Monday, March 23, 2009

Reimagining oneself - idealist or pragmatist? (Books - The Imposter by Damon Galgut)

I was really wowed by Damon Galgut's writing when John Self introduced me to his novel The Good Doctor (which somehow got left off last year's reading list and never got counted up in the final tally or considered for my 2008's best of lists. Oh well.) In any case, I have been looking forward to reading another of Galgut's books. This one is also set in post-apartheid South Africa. The Imposter looks at the reverberations felt throughout white, middle class society (so far in my reading of it) as a result of this seismic attempt to render justice and reorder a society. Adam Napier has lost his job and his house. His brother Gavin first offers Adam a job in property development, but that doesn't suit Adam.

How could he explain? His brother would never understand. For Gavin, the goal in life was money and power, and he judged everybody by that standard. He assumed that everyone shared his aim, but of course that wasn't true. Adam believed in beauty for its own sake: Beauty with a capital B. He couldn't talk to Gavin about Beauty, but he saw his way forward clearly in that moment. He was a penniless poet, with nothing to offer anybody except words, but he was the real soul of the country. He was the centre of things.
Gavin then offers Adam the use of a run down house he purchased in a small town. There Adam tries to pick up the pursuit of his long dead dream to write poetry. This book is about reimagining oneself - whether one is a society or an individual - and once you have created your plan, what it means to try to live it out on a daily basis. What asserts itself most is the quality of Galgut's writing, spare and sure. Take this description:
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 a low vallye, 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.

That description doesn't cut a figure for this town, it renders it a character in a few stark sentences, ending with that finger. I love the ways Galgut uses verbs. Even in a story which has begun with fifty pages about Adam's stasis, Galgut's landscapes are restless. The road wanders. This is a country on the move from one thing to another.

As Adam tries to settle in his new house, he is paid a visit by the mayor for the delapidated state of his yard. The mayor is a former member of the resistance, a black man, and a poet himself.

'What kind of poems do you write?'

'Uh, lyrical, about nature, I suppose.'


'Yes, animals, you know, trees...' He faltered, then added, 'Beauty!' too emphatically, like a gun going off.

The mayor smiled and nodded blandly. 'Yes,' he said, illogically, 'I have put poetry behind me.' He said this proudly, as if he had outgrown some childish activity.

This scene says it all. In declaring to make oneself anew, one stakes a claim and is aware of the responsibility to have it turn out right. South Africa live this reality so it is little wonder that both of Galgut's books that I have read share a theme of how one chooses to live - as an idealist or a pragmatist. I am loving the precision of this prose and can't wait to read more.

No comments: