This fine, bleak tale about a fugitive’s crack-up was written ten years ago, while South African Galgut’s The Good Doctor (2004) made the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize.
A very tall white man is walking along an empty road across the veldt. Unnamed, the man is a fugitive, although from what we don’t know. He has managed to lose the police helicopters. A car passes. The driver, a minister on his way to a new job in a township, gives him a ride and buys him breakfast. In his way, the minister is as desperate as the fugitive. When he propositions the fugitive, the fugitive kills him with a rock, then buries him in a quarry. He drives to the township, claims to be the minister, and is taken in by the woman in the mission house. A complication ensues when the car is burgled and one of the thieves, Valentine, is arrested, while his brother, Small, is found hiding in the quarry, alongside the corpse. The police captain, Mong, has the two put on trial for murder. The guilt-stricken fugitive confesses that he’s not the minister and takes to the road again. Valentine, too, is on the run, having escaped custody. A vigilante mob screams for vengeance and a solar eclipse adds an apocalyptic touch. Mong pursues the fugitive on foot, obsessively, across a parched landscape, and in this dance of death, the men’s identities seem to merge. The fugitive looks “haggard and mad and remarkable.” Mong is “ragged and reeking.” Valentine appears “crazed and messianic.” In the end, it scarcely matters that the fugitive is shot dead by Mong while Valentine survives, for we know that his fate will be as miserable as that of the dead man. The legal niceties of criminal punishment pale beside the solitary despair that these men cannot escape.
Galgut’s prose has a spare beauty, suggesting volcanic emotions held rigorously in check. A remarkable achievement.