“Sitting out here in the middle of the veld, like a drunk wearing odd bits of clothing.” Sunset outside Pretoria. Image: Hoberman Collection / Getty Images

Damon Galgut and South Africa’s broken promises

The Booker Prize-winning novel for 2021 charts the cruel legacy of apartheid in a bold cinematic style
December 9, 2021
The Promise
Damon Galgut
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There are many things to admire in Damon Galgut’s novel, The Promise, winner of this year’s Booker Prize, among them its economy, its humour and its indictment of brutality both personal and political. The novel’s most extraordinary quality, though, is the way it moves. The narrative voice seems to spin, to flow, to wheel like a snitch from a Harry Potter book through the pages. The reader is propelled forward, zipping from one character to another, through rooms, down corridors, pausing to consider a ringing telephone, then whisked up into the sky for an aerial view of a garden reception: “Hats and hairdos and bald spots, in aimless circulation.”

All novelists have to work out ways to link their scenes and characters, most opting for a range of more or less conventional solutions. To create such an intricate choreography as Galgut has, then make your story work with it, is hugely impressive. The style here has echoes of modernism—broken sentences recalling the musings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, or Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway—but more than anything it’s like camerawork. Each of the novel’s four sections reads as one long unbroken take, a panning shot with characters sliding in from left and right.

Take Lindile, the carjacker who slides into a BMW at a set of traffic lights in the third part. Everything moves, even the unravelling thread on a character’s jumper or the smoke from a cigarette “scribbling across the windscreen.” The characters themselves pass the story like a baton. At one moment we’re in the mind of Father Batty, a Catholic priest, then of Bob, the homeless man he sees outside the church. Bob carries us up the street past a therapist’s office and leaves us in her mind, then we hop over to her client—who turns out to be a character that we already know, and so the story continues. It comes as no surprise to learn that Galgut was working on film scripts before he started The Promise and chose the camera’s “eye” to guide his approach. It’s left to one of the minor characters to articulate the novel’s rationale. “One thing conjures up another. All events joined somehow, at least in memory.”

The story centres on the Swart family and their dilapidated farm in Pretoria in South Africa: “A big mishmash of a place, twenty-four doors on the outside that have to be locked at night, one style stuck on another. Sitting out here in the middle of the veld, like a drunk wearing odd bits of clothing.” The Swarts are dwindling, both in status and number: in each of the novel’s sections one of them will die. First to go is Rachel, “Ma,” who has been ill for some time with cancer. The family’s black servant Salome looked after her during this illness, “mopping up blood and shit and pus and piss, all the jobs that people in her own family didn’t want to do, too dirty or too intimate.”

Salome is at the moral centre of the novel and of the Swarts’ lives, but they don’t acknowledge her unless it’s to scold her. Like Rachel, she is 40 (and in her seventies by the end of the novel), but they call her “the girl” and let her work, barefoot, around the clock. She has largely brought up the three Swart children: Anton, a 19-year-old conscript at the start of the book; Amor, an awkward 13-year-old girl; and Astrid, their middle sister who’s mostly interested in boys and make-up. These three siblings are a strange brood—more than once they made me think of Jesse Armstrong’s television show Succession.

We know from the start that Anton is severely troubled. On the morning of his mother’s death he has shot dead a protester, in one of the townships outside Johannesburg, as she bent to pick up a stone. “He didn’t think, he hated her, he wiped her away. All in a few seconds, an instant, over and done. Never over, never done.” The two women’s deaths become conflated in his mind and after Rachel’s funeral he flees the army and his family, living rough in the Transkei for a time. Meanwhile the girls evolve along different lines. Astrid becomes ever more vacuous (and later has the misfortune to be driving that carjacked BMW). Amor rejects her family’s wealth and privilege, lives in London for a while, then trains as a nurse and goes to work on an HIV ward in Durban.

“Even the racist old guard are pleased to see the Springboks finally enter international competition”

Really there are two “promises” implied by the novel’s title. The first is made to Rachel, before she dies, when husband Manie agrees to give Salome ownership of a rundown house on their property she has been living in (a promise overheard by Amor). The larger promise refers to South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, when everything seems possible —“the brown veld is bursting forth with bounty.” Even the racist old guard are pleased to see the Springboks rugby team finally enter international competition.

Both promises will be unfulfilled. Despite Amor’s remonstrations, the Swart family fails to do the right thing by Salome. Meanwhile the corrupt rule of Jacob Zuma, with its violence, power cuts and chaos, provides a dispiriting backdrop to further deaths in the family. When Manie, part owner of a reptile park called Scaly City, gets bitten by a cobra during a fundraising challenge, the poison seeping through his system seems like something more than snake venom.

Damon Galgut, who was born in Pretoria in 1963, is the author of nine novels and four plays. Aged six he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and for five years his health was precarious. During long hospital stays he often read, or was read to, and so began a love of stories and writing. His first novel, A Sinless Season, was written while he was still at school, and published to acclaim when he was 19. Successive novels gradually fared less well, though, and Galgut was beginning to consider alternatives—perhaps teaching in Vietnam—when The Good Doctor, published in 2003, brought a dramatic reversal in fortunes. This novel, about an idealistic young doctor arriving to work in a rural hospital where apathy and cynicism are the rule, drew comparisons with JM Coetzee and Graham Greene. It was shortlisted for the Booker and the International IMPAC prizes.

Galgut has described The Good Doctor as his “new South Africa” book. “I think South African literature has built up for itself a series of clichés, and everything tended to get expressed through those acceptable clichés, in which everyone had a recognisable role, and the morality was very set and very clear. And it seemed to me that part of the experience of ‘the new South Africa’ had to be a shattering of all the old moral signposts. The rules are all different, the characters have all changed shape, and things couldn’t be defined in that old way.”

In 2010, Galgut was shortlisted for the Booker again, for In a Strange Room, which follows three separate journeys made by a character named Damon, to Greece, Africa and India, in the company of different travellers. As in The Promise, the narrative voice is not fixed, but moves between the first and third person.

The characters in The Promise verge on the cartoonish, and none of them is particularly likeable—not even Amor, who emerges as the only Swart with any integrity. Salome, who might have been given the voice her bosses denied her, is largely silent, as though staying above the fray. So it isn’t characterisation that holds the reader, but language itself and that unusual narrative voice. Sometimes kindly, more often sardonic and occasionally accusatory, the narrator slips in and out of different heads and persons, side-eyes the reader and upbraids the characters. “Oh, balls, Anton, who scripts these thoughts for you?” Some critics have been puzzled by it: does this count as free indirect style or close third person? In fact the voice breaks all the rules of “point of view,” but does it so elegantly and easily that somehow the ruse works. “The experience of reading [The Promise] had to be pleasurable on the simplest, most immediate level,” Galgut has said, “which is to say through the use of words. So a kind of poetry was required.”

Poetry sounds like a grand claim, but it’s fair here because Galgut is gloriously inventive in his descriptions. A woman has “meaningful calves.” Amor “feels ugly when she cries, like a tomato breaking open.” There are lines that stay just on the right side of portentous, like one that describes an endlessly ringing telephone, “a lonely sound, made more lonely by the way it repeats identically, over and over, with no solution in sight.”

Less tangible is the role played by religion. The funerals are variously presided over by a rabbi (Rachel had recently returned to her Jewish faith), a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Catholic priest and a New Age guru. When a rabbi, two priests and a guru walk into a book, we might expect a theological tussle to ensue, or at least jokes. But none of these four introduces a spiritual dimension, although the guru certainly does his best. The most dominant faith here is bad faith, although there is a suggestion—left unexplored—that Amor may have some kind of spiritual power, perhaps as a result of being struck by lightning on the top of a hill where ley lines converge.

“It’s too easy to see the Swart family as emblematic of South Africa. The connections and inferences here are altogether more subtle”

The narrator also waxes philosophical from time to time, observing of one death: “This morning she was alive, inhaling and exhaling, pumping blood and incubating thoughts, a creature with intentions and a mild case of eczema on her inner arm and a dinner planned with friends.” The Catholic priest does, in fact, provide a good joke. Did Jesus have an anus, he wonders. “Not according to the Good Book, though you can’t eat multiple loaves and fishes without consequences.”

In a piece for the TLS in 2020, Galgut described a childhood marked by his stepfather’s violence. “We were hit so hard that we often wet ourselves, and the marks of his hands would be swollen out on us for days afterwards… In part because of this unhappy home life, I grew up associating brute force with a certain kind of Afrikaner mentality. I know now, of course, that violence is universal and Afrikaner violence is not, but it didn’t seem that way back then.”

It’s too easy to see the Swarts (whose name means “black” in Afrikaans) as emblematic of South Africa in the late 20th century. The connections and inferences here are altogether more subtle, and Galgut is perhaps more interested in families than he is in politics. Tolstoy once told us that unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. They can also find myriad ways to be cruel.