Damon Galgut (2005) The Quarry Grove Press, London; 176 pp.; ISBN 978-0-80214161-3 [originally published 1995, revised 2004]
The novel opens with the unnamed central character following a road north along the coastline of South Africa. We assume that he is on the run – he avoids passing vehicles and there is a sense of urgency in his movements. He is exhausted by the heat and the exertion of walking. When a car stops with a flat tyre, the driver calls him over. The driver is a minister on his way to a new church posting in a black township and offers the man a lift. Together they drive further north.
As they near the minister’s destination, the car pulls over on some empty ground near a quarry. The pair share a couple of bottles of wine and some desultory conversation, and the minister encourages the man to give himself up to the authorities. When they get out of the car and walk to the quarry’s edge, the minister makes sexual advances to the man (as ministers are wont to do) and the man reacts violently, killing the minister. He secretes the body in the quarry and eventually drives on to the town, intending to take on the minister’s identity.
During the first night in the town, the car is burgled by two local brothers, Valentine and Small. They are petty thieves and also have a modest marijuana garden in the quarry. An assiduous policeman, Captain Mong, is determined to solve the burglary and closes in on the brothers, eventually capturing them as they burn some of the goods taken from the car. Police suspicions are further aroused by the presence of marijuana in the brothers’ belongings. The captain’s tenacity eventually leads to the dope garden in the quarry and then the dead body. Case solved, the captain assumes: clearly the two black brothers killed the man as well as committing the other crimes. The ‘minister’ is not suspected – he is white after all.
The police officer’s flawed conjectures raise a moral dilemma for the man posing as the minister. He could let the two brothers take the blame for the murder, or confess. If he chooses the former the brothers will be executed and he could live out the rest of his time preaching to his new flock. Indeed, he seems to be very good at his latest role: the congregation is growing week by week.
The man falls into a fever and in the heat of his delirium tries to confess his past sins, but no one is paying any attention. When he recovers he makes a decision – but will he own up to the killing or let the brothers swing? In the meantime, Valentine is hatching his own plan. He knows the system will not save him, so he needs to save himself.
As the trial of the two brothers gets under way, the destinies of the ‘minister’ and Valentine become more tightly entwined and events hurtle out of their control. Captain Mong turns out to be more dogged than anyone expected and is determined to get to the truth of the matter. As a circus rolls into town – a noisy alternative to the circus in the courtroom – the fates of the man and the two brothers are set on courses that cannot be changed.
Damon Galgut infuses the novel with menace and desperation as the lives of the main characters progressively interlock. Each of the protagonists is faced with a moral dilemma, but they are living inside a system that displays little morality itself. The white people in the main town can be vicious when their prejudices are stirred and the poor fishing families in the black township are only likely to achieve peace and freedom in death.
The desolate landscape and distant horizons are skilfully depicted, as is the bleakness of people’s lives in these isolated settlements. Water is scarce and there is little chance to cleanse yourself, physically or spiritually. No one comes out of this looking good, but the story will grip your attention to the bitter end. Will the truth ever fully emerge?
Note: I previously reviewed Damon Galgut’s novel In a Strange Room here.