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the impostor damon galgut

The Impostor

In Germany, Damon Galgut was probably little known until he won the Booker Prize in 2021 – much like Abdulrazak Gurnah before he was awarded the Nobel Prize last year. Such a prize gives authors great visibility and increases audience interest. The Impostor was first published in 2008 – and also came out in a German translation by Thomas Mohr, then published by Manhatten Verlag. Now a new edition has been published by Btb Verlag.

The Impostor’s prose is captivating and immediately won me over. From the beginning there is an uneasy feeling, something seems to be off. The story is set in a time shortly after the end of apartheid; South Africa is in transition. The central characters are all quite peculiar: Adam Napier, the protagonist, is a white man in his mid-forties who has lost his house and his job. He moves to the country, to the Karoo, and wants to write poetry. He is lethargic and has memory lapses. When he meets Canning, apparently an old school friend, he doesn’t know who it is. Canning, also white, is a bit fat, moody and hates his late father, but he warmly invites Adam to his vast idyllic estate. This is how Adam meets Baby, Canning’s young, very beautiful Black wife, who is obviously only with Canning because he has a lot of money and influence. In the threesome, Adam is the loser, accidentally becoming witness to the couple’s cheating and power games. Canning is driven by revenge; Baby wants to get rich. Adam himself also has goals but achieves nothing, instead slipping into the machinations of the others. It is an exciting book that offers insights into a complex reality.

The re-publication of Galgut’s older novels in Germany would have been a wonderful opportunity to make some linguistic adjustments to the translation; after all, the debate around language and race has also developed a lot in Germany in recent years. I enjoyed reading The Impostor, but there were numerous terminological decisions that I do not want to repeat here because of their racist content, which made me as uncomfortable while reading as did some of the encounters in the story between Black and white South Africans – with the difference that the latter seems to be Galgut’s intent in his depiction of a South Africa in transition. The former, on the other hand, does not correspond to the novel in any way, as Galgut explains in advance the context of certain terms in South Africa, which, however, have a completely different effect in their translation and in the German context (e.g. the term “coloured”).

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