Damon Galgut's new novel, The Impostor, set in post-apartheid South Africa has as its protagonist a white middle-aged man called Adam Napier (the biblical reference is not fortuitous), who unexpectedly must reinvent his life from scratch, after losing his job (because of racial quotas) and consequently his apartment. He decides to move from Johannesburg to Cape Town where he thinks he can rely on his brother Gavin for help. But Gavin is a much more pragmatic, down-to-earth character who leads a rather undisturbed but successful life, buying run-down houses, renovating them cheaply and re-selling them at a much higher price. Adam, unable to identify with this way of life, decides to move to the house his brother owns in the Karoo, a house that has been completely abandoned and neglected for years. Adam is convinced that there, "far from the madding crowd", he will be able to write poetry (after a break of twenty years), which will allow him to re-emerge transformed and renewed.
Adam indeed moves to the Karoo but nothing really happens; he lacks inspiration and starts to fall into a hopeless lethargy. It is in this weakened and vulnerable state that he accidentally encounters Canning, an ex-school-friend who, in order to take revenge on his deceased father, is turning a spectacularly beautiful game farm ('Gondwana') into a golf place. Adam gets involved with Canning and his stunning wife Baby and becomes involuntarily complicit in Canning's destructive project. Gradually, he finds himself entangled in some dubious business affairs and political intrigues. Indirectly, he even becomes responsible for the death of a man.
Adam's blind involvement with Canning is partly related to the deep psychological crisis he is undergoing which makes him too weak to distance himself from Canning's negative influence. Galgut precisely examines the state of mind of a man who has literally lost the thread of his life. Quite naively, Adam hopes that in the seemingly idyllic countryside of the Karoo he will be able to live outside of history and politics and regain part of his lost integrity. Yet, reality confronts him with an almost hallucinating, psychotic landscape populated with people who are themselves bundles of controversies. Everything around him works to intensify his displacement.
The Impostor is divided into three sections: 'Before', 'Gondwana' and 'After'. This structure, connected with the protagonist's name, already hints at the metaphor Galgut is exploring here: Adam before, during and after his Fall. Gondwana, in fact, refers to the huge pre-historic uncorrupted landmass that formed itself as the Pangaea broke up during the Jurassic. Significantly, at the point when
Adam begins to understand what Canning is up to, the narrator says that "the emptiness, the spiritual vapidity, are hard to express; the word that comes to [Adam] is desecration".
The incredible force of this book lies in its surreal, absurd atmosphere which is, paradoxically, created through superb realism. Through this mode Galgut can take a hard look at South Africa, a country he pictures in the evil hands of corrupted, ruthless politicians – a land pervaded by a demonic, reckless economic self-interest which doesn't spare anyone. In its intensity The Impostor reads like a thriller and it will leave you breathless throughout. It grips one not only because of its pace, but also because of its remarkable aesthetic texture that is palpable at every narrative level.