South African writer Damon Galgut: 'No more heroes'

Although being a very friendly and modest person, Damon Galgut writes gloomy novels about mankind and the human intercommunication skills. He creates magnificent stories while using desolate landscapes and corrupted governments. In short, he offers us a consoling pessimism.
‘I have no precise idea why I wanted to become a writer’, says South African bestselling novelist and playwright Damon Galgut (°1963 Pretoria). ‘Maybe it all started when I was getting treated for cancer at six years old. While I was lying in the hospital, my relatives came to read me some books. I then began to connect the art of storytelling to love and caring. I always wanted to be a writer. At first I was not all that successful. My first two attempts showed no real value. But when I was seventeen, I wrote A Sinless Season, my first published novel.’ A few years ago, Galgut produced his first international bestseller The Good Doctor. It was not his first score: another story The Quarry, was filmed by the Belgian director Marion Hänsel.
In his latest novel The Impostor, the main character is heading to the Karoo wastelands, where he hopes to find relief and inspiration. The environment is one of the actors within the story – a key element in South African literature. 
Galgut: ‘The set landscape has always been an alternative for the human interaction happening in the forefront. Writers avert their eyes from the bloody and ugly reality of the human battles in South Africa. Preferably they look for something that is admirable and lyrical. Also, land and soil issues take a central role in all our conflicts throughout history. It started with the arrival of the first white settlers claiming land in the Cape for their livestock. It continues today with the dispute on the countless golf courses.’
Young Galgut’s first literary thrill was In the Heart of the Country, written by J.M. Coetzee, the 2003 Noble Price winner. ‘For the first time I wasn’t confronted with an anti-establishment heroic protagonist but with an outsider, full of shortcomings and doubts. This 1977 novel showed a vision of our present times, where there are no more heroes. Yesterday’s heroes are today’s leaders and they appear just as foundering and insincere as average people, everywhere in the world.’ Galgut has sympathy for the discontent over the pettiness of leading men and women because South Africa made enormous sacrifices to get rid of the Apartheid. Personally he expects leaders not to be marked by ambiguity and compromises but by corruption and intrigues. ‘I’m not sure where this country would be without a hero as Nelson Mandela. But his myth should not limit a clear view on reality. Today the reality contains loads of political incompetence and moral decay. South Africans are reluctant to wake up from the dream to constitute a special nation governed by goodness and strength. Lacking new Mandela’s, they have put their hopes and admiration on disreputable persons. The future is not very hopeful.’
Galgut debuted in the eighties, when the Apartheid regime become more violent to suppress the resistance of the black majority. Back then the conflict was the major theme of all artistic expression in South Africa: literature, music, theatre, film and other visual art . ‘Honestly I must admit not to be profoundly touched by the anti-establishment literature of those days. Indeed, it reflected my own ideas but I expect more to value a good book. It took special courage to hold your eye on aesthetics rather then politics and repression. Authors who were clearly avoiding politics were severely challenged by less talented people. Personally, I was occupied by theatre, that was also all about resistance. After the political change in 1994 theatre rapidly became irrelevant. There was nothing left to rally against. Since then writers and artists have only one question: what should we talk about?
Galgut points out repeatedly not to be a political author. He is fascinated by power and how it is shaped in human relations. Almost always his novel protagonists are white South Africans. Their troubled souls, tormented quests and twisted power games are accurately monitored and analysed. While the back characters rarely come forward. Galgut argues that this is not a political but an artistic choice. ‘I prefer to write about close things I know. I was brought up in a white neighbourhood and most of my friends are white. But I do not hide my lack of knowledge of the daily life of black people. On the contrary, it is one of the dominant themes. The distance between people and the mutual lack of understanding strongly influence the way of life of the majority in South Africa.’
This doesn’t mean that the black and white communities are completely separated. ‘The official abolition of the Apartheid is indeed important. The new elite is multicultural. In prospering neighbourhood we see mixed couples and groups of school children. The problem is that the have-nots are mostly black. The new social contrast is mainly based on the old segregation. New added and unpredictable elements make the contrast even more dangerous. The poor black majority has waited decades for a change and is losing its patience. This lead to violence against immigrants a few months ago. It came from the poor and frustrated self-declared true constituency of the new ANC leader Jacob Zuma.’ 
Galgut knows that the rage of the poor is a tragic result from the past white minority regime. But he believes also that the new generation of politicians are failing miserably. He is highly upset by this. When a small group of leaders enriches itself shamelessly with briberies while the majority of the population is abandoned in poverty, then there is nothing left of the promise of a new nation or a dawning  and better future. ‘This a very critical point in our history. The goodwill of the last fifteen years is worn out, leaving a fertile basis for demagogue politics. The judicial power, the constitution and the rule of law itself are under siege. If we are not alert, we will go back were we came from: an dictatorial regime, this time lead by people of different skin and views.’
Yet not only the government is to blame. When Adam, the protagonist in The Impostor, is confronted with two old penniless servants, fired on his account, he wishes ‘that he had some money on him… This would create some distance so he could completely break contact with them.’

Is this a destructive comment on development aid or any other kind of financial assistance for the have-nots? Is it a way to tell that he who gives money is merely using that as a subtle alibi to run away from genuine solidarity? Galgut has no opinion on development aid. ‘But this is definitely a comment on the way the middle class responds on the misery of the poor. I had the same dilemma a few years ago, when I was trying to help a Rwandese refugee. He was living on the street and one day he asked me if he could live in my apartment. I had a enough room while he didn’t have a roof over his head. In a way the man clearly had a point but I refused. It was the hardest refusal in my life, even I’m still convinced that his proposal would have never worked.’
In The Impostor, the pessimistic view on human relation is also present in the form of sexual intercourse. It is about two people that hold no love or affectation for each other. There is only a sort on instrumental attraction between them. Galgut admits that it has to do with his own vision on intimacy. ‘People build up various strange hopes and expectations on physical contact, while mostly one or other self-interest is at stake. In a society as South Africa, the human bonds are often twisted because everybody is looking for personal gain and social mobility.’
Galgut concludes not all that negatively, saying that his home country counts many people with happy relations, even more and more with mixed happy relations. ‘You can consider the tragic sexuality as one of my personal shortcomings.’

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