Booker Prize winner 2021 – The Promise by Damon Galgut #bookerprize

IMG_2022-2-23-190607One family; four deaths. In his ninth novel the South African writer, Damon Galgut explores a couple of tested literary tropes — a promise made and inheritance.

Set roughly between the early 1980s and the end of the first decade of the new century, The Promise charts the fate of three generations of the Swart family. White South Africans, they harbour the entrenched racist views of the Apartheid era. By giving them this name the author plays with a particular irony. A relatively common surname, ‘swart’ means ‘black’ in Afrikaans. Knowing this only serves to heighten their bigotry against the country’s blacks. There are actually more than four deaths during the course of the novel, but those of the older generation are glossed over and the reader never gleans much about them.

The promise of the title, which lies at the heart of the story, is the wish expressed on her deathbed by the mother of the family’s three children’s that Salome, the black maid who has been with the family ever since the children were babies and practically raised them, should be given the deeds to the annexe she occupies with her son, Lukas, on the edge of the Swarts’ farm, near Pretoria, as well as the patch of land it stands on. Manie, the father, describes it thus:

“ …. useless ground, full of stones, you can do nothing with it. But it belongs to our family, nobody else, and there’s power in that.”

Manie does what many would do. He assures his dying wife that he will do what is necessary to ensure her wish is fulfilled. Whether he intends to hold the promise he makes to his wife is doubtful at best, not least because during Apartheid blacks were not permitted to own land or property in white designated areas. Manie believes he’ll be able to put the promise out of his mind. He doesn’t realise, however, that he was overheard by his youngest daughter, six-year-old Amor, who makes it her life’s mission to make sure the promise is kept and Salome is legally signed over the shack and section of ground she occupies. Over the four parts of the novel Amor’s endeavours to achieve this are a recurring refrain.

In each section of the book, set about ten years apart, we see how the children have grown as individuals and forged their own lives. Amor, herself, becomes a nurse. Her bulimic sister, Astrid, is unhappily married with twins and becomes a social climber. Lured by the perceived power of her husband, an official in the South African government, she has affairs with two of his colleagues. The Swarts’ eldest, Anton, lives his life haunted by an unrecognised crime he supposedly committed against black protesters during his period of military conscription. What doesn’t change in the intervening years is the uneasy relationship between the siblings whenever they come together for the next bereavement. The Swarts are not close, yet it is clear that the old cliché of blood being thicker than water holds true even for this family. Funerals are an ‘obligation’ which draws them back to the family farm, however reluctantly, every time someone dies.

The Swarts believe themselves to be just like everyone else living in the South Africa of their age. Galgut writes of their collective mindset:

“There is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in.”

The narrator occupies an indistinct space, halfway between first and third person points of view. Often he focuses on a single character, almost completely ignoring any others occupying the same scene. Despite this, there is a strange sense of detachment which means the reader doesn’t get to know the inner lives of the characters. Anton is, arguably, the one character who shares most of himself with the reader. Much of Galgut’s writing is in the style of Joycean stream of consciousness and he is apt to change POVs within a single paragraph. Since he doesn’t use speech marks, it’s not always clear who is speaking and when.

There is a lot of regret and remorse in the Swart family. Each member has things they wish they hadn’t done or laments opportunities not taken. Here Anton muses about his. Note how the author jumps between first person and third person POVs within the same thought process:

“I’ve wasted my life. Fifty years old, half a century, and he’s never going to do any of the things he was once certain he would do. Not read the classics at a famous university or learn a foreign language or travel the world or marry a woman he loves. Not hold real power in his hands. Not going to bend fate to his will. Not even going to finish his novel, because, let’s continue to be honest, after nearly twenty years he hasn’t really started it.”

Unusually for a novel set in South Africa Damon Galgut does not go in for a great deal of politicising in the tale he tells. We gather facts more by inference than actual information. It makes it quite challenging for anyone not familiar with the references he does make to get a grip on the political situation during the time in which the novel is set. It could be argued that in order to fully appreciate any story set in South Africa it needs to be given proper political context. Galgut makes his readers work hard, giving them only a few brief clues and leaving them to work out the novel’s time frame for themselves.

Pride in the part South Africa plays in the 1995 Rugby World Cup is one of the few occasions when Galgut expresses political opinion. Here the family are watching TV:

“South Africa! The name used to be cause for embarrassment, but now it means something else. Truly, we are a nation that defies gravity. We’re playing in the final of the World Cup today, in Johannesburg and all over the country there’s a giddy mood in the air. Boks versus the All Blacks, the eyes of other nations gazing hotly at us.”

Any Cop?: Ultimately, in spite of little overt political commentary, The Promise is not only a trope within the present novel, but also an indictment on the numerous broken promises that have occurred in the course of South Africa’s history.

Carola Huttmann

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