Damon Galgut and South Africa’s broken promises

Revised here

The promise

by Damon Galgut

Chatto & Windus

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There is a lot to admire in Damon Galgut’s novel, The promise, winner of this year’s Booker Prize, among them his economy, his humor and his indictment against brutality both personal and political. The novel’s most extraordinary quality, however, is the way it moves. The narrative voice seems to spin, flow, roll like a snitch from a Harry Potter book through the pages. The reader is propelled forward, moving from character to character, through rooms, down hallways, stopping to consider a phone ringing, then carried into the sky for an aerial view of a reception. of garden: “Hats and hairstyles and bald spots, in circulation aimlessly.”

All novelists must find ways to link their scenes and their characters, most opting for a range of more or less conventional solutions. Creating a choreography as complex as Galgut, and then making your story work with it, is extremely impressive. The style here has echoes of modernism – broken phrases reminiscent of Leopold Bloom’s musings in Odysseus, or Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway-but more than anything, it’s like a camera job. Each of the novel’s four sections reads like one long uninterrupted take, a panoramic shot with characters sliding left to right.

Take Lindile, the carjacker who slips into a BMW at a traffic light in part three. Everything moves, even the thread that comes undone on a character’s sweater or the smoke of a cigarette “scribbling on the windshield”. The characters themselves pass the story like a stick. At one point, we think of Father Batty, a Catholic priest, then of Bob, the homeless man he sees in front of the church. Bob takes us down the street to a therapist’s office and leaves us in his mind, then we jump over to his client, who turns out to be a character we already know, and so the story continues. It’s no surprise to learn that Galgut was working on film scripts before he started. The promise and chose the “eye” of the camera to guide his approach. It is up to one of the secondary characters to articulate the logic of the novel. “One thing evokes another. All the events have joined in one way or another, at least in memory.

The story centers on the Swart family and their dilapidated farmhouse in Pretoria, South Africa: “A big mishmash of a place, twenty-four doors outside that you have to lock at night, a glued style. on another. Sitting here in the middle of the veld, like a drunkard in funny clothes. The Swarts are decreasing, both in status and in number: in each section of the novel, one of them will die. The first to go is Rachel, “Ma”, who has been suffering from cancer for some time. The family’s black maid, Salomé, looked after her during this illness, “wiping up the blood, shit, pus and piss, all the jobs that her own family didn’t want to do, too dirty or too intimate “.

Salome is at the moral center of the novel and the life of the Swarts, but they only recognize her to scold her. Like Rachel, she’s 40 (and in her seventies by the end of the novel), but they call her “the girl” and let her work, barefoot, 24 hours a day. She has largely raised them. three Swart children: Anton, a 19-year-old conscript at the start of the book; Amor, a clumsy 13-year-old girl; and Astrid, their younger sister who is mainly interested in boys and makeup. These three siblings are a strange brood – more than once they reminded me of the Jesse Armstrong TV show Succession.

We have known from the start that Anton is gravely troubled. On the morning of his mother’s death, he shot dead a female protester in one of the townships outside Johannesburg as she bent down to pick up a stone. “He didn’t think, he hated her, he wiped her off. All in a few seconds, an instant, finished. Never finished, never finished. The deaths of the two women merge into his mind and after Rachel’s funeral he flees the army and her family, roughing it up in the Transkei for some time. Meanwhile, the girls are moving in different directions. Astrid gets more and more empty (and later has the misfortune of driving this blackjacked BMW). Amor rejects the wealth and privileges of his family, lives in London for a while, then trains as a nurse and goes to work in an HIV ward in Durban.

“Even the racist old guard is delighted to see the Springboks finally enter international competition”

Really, there are two “promises” implied by the title of the novel. The first is made to Rachel, before she dies, when her husband Mania agrees to give Salome ownership of a dilapidated house on their property in which she lived (a promise heard by Amor). The larger promise refers to South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, when anything seems possible – “the brown veld is full of generosity”. Even the racist old guard is thrilled to see the Springboks rugby team finally enter international competition.

The two promises will not be kept. Despite Amor’s admonitions, the Swart family fails to get Salome done right. Meanwhile, Jacob Zuma’s corrupt reign, with its violence, power cuts, and chaos, provides a disheartening backdrop for further family deaths. When Mania, co-owner of a reptile park called Scaly City, gets bitten by a cobra during a fundraising challenge, the poison seeping into his system looks like something more than snake venom. .

Damon Galgut, born in Pretoria in 1963, is the author of nine novels and four plays. At the age of six, she was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and for five years her health was poor. During long stays in the hospital, he often read, or had himself read, and this is how he began to enjoy stories and writing. His first novel, A season without sin, was written while still in school and published with praise at the age of 19. Successive novels performed less well, however, and Galgut was beginning to consider alternatives – perhaps teaching in Vietnam – when The good doctor, published in 2003, brought a dramatic turnaround. This novel, about an idealistic young doctor arriving to work in a field hospital where apathy and cynicism prevail, drew comparisons with JM Coetzee and Graham Greene. He was shortlisted for the Booker and International IMPAC awards.

Galgut described The good doctor as his “new book from South Africa”. “I think South African literature built itself a series of clichés, and everything tended to express itself through these acceptable clichés, in which everyone had a recognizable role, and the morality was very defined and very clear. And it seemed to me that part of the “new South Africa” experience had to be an overturning of all old moral benchmarks. The rules are all different, the characters all changed shape, and things couldn’t be defined that old way. “

In 2010, Galgut was again shortlisted for the Booker, 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 various travelers. A sin The promise, the narrative voice is not fixed, but moves between the first and the third person.

The characters in The promise bordering on cartoonish, and none of them are particularly likable, not even Amor, who comes across as the only Swart with any integrity. Salomé, who could have been given the voice her bosses refused her, is largely silent, as if staying above the fray. So it’s not the characterization that holds the reader back, but the language itself and that unusual narrative voice. Sometimes benevolent, more often sardonic and sometimes accusatory, the narrator slips in and out of different heads and people, distracts the reader and reproaches the characters. “Oh, the balls, Anton, who wrote these thoughts for you?” Some critics have been puzzled: Does that count as an indirect free style or a close third person? In fact, the voice breaks all the rules from the ‘point of view’, but does it so elegantly and easily that somehow the trick works. “The reading experience [The Promise] had to be enjoyable at the simplest and most immediate level, ”said Galgut,“ that is, through the use of words. So a kind of poetry was needed.

The poetry sounds like a big claim, but it’s right here because Galgut is gloriously inventive in his descriptions. A woman has “significant calves”. Amor “feels ugly when she cries, like a tomato that opens”. There are lines that stay right on the sinister right side, like the one that describes a phone ringing endlessly, “a lonely sound, made more lonely by the way it repeats itself identically, over and over again, without no solution in sight “.

Less tangible is the role played by religion. The funeral is 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, one might expect a theological feud, or at least some jokes, to ensue. But none of these four introduce a spiritual dimension, although the guru is certainly doing his best. The most dominant faith here is bad faith, although there is a suggestion – left unexplored – that Amor may have some sort of spiritual power, perhaps as a result of lightning on top of a hill. where the ley lines converge.

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

The narrator also becomes a philosopher from time to time, observing a death: “This morning she was alive, inhaling and exhaling, pumping blood and smoldering thoughts, a creature with intentions and a mild case of eczema on the skin. inside the arm and a dinner planned. with friends. “The Catholic priest is, indeed, making a good joke. Did Jesus have an anus, he wonders.” Not according to the Good Book, although you cannot eat several loaves and fish without consequences.”

In a piece for the TLS in 2020, Galgut described a childhood marked by the violence of his stepfather. “We were punched so hard that we often got wet, and the marks from his hands were swollen on us for days after… Partly because of this unhappy family life, I grew up associating brute force with a certain type of Afrikaner mentality. I know now, of course, that violence is universal and Afrikaner violence is not, but it didn’t seem so back then.

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

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