In my last post, I talked about how when you come to love certain authors, all their books (both the backlist and the forthcoming releases) become essential reading.
Deborah Levy is one of them.
In that list, I would also include the South African author Damon Galgut.
Incidentally, as was the case with Levy, it was the Booker Prize which once again introduced me to this excellent writer.
The Quarry is a tense and unsettling tale of cat and mouse set in the bleak, desolate terrain of rural South Africa. It explores the concept of freedom, and the price that one has to pay for it.
Here’s how the book opens:
Then he came out of the grass at the side of the road and stood without moving. He rocked very gently on his heels. There were blisters on his feet that had come from walking and blisters in his mouth that had come from nothing, except his silence perhaps, and bristles like glass on his chain.
The main protagonist is never named but it is clear from the opening ages that he is a man hunted and on the run. Just what exactly he is escaping from is something we will never know.
As he walks resolutely across the harsh and barren landscape, he runs into a minister who is on his way to a town to take up a new position there. He offers to give the man a ride.
In due course, they reach a quarry – abandoned and empty – on the side of the road and halt there.
There were boulders at the bottom of the quarry and trees warped into crazed curious shapes and what appeared to be holes in the earth. He could see no clear path down and it was a wonder to him how men had ever mined this hole.
The minister and the man spend some time by the quarry, knocking down a few drinks while in the car, and trying to make conversation.
And then something terrible happens.
All of it takes place within the first few pages itself, and I will not reveal any further.
But as the novel progresses, we are introduced to some more characters – the policeman, and a couple of petty criminals, who are brothers named Valentine and Small.
Somewhere along the way the lives of Valentine and Small become entwined with that of the main protagonist, so much so that you feel it’s all blurred, with not much to distinguish between the fates that befall the three of them.
And then there is one point in the novel, where you get the feeling that even the hunter and the hunted are one.
He sat down on the ground and waited. When the policeman climbed back out of the dam he got up again and went on. He was no longer sure that there was a difference between them or that they were separate from each other and they moved on together across the surface of the world and the sun went down and it got dark and still they continued in duet. They moved through the night in faintest silhouette like dreams that the soil was having.
Midway through the novel, the protagonist is consumed by this persistent urge to clear his conscience, and in the process sets off a chain of events leading to the final outcome.
In a novel of this kind where not much can be revealed for fear of spoiling the plot, it makes sense to focus more on the quality of writing.
It’s where Damon Galgut excels.
His prose is lean but lyrical, stripped back, and bare, pretty much like the stark South African landscape.
The story reads like an allegorical tale and a sense of unease prevails throughout. This is characteristic of most of Galgut’s novels, set as they are in a South Africa where the transition post-apartheid has been anything but easy.
Rural South Africa is unflinching and unyielding – heightened by Galgut’s descriptions…
It was early afternoon and the sun was hot as they drove. They passed the carcass of an animal next to the road on which three black crows were feeding and one of them flapped up ahead of the car and lumbered off over the veld. The road went through a salt pan that was cracked like a mirror and in which there was nothing alive. There were river beds that were dry.
And then later on…
The sun went down in a sewage of colour and the landscape looked violent an strange. At first the darkness was complete. The only light came from the stars. He thought he could change course in the night but the sky to his left grew paler and he could see the horizon and then the moon came up. It was full and round with a blue barren face and it cast its radiance down. The grass was like metal in the thin blue light and everything could be seen.
Indeed, The Quarry is an apt name for the novel signifying as it does both – the deep mining pit where quite a bit of the action takes place, as well as the man being pursued by the hunter.
As we race towards the conclusion, we will keep wondering – Will the protagonist find an ace up his sleeve and manage to dodge the law? Or will the law get the better of him?
The Quarry, published in 1995, is one of Galgut’s earlier works and all the more impressive for that.
However, he became known to a much wider audience (that includes me) post the Booker shortlisting of his wonderful novel The Good Doctor in 2003.
Subsequently, he went on to pen two more brilliant but very different novels – The Impostor, and In A Strange Room – which remain my favourites of all his books I have read so far, and which I wholeheartedly recommend.
As an aside, In A Strange Room was also shortlisted for the Booker…in 2010.