take a look at the house,” he said.
The house was a shock. It was out at the edge of the white town, where the roads were untarred and the ground sloped steeply upward to the rocky crest of a ridge. It was very bare and basic, with a slanted thatched roof. The windows had a blind, blank look to them. The paint was faded and peeling. The fence was overgrown with creeper, and the creeper had twined through the gate.
Gavin ripped at the creeper, clearing it. He was muttering to himself in a low, vehement voice, but he went silent as they stepped through onto an old slate path. The path ran through an orchard up to the front door, and the trees had grown out of control, their branches twisting and spreading. The slate was covered with a thick layer of rotting fruit, which gave off a haze of fermentation and flies. They picked their way, slipping and sliding, through fumes and a heady stink. Gavin took out a big iron key, which looked as if it should open a medieval monastery. But it slotted easily into the lock and twisted.
Adam let Gavin and Charmaine go ahead, as if they belonged here and he was the visitor. But as he stepped over the threshold he could feel the house pulling at him, drawing him in—claiming him. It was almost a physical sensation.
The air inside was dead and heavy, as if it had been breathed already. The furniture was a depressing mixture of old, clunky pieces interspersed with the tastelessly modern. The four rooms were functional and barren. There was no carpeting on the concrete floor, no picture on the walls, no softness anywhere. All of it was immured in a thick, brown pelt of dust. There was the distinct sense that time had been shut outside and was only now flowing in again behind them, through the open front door.
Gavin was furious. He stalked silently through the house, leaving his footprints marked out clearly on the floor. A bird had come in through the chimney and died and he pushed at it angrily with his toe.
“I warned you,” he said eventually.
“But I’ll admit, this is even worse than I thought. It’s pretty rough.”
“It’s okay,” Adam said bravely. “I’ll get it cleaned up.”
Charmaine had gone off on an exploration, opening doors, peering into cupboards. Now she came scurrying back, her voice low and breathless.
“There are presences here,” she said.
“I’m a little bit psychic,” she explained to Adam. “I can sense presences from the past. This house is full of them. It must be very old.”
Gavin sighed. “I don’t know how old it is,” he said gruffly. “There’s certainly a lot of dirt present.”
“When were you last here?” Adam said.
“Not sure. Years ago. Just after I bought it. To tell you the truth, I almost forgot that I own it. I don’t remember it very well, but I think it was in better shape than this. I only came here a couple of times.”
“What made you buy here?” It didn’t seem like the sort of place his brother would go for.
“God knows. It was very trendy at the time, having a little place in the Karoo. I think I had a girlfriend who wanted it. Dirt cheap, I can tell you that. Stress on dirt.”
“I sense an old woman,” Charmaine said. “Very old and very sad.”
“Jeez, babe. Give it a rest.”
“Mock if you want. But I do.”
“Oh, boy,” Gavin said. “Take a look at this.”
He had opened the back door out of the kitchen. There was a small cement stoep, from which steps led down, and then the yard stretched away. It was choked with tall brown weeds that had died long ago and set solidly in the baked ground. They were thorny, massed together into an impenetrable wall. For some reason, those weeds were overwhelming. All the neglect and abandonment took form in them. There was a tall windmill and concrete dam to one side, but they were diminished and eclipsed by the weeds.
The two brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, staring. A wind came up and hissed through the dry stalks.
“Mother of God,” Gavin said softly, “I feel so depressed.”
Some part of Adam was moving forward into the weeds. He had to shake his head, to clear it and return to where he was standing.
“Well,” Gavin said, clapping his hands together, trying to sound brisk. “We can’t stay here tonight, that’s for sure. Let’s go take a look at the hotel.”
“Oh,” Adam said, surprising himself, “I’ll stay here.”
They both blinked at him. ‘don’t be crazy,” Gavin said.
“I seriously think,” Charmaine said, “that you should do some sort of cleansing ritual first. Exorcize the place. I know somebody who could do it for you.”
Adam couldn’t speak; he only shook his head.
A spark jumped in Gavin’s eyes, but he spoke coolly, with a shrug. “Whatever,” he said. “You can do what you want, you’re an adult human being.”
Alone in the house as night fell, he didn’t know why he’d insisted on staying. The dust and disuse were everywhere. There was no power. He found an old candle in the kitchen cupboard, but the wavering puddle of light only amplified the darkness. The bare mattress was dirty and he couldn’t bring himself to lie down. The place was old and many different acts might have happened in these rooms. Murder and birth might have left their traces. In the daytime he was a rational and sceptical man and he didn’t believe in presences. But now, at night, with strange walls enclosing him and a strange roof creaking overhead, a lot of things seemed possible. It was as if another person, from another time, was buried under his skin. This person was squatting by a fire, with a vast darkness pressing in.
The branches of trees in the orchard rubbed against each other. Something splatted softly outside—a fruit, or a foot.
In the end he took a pillow and went out onto the back stoep. It was a little better here. A faint breeze moved over him, there was a brilliant frieze of stars overhead. On the far side of the valley he could see the lights of cars and trucks on the road bypassing the town, stitching back and forth with comforting indifference. There was a larger world out there.
He woke just before dawn, his face burning and swollen with mosquito bites. He had a sense of dark and troubling dreams receding back into himself like a tide. In the first light the mountains stood out like a strip torn from the sky. He sat up slowly and all of it returned to him: the unused rooms, the twisted trees, the weeds in the back yard.
Then, for the first time, he noticed the house next door. It entered his consciousness by degrees, like a photograph developing. It was a small house, in layout and shape almost exactly the same as Gavin’s—except that it was different in every other way. It was brightly painted and neat and immaculate. The garden at the back was green and clipped, ordered into regular lines. A huge amount of toil and effort had gone into maintaining the place; and at this moment Adam saw a small human figure, turning over the soil with a spade.
His next-door neighbour was an older white man, dressed in blue overalls. More than that couldn’t be seen at this distance, except for a general air of frenzy that the man gave off. He was hurling himself at the earth with dedication or fury, talking to himself, while a cigarette glowed redly in his mouth, like the light of an engine, but suddenly he became aware of Adam and he stopped work instantly, as if he’d been switched off. His stillness was almost unnatural.
Now the two of them looked at each other across the wire fence between them, while pretending they were not. There was no reason for them not to greet each other, or wave a hand, or nod, but neither did. It was as if they were waiting for something to happen. Then the man in blue dropped his spade and ran to his back door and went inside.
Adam was in a frightened, irritable mood when he walked down to the hotel a little later. This was a big, blockish building opposite the church, with an imposing, balustraded façade. In its proportions and design it resembled an old saloon in a western.
Gavin and Charmaine were at a table on the front balcony overlooking the street. A big man in an apron was serving them breakfast and Adam heard him say, as he came up, “It was the voice of God, speaking like I’m speaking to you now.”
“Amazing,” Charmaine said, shaking her head.
“This is my brother,” Gavin said. “Adam, this is Fanie Prinsloo.”
Everything about the big man was meaty. Even his face, with its dull, minimal expression, was like a slab of steak. But the movement with which he dried his fingertips on the apron was surprisingly delicate. He repeated his name significantly, as if it should mean something, as he shook hands with Adam.
“I believe you are coming to live here,” he said. “Welcome!”
“I was just telling your brother how I came here three years ago. My wife and me, we were attacked in our house in George. In the middle of the night. Tied up, hit over the head. I lost a tooth—look here.” He bared a black gap in his smile. “And while I was lying there, with the rope around me, thinking I was going to die, I heard a voice. Just like I’m talking to you now. ‘Fanie, go live in the country.’ That’s what it said. ‘Go live in the country.’ So I came.”
“It’s incredible,” Charmaine said. “Those moments when the barriers break down.”
“I used to come here for holidays,” Fanie Prinsloo said. “Me and the wife, in my caravan. But I never thought of moving up here. Not till that night. But I packed my bags, I sold my house. My friend, I never looked back.”
“You own this place?” Gavin said. His eyes had narrowed, becoming cold and thoughtful. “You do all right up here?”
“Ja, these days. Now with the new road and the pass over the mountains, there’s a lot of traffic going through. It didn’t used to be like that. This used to be the end of the road. But things have changed.”
“When God speaks,” Charmaine said, “you should always take His advice.”
The big man laughed heartily. “Ja, it’s a beautiful place,” he said. “The mountains, the sky, just like our Heavenly Father made them. You won’t be sorry, Adrian.”
“And what can I get you for breakfast?”
When he’d gone lumbering off to the kitchen, Gavin said, “Do you know who that is? Only one of the greatest forwards in the history of rugby. And he’s living up here.”
The conversation had thrown Adam. He was full of insecurity about what he was doing, the whole move up here, the big change in his life. When he answered his brother, he spoke too vehemently. “I don’t care about rugby,” he said. There was a silence, and the mood around the table dropped.
“You’ve got red bumps all over your head,” Charmaine said, trying to be cheerful.
“Well, you wanted to stay there,” Gavin said. “In that dirty house.”
“It’s your dirty house.”
“Nobody’s forcing you to stay there.”
They stared off in different directions while Fanie Prinsloo brought the coffee and toast. Afterwards they ate without speaking. Both brothers were thinking about things that had happened in the past, which had nothing to do with their conversation. There was a lot of friction, a lot of stuff, between them, which had played itself out in recent weeks. The sound of chewing and swallowing was very loud, but the antagonism slowly drained away, till only its brittle shell remained. Gavin wiped his moustache carefully and, without looking at Adam, said, “We shouldn’t fight. It’s all ancient history.”
Gavin got up. “Come on, babe. We’d better hit the road.”
Adam walked out to the car with them. But his brother had a last little speech to make. He had obviously prepared these thoughts, though the heart had gone out of them now. Looking down, his expression sulky, Gavin said that if Adam wanted to change his mind, if he wanted to come back to the city with them, now was the time to speak. There was still the offer of the job, if Adam wanted to reconsider . . .
“No,” Adam said. “I want to be here.”
Since arriving the day before, he’d been unsure. He’d been wavering. But now, as he spoke, he was startled to discover that he meant it.
Gavin sucked on his moustache and glared at Adam in sad resignation. “So you’re set on being a martyr.”
“It’s not like that.”
Gavin threw out his hands, palms upward, to show how helpless he was. But when he said goodbye to Adam he put his arms out and embraced him. It was out of character, a peculiar gesture for him, and despite himself Adam felt like crying. For weeks now, he’d wanted to get away from his brother. But when the red sports car had gone, he had an unsettling pang. Now he really was alone.