A profile I did of South African writer Damon Galgut a year ago, for the lifestyle magazine Gateway:
Reading The Good Doctor, Damon Galgut’s bleak novel of wasted lives in the South African homeland, prepares you for the author, sort of. Galgut’s face is careworn and crease-lined, his eyes worried, as he discusses the problems his country is facing.
"Historically, South Africa is going through a strange period," says the soft-spoken author who was on the Booker shortlist last year. "The old way (the apartheid regime) may have gone but the new one hasn’t quite settled in yet, and we’re all suspended between the past and the present."
Galgut’s latest novel drew strong reactions from many in South Africa, who were disturbed by its pessimism. But the author doesn’t think there’s much to be cheery about. "We keep hearing all this rhetoric about improvement, but the reality is that crime figures are rising, education is a mess and AIDS is affecting the economy," he says. "The real South African revolution lies ahead of us. And delayed revolutions can be very ugly." The creases on his forehead deepen.
Galgut’s pensive manner reminds one of his compatriot J M Coetzee, who wasn’t captured beaming on camera even when he won the Nobel Prize last year. Like most writers of his generation, Galgut was influenced by the man who he calls the first South African writer to move beyond painting just a black and white picture. But despite Coetzee’s Nobel Prize last year and Galgut’s own Booker nomination, he isn’t happy about the literary scene in his country. "Even a Nadine Gortimer sells only about 1,000 copies," he says ruefully. "The quality of writing is high but public response is indifferent."
Galgut says he hasn’t read much of Indian writing but is keen to, and eagerly asks for suggestions. He was impressed by Githa Hariharan’s In Times of Siege -- "the kind of writing that gets a nation to look critically at itself" -- but it’s slightly incongruous when he says he also enjoyed Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. "It was very funny," he says, still looking worried. In fact, he chuckles only once during our meeting -- when recounting how the title of his second book, Small Circle of Beings, was published as "Small Circle of Beans" in an interview.
Incidentally, Galgut wrote much of The Good Doctor in a small family-run hotel in Goa; this is his fifth trip to the country. "I do like travelling in general but India keeps drawing me back," he says. "I’m not sure why -- but then, if I knew for certain, the country would probably lose its charm for me!"
Diagnosed with cancer as a young boy, he spent a long time convalescing in bed with relatives reading to him, and the storyteller’s spark was ignited. But he refuses to even discuss his first book, published when he was all of 17. "It was written by an adolescent who I can’t relate to or understand any more."
When asked what winning an Oscar really meant, Walter Matthau laconically replied, "When you die, newspaper reports will begin: Academy Award-winning actor…" Galgut’s attitude toward the Booker Prize nomination isn’t dissimilar, but he concedes that it was good for his writing life. "The selection is irritatingly arbitrary but I’m glad it was arbitrary in my favour. Readership sales in the UK skyrocketed when the nominations were announced."
And commercial success does matter to this reticent man, if it allows him to live by his pen. His work experience ranges from being a waiter in London to a drama teacher in Cape Town, but "travelling and writing full-time is just fine by me".