Review: The Promise by Damon Galgut

What do white South Africans do after apartheid? How should they be? These are some of the specific questions that propel the narrative of Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel.

The Promise begins in 1986, a year into the South Africa’s first State of Emergency in response to violent resistance to apartheid. Like the nation, the Afrikaner Swart family are going through their own crisis on their farm on the outskirts of Pretoria after the death of Rachel, their mother. While the family and the local priest tussle over whether to give her a Jewish funeral as per her wishes, the kids grieve. There are Astrid, who is discovering boys, and Anton, who has been conscripted into the army. And then there’s 13-year-old Amor, who overhears her father Manie promise his dying wife that he will give a house on the property to their servant Salome, who Manie inherited with the land.

That promise becomes a curse as it remains unfulfilled over the years. The narrative skips forward, ten years, then five, then fifteen, stopping in to take the temperature of febrile post-apartheid South Africa. First comes the hope of Nelson Mandela and the Rainbow Nation, then the curdling of that hope as the nation elects the HIV-denialist Thabo Mbeki, and then corruption under Jacob Zuma, leading to the recent water crisis and power blackouts. Like Anton’s novel, which he labours and procrastinates over most of his life, this is a story with “a strong start that loses its way”.

It is a difficult thing to pull off, this story in which the fortunes of a family mirror that of an entire country’s, but here it delivers its promise with brutal force. Corruption erodes the souls of the characters like the nation’s, “chomp chomp chomp, little termites, eating away at the timbers”. Religion is a crony to this corruption, rather than salvation. There’s the shock of discovering the significance of the section titles, and then the grim inevitability of their fulfilment. Galgut plays with your sense of justice: you might root for the Swart family’s downfall, but then he catches you out on your cruelty. It is Amor where Galgut finds his hero, an almost pathologically serious young girl who grows up to become a saint-like palliative nurse, interestingly mirroring the protagonist of J M Coetzee’s Disgrace whose job is to euthanise stray dogs. Like Australia, with which South Africa’s white history share far too many similarities, the solution The Promise proposes is economically simple: land justice and reparations

Although driven by the specificity of South Africa’s particular circumstances, in the writing Galgut turns towards the universal. The narrative flits between the character’s consciousness with freedom like a irascible, unreliable Greek chorus. There is a cruel, even camp precision to their observations, all too aware of the frailties of human bodies that unite us: an old woman’s disappointment is “like a secret fart”; an ageing aunt shows up at a funeral, “the stumpy remains of her, half-melted and overflowing her wheelchair, like an old candle in a saucer”. The promise of the title may be a parcel of land, but it is also the only guarantee common to all of us, that noone gets out of this alive. The novel is haunted by many ghosts, like Rachel’s wandering spirit:

She touches down where her spirit was once thick, but she’s no longer solid, a watercolour woman … She looks real, which is to say, ordinary. How would you know she is a ghost? Many of the living are vague and adrift too, it’s not a failing unique to the departed.

It’s here the book finds its pathos, in the comings and goings of the living and dead, the vague and the adrift.

Gay rating: 3/5 for a major queer character.

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