I’ve not read any South African books for a long time – noteworthy South African novels which stick in my mind would be Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Disgrace by J M Coetzee and a couple of books by Nadime Gordimer (I am ashamed to notice that these are all by white South Africans). I read in a newspaper that Damon Algut’s highly-regarded 1995 novel, The Quarry has just been re-released (at a very reasonable price on Kindle) and needing a break from lengthier books I decided to try it.
Damon Galgut has been short-listed twice for the Booker Prize and has also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Good Doctor. He is noted for writing about Post-Apartheid South Africa and uses his position as a well-known writer to take a stand on human rights issues.
As I read The Quarry I felt that Galgut was using the fewest words possible – this is undecorated prose, matching the bleak landscape of pre-reformed South African townships. Into this landscape walks an unnamed man. He has been walking for days, living off the land and sleeping in ditches. Before long we learn that he is on the run and doesn’t care where he is going, only that wherever it is, it is somewhere other than the place he is fleeing from.
The land he walks through seems to be a desolate place; neglected scrub-land, with scattered villages which have turned their backs on the world – and passing travellers. A car stops and a lift is offered, but who is in more danger, the driver of his new passenger? The sinister landscape adds to a sense of tension:
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. Boulders glistened occasionally from side to side with that fulsome pinkness of flesh.
Before long a sexual approach is made, a terrible crime is committed and a body is hidden in a nearby quarry.
The scene now shifts to a coastal township where the people live in grinding poverty, subsisting on menial work and theft from visitors. A car can be stripped down overnight and a door left open will result in a house being ransacked. A church stands in the centre of town and a false preacher gathers a congregation around him while the local police chief begins to investigate a murder. The nearby quarry is a dumping ground for refuse of all kinds, and also a hiding place for the fruits of many sins.
The book ends with a fugitive escaping from the law, while an eclipse of the sun distracts the local population:
. . . he broke free of them and ran up the main street between the solemn assembly of watchers sitting in their chairs lying on their backs standing their telescopes and cameras and fragments of coloured glass pressed to their eyes and the light was the light of some other planet with a dwarf star for a sun cooling slowly to an ember whole continents and seas below sealed up in ice preserved in the layered gloom that might have emanated from him he ran in all the thick hot stillness he was the only point of motion of frenzy.
This is not the only book I’ve read entitled “The Quarry”. I can see the popularity of the word “quarry” with writers – ita quarry is s place where things are dug up from, but also dumped in. You stand at the edge of a quarry and feel slightly nervous. It’s a big hole in the surface of the earth, which really shouldn’t be there and represents a danger to children and adults alike. In Jacob Theorin’s novel The Quarry, the main character works hard to build stone steps into the side of a nearbyquarry so that people can get out more easily, but these quickly get mysteriouslydestroyed. In Galgut’s quarry, there are even deeper holes at the bottom of the quarry in which corpses can be dropped, but these are not deep enough to hide the stench of decay. Quarries are thoroughly unpleasant places all round I think!
Interestingly enough, this book received wildly divergent reviews on amazon.uk with two people giving it five stars and three people giving it one star. I felt that although this is a beautifully-written book is also tells a compelling story (literary fiction does not have to be boring!). I’m probably in the “five star” category (perhaps 4.5) – the book is not long but packs a lot into it’s couple of hundred pages. It’s almost a perfect Kindle read, grabbing my interest quickly and moving along at quite a pace and I think it would stick in the mind of anyone who takes it seriously.