“The Impostor” is Zadie Smith’s first historical novel, which also deals with authentic people: the writer Ainsworth, a contemporary of Dickens but now forgotten, his cousin Eliza Touchet and then the notorious Pretender, a simple butcher who emigrated to Australia who during two different trials in England in the years 1867-74 claimed to be the heir Robert Tichborne.
Which of them so is the scammer? Quite obviously the Pretender and yet a huge crowd of mainly the lower classes gather around him, hailing him as a nobleman of the people and asserting his right to the title of Sir Robert. The parallels to a presidential contender in the great country to the west are easy to imagine.
But that which makes this novel something more than an allegory of the times – or a report from a trial – is that the perspective lies with two odd people, partly Liza Touchet who is an intelligent, ready to fight woman, engaged in the fight against slavery, partly the main witness of the pretender, the black Jamaican Andrew Bogle.
Eliza follows the trial along with his cousin’s young wife and former maid who holds tight to the pretender. But Eliza’s sharp gaze does not let go of Bogle, the only one who acts tight and controlled throughout the process and to whom Eliza is therefore drawn to such an extent that she writes down his story and becomes a writer herself.
The “deceiver” is one witty and highly entertaining novel about British class society and colonialism, about people being shipped back and forth across the oceans, and about the relationship of novels to reality. How did Bogle end up in England and why does he defend the pretender’s patently false story? Maybe he does like a novelist: lies to be able to tell the truth. Or in other words: everyone is a fraud.
And Eliza Touchet is as close to a self-portrait of the author as you can get: She has a head full of characters who want to be described and understood, and whose different identities and experiences she claims the right to live into.