- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005


By Damon Galgut

Black Cat, $13, paperback, 176 pages


Of the many novels written about South Africa during the apartheid years, “Waiting For The Barbarians” by J. M Coetzee may endure longer than most. For, unlike the more quotidian political novels which are soon overtaken by events, this allegory about the abuse of power and race enjoys both a particular and universal meaning and that is an achievement that ensures a place in the great canon and a long and respected literary shelf-life.

These are reasons enough then for any ambitious author to try his hand with an allegory, as Damon Galgut, a South African, does now with his powerfully written but flawed new novel, “The Quarry.” Mr. Galgut’s “The Good Doctor” was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, but this brief story, more novella than novel, was apparently written before his current accomplishment, and at times seems more a work-in-progress.

Set in apartheid South Africa, it is an often melodramatic meditation on the lengths men — there are no women protagonists in the story — will take to preserve their freedom even if the price is murder, deception, and futile flight. Like so many stories with a big idea, those little mundane details that give the best allegories weight are scanted as Mr. Galgut evokes one man’s ruthless determination to escape the unjust system which is equally determined to imprison him.

The nameless protagonist is white, young and on the run from the police. It is implied that he is a significant fugitive, whose continued liberty endangers the state. His picture has been pasted on walls, the public has been informed, and helicopters have taken off in pursuit. The fugitive is walking north but with no specific destination except freedom in mind, but on a lonely country road, he accepts a ride from balding middle-aged white man whose flat tire he helps fix.

The man is Frans Niemand, a minister, en route to take charge of a church in a nearby small town. Niemand treats him to lunch in a local tearoom and they then continue driving through a desolate landscape, where, except for three crows picking at a carcass, nothing seems alive. At an abandoned quarry Niemand stops the car to consult a map.

It is hot and Niemand offers him wine to drink, and by the late afternoon they are both drunk. ” I saw a helicopter this morning,” he says to the fugitive, and then tells him he can talk to him, “tell him everything.”

He knows his passenger’s identity, and wonders why the fugitive doesn’t give himself up. “They’ll get me,” the fugitive replies nearly inaudibly. Standing now on the edge of the quarry, the drunk minister, as desperate as the man, asserts that he will not tell, but demanding payment for his silence, he makes a sexual pass.

The fugitive, in what seems an especially arbitrary and unconvincing act then kills him, buries his body at the base of the quarry , and, assuming the dead man’s identity, drives to take up his position at the church. There he is soon accepted, though he is theologically and liturgically illiterate — another dissonant detail — but the local head of police, a Captain Mong, recognizes him.

Mong is as sketchy as all the other characters, but, representing the unjust system, is an oppressor and torturer — the treatment of two petty black criminals who steal the contents of Niemand’s car is given as evidence of the state’s ruthlessness — and he knows his duty.

But professional duty becomes a personal obsession as Mong, badly injured in a fire that destroys the fugitive’s church, stalks him on his red motor cycle. The chase that ensues over rough inhospitable terrain — an earthly hell — is more a psychological necessity than a realistic stab at survival.

The fugitive, like the other characters, is a disappointingly sketchy creation: Neither his past, nor his crime against the state is described. He remains a chilling, surprisingly unsympathetic symbol of the fight against injustice, a faceless victim of apartheid and universal oppression.

And the church in which he assumes Niemand’s position is an irritatingly generic place of worship: It could be Dutch Reformed, the most likely, but the priest wears a cassock and lights candles which suggests a Catholic or Anglican. A small detail perhaps, but details add up and the deficit here undercuts the novel’s purpose.

Mr. Galgut’s attempt to evoke a society bent on limiting freedom with a story that resonates beyond the headlines is commendable, but despite the nods to Albert Camus and Coetzee, he fails, at least this time round, to join them.

Judith Chettle is a South African-born writer and editor now living in Washington.

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