It’s been 7 years since Galgut’s last novel, Arctic Summer (2014), a novelisation of the latter years of the English writer E. M. Forster, so The Promise, his latest, has been greatly anticipated.
The most interesting aspect of this novel is the narrative voice. The writing is free-form: no quotation marks; dialogue and narrative merge – but you’ll be surprised how distinct and recognisable the dialogue is – and usually in the 3rd person but with a little 1st, (my mother died this morning) and even a peppering of the 2nd, like he’s talking to me, you, the reader, throwing asides at you, (check out the pic if you don’t believe me). Sometimes a character speaks aloud in a sentence started by the narrator; sometimes the narrator is embodied with feelings and sarcasm (Alwyn and his spouse, sorry, his sister…) It takes a few dozen pages for this free-form to meld into a tone, a voice, an attitude, but it does, and when it does you’ll be greatly relieved. You can relax, and once you do and let this voice work on you, you will have an entertaining reading experience. Although the narrator is unnamed, as most 3rd person narrators are, this one has attitude, likes, dislikes, and lets you know them. Changes of scene and characters happen mid sentence giving the narrative an unplanned wandering song-line, like a slideshow on a phone. It gives the work an attractive chatty tone but one that leads you deep inside the minds and actions of these flawed characters.
The book is divided in to 4 sections, each for one of the main characters of the Swart family, Ma, Pa, Astrid, and Anton. But the main character is Amor, the youngest, who is a child of 10 when her mother dies. However, days before, on Ma’s death bed, Amor overheard Ma’s dying wish: Salome, the family’s loyal, long-serving, bare-foot black maid, is to be given ownership of her rented small and ramshackle house and land. Pa agrees. This is The Promise. Over the following decades South Africa sheds its hated Apartheid system, Nelson Mandela becomes president, black rule fails almost everybody’s expectations and hope for a brighter and more prosperous future; not unlike the trajectory of the disintegrating Swart family; like the slow decline of Salome and her house. Amor goes her own way but the promise is forever on her mind and whenever she returns (Return to South Africa feels more like a condition than an act), only for family funerals, her determination to have the promise fulfilled is thwarted. Will the promise be fulfilled when she is the only one left?
The knot of races in Galgut’s native South Africa seems never to be unloosed. This story could be read as a metaphor for the country; as could the plight of Salome; as could Amor’s bruised determination; yet there is hope in that she could be the only one left standing with a future to build, albeit an unknown one and obviously difficult.
The telling, but unconscious, thoughts of the whites (… so many black people drifting about as if they belong here) pepper the text and each time cement the notion that change will always remain elusive. Do all the whites have to die before the blacks can claim their place?
Galgut’s The Promise has made it onto the 2021 Booker Prize long list. If it gets to the short list, as it should, it will be his third: the first In a Strange Room in 2003 and The Good Doctor in 2010. The links will take you to my blog posts.
“Local writers are trying to escape a rigid set of moral gestures, if I can put it like that, which have imposed repetition upon us. Perhaps cliché is nothing more than the weight of the past pinning down your mind. In this sense, imaginative freedom is a way of finding the future, though it isn’t so easy to do.”
In other words, Galgut is looking out from South Africa not looking at it. However, there is a tone to his work that can easily be linked to his country, his continent: a tone that is built on the black and the white, the long distances, the heat, the poverty, the seemingly political ineptitude and the sense of people struggling to live a life they want but never seem to get. Most, but not all, of his male protagonists are slight in stature, indecisive, confused, loners with an ambiguous sexuality. Patrick Winter, the first-person narrator in Galgut’s 1991 novel, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs is one such protagonist. He is also mentally fragile since his compulsory two-year stint in the military where he became not only horrified by death and boredom but he attained a sense of hatred and terror at things like the insistent regularity of bathroom tiles and the rigid diagonals of sunlight. He takes Valium twice a day.
He travels to Namibia by car with his mother to see her black boyfriend who is politically activated in the first free elections in Namibia, formally South West Africa, where Patrick did his mandatory South African national service one year earlier and, now on this trip, he constantly wonders if the locals he meets may have been the same people that he shot at; that shot at him. It’s a story about a child and his mother; she, extroverted, thrives to belong “but her glamorous strivings were hollow’’; he, introverted, convoluted, his “patterns ran inward, spiralling endlessly towards a centre that didn’t exist.” They, tragically for both of them, belong together.
This book fell out of print but it was Galgut’s shortlisting for the 2008 Man-Booker prize with his novel The Good Doctor (2003), and subsequent fame, that gave him the opportunity to refine the text for the inevitable re-print. He was never quite satisfied with the original text: ‘discordant’ he called it.
“I woke to the sound of a pig being killed. I sat up rigidly in bed, not moving till the noise suddenly stopped. Then I got up and dressed and went outside. I had forgotten this about the farm. Its calendar runs on slaughter.”
This is typical of Galgut’s prose: stark statement of fact, short clear sentences without any mention of what the narrator feels; but the arrangement of such words, sentences, creates its own feeling, supplied significantly by the reader. Galgut draws the scene, we colour it in.
I once heard an ordinary female tourist talk about the end of her wonderful and surprising holiday on a foreign isle and her inevitable return: “Home I go,” she said, “to crawl back under my rock.” For all Patrick and his mother’s yearnings and plans this is what will happen.
“I sat down on a swing and rocked myself to and fro. In a little while, I knew, I would walk back up the road to the hotel, and we would pack our bags and go, and our usual lives would resume.”
The promise of travel and the lure of a foreign place is rarely fulfilled, it takes courage to stay out from under that rock; and Galgut by writing about this makes us aware just how rare and courageous it is.
It is about a South African man called Damon; it may be Damon Galgut, or it may not.
“He is only passing through … he doesn’t carry any abstract moral burdens, but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room.”
He is a walker, a little lost, a little directionless, a little uncertain of his own motives; a sojourner. He is walking in Greece where he meets, on the road, an enigmatic, and attractive German, Reiner – “He knows that he is beautiful and somehow this makes him ugly”. They travel together but the relationship never grows beyond the casual, despite the sexual tension in the air. Galgut is good at sexual tension. Yet even the casual becomes a disaster.
His second journey, Lover, involves meeting a mixed bunch of people, Jerome, Alice, Charles, and Rodrigo and following them over half the African continent. He doesn’t know why. He sometimes is surprised at what his legs are doing, at what direction they are taking him. Jerome seems interested in him but Damon does nothing. He leaves them, regrets leaving them, plans to follow, but doesn’t then eventually does. This ‘action’ is by no means boring; it is the most intimate of prose, deeply interesting, deeply personal, almost uncomfortably so at times. “It is a story of what never happened, the story of traveling a long way while standing still.”
The third part, Guardian, is concerned about his traveling companion, Anna, on a trip to India. She is teetering on the edge and threatens to drag him over with her. She relies on a trove of pills which, if taken as directed, will reboot her life but if taken all at once will take it away, and what’s he to do in India with a corpse?
There is something about this book that I must tell you; it is the most unusual fiction, although thrilling too, I have ever read. I was in two minds about telling you about it; it may put you off, I can think of two people that it would put off, but it is so essential to the tone of it, the flavour of it that I could not not tell you. It is told in the third person, and begins, “He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown him….” and very soon he sees a figure in the distance walking towards him. Eventually they approach each other; both watching each other. The figure is described, all dressed in black; “Even his rucksack is black”, and then at the bottom of the first page, there is this, “What the first man is wearing I don’t know, I forget.” I felt a jolt. What? There is the walker, and the man dressed in black, and now another man? “I”? I read the first page again; maybe I had missed something. No I had not missed something. I read on and peppered sparingly are these first person references, and I realised that the third person narrator is referring to himself: the ‘he’ and the “I” are the same person, Damon; so, yes, maybe Damon is Damon Galgut. The writer is his own character. This is a little alarming only if you aren’t prepared for it; hence my telling you. Galgut is also free with punctuation especially of conversation:
“Where are you from. He has an improbable English accent, very overdone. South Africa, goodness me, how did you get up here. Through Malawi, my word, I’m off to Malawi in a few days. Look around, yes please, be my guest. What did you say your name was.”
My same two friends would be equally put off by this, but it is surprisingly clear; or maybe it is only a thought of conversation, an expectation; a fictive chat.
Despite the title of the book what action there is takes place as far away from a room as you can get: the open road. Whether it be Greece, Malawi, Switzerland, India, or Kenya he is a traveler and his life is about the people he meets and journeys with, but the drama of this book is in the man himself, the ‘he’, the ‘I’ and in a sense this is a stronger form of autobiography: Galgut (I) is standing apart from himself, watching himself (he), describing his actions, trying to work out what it is about himself. “I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life. He sits in the empty room, crying.”
Lines like “I don’t remember what they do for the rest of that day” meaning ‘what I did for the rest of the day’ give the feeling of truth; ironically the admission of no action makes it all the more believable.
“In the morning his actual departure will be an echo of this one. He has already left, or perhaps he never arrived.”
Yes, in the first two parts of the book the action is languid, undefined, unimpressive; where the drama is all internal: a personal journey to try and work out why Damon is like he is; fascinating it its novelistic skill. Part three begins as expected but suddenly a life hangs in the balance and Damon is forced to act. The pace is frenetic, the action white-hot, and Galgut doesn’t pull any punches. It hits you in the guts just like it did him, and I read and read ’til the end, redefining the term ‘page-turner’. His skill at internal drama is eclipsed with his mastery of fast-paced action. It’s head-spinning stuff!
I wait with heightened expectation for Galgut’s next work.
I found this book compelling. I altered my daily routine to make more reading time, to find out what would happen; and I appreciated the small editing trick that put the climactic event on the top of a new page: I turned the page and gasped. I knew something was coming, but not that!
I discovered the South African writer, Damon Galgut, via his latest novel, Arctic Summer, which was a fictional re-creation of the latter writing life of E. M. Forster in his attempt to come to terms with the writing of his most famous and last novel, A Passage to India, and his own sexuality (See my review posted on the 4th March 2015).
The Good Doctor won Best Book in the African section of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2003 and was shortlisted for the Man-Booker prize, as was his 2010 work, In a Strange Room, a copy of which I am searching for. There is now a space on my bookshelf for the works of Damon Galgut, when I find them.
The setting of The Good Doctor is post-apartheid South Africa, in a dusty, remote, native ‘homeland’ which was created, had money thrown at it, but then abandoned, and integrated back into South Africa itself; the ‘capital’ neglected, and the hospital seemingly forgotten by the authorities in Pretoria. It is to this underfunded, under-utilised, but over-staffed hospital that the good doctor, Laurence Waters, comes.
Interestingly the story is told in the first person by the implied, ‘bad’ doctor, Frank Eloff with whom the new arrival has to share a cramped room. Laurence is ambitious, eager, committed and full of big ideas; Frank is not, he is none of these things. He is a plodder; content to muddle through although over-reaches himself in his care of the few patients the hospital treats. It seems Laurence is focused on the process, the work, while Frank is focused on the outcome.
The tension is the product of these two diverse personalities forced to share a small bedroom within a just-functioning institution in a just-functioning society. A friendship develops despite Frank’s constant denial that one exists. Everywhere is the threat of violence. Soldiers appear apparently because the failed, and enigmatic previous military leader of the ‘homeland’ is still lurking out there in the bush somewhere. Off duty military men drinking in the only bar in town lean their rifles between their legs; road blocks, forced car-searches, and abrupt interrogations create a feeling of unease, and the threat of potential calamities. Also within the hospital all is on edge. Frank’s illicit affair with a local woman who doesn’t want conversation; the possibility of the surly male nurse, the only nurse, Tehogo and his ‘pretty’ friend, Raymond, being part of the ex-leader’s band; and his tense relationship with the only two females on the team, his boss Dr Ruth Ngema, and his ex-lover Catherine, a Cuban exile, who continually fights with her husband – their loud arguments in Spanish permeating the thin wall separating them from the two men trying to sleep in close narrow beds next door.
One day the thought of Laurence getting his own room creates an unwelcome and surprising feeling in Frank: he would prefer that not to happen. I kept trying to ignore the sexual tension here, passing it off as wishful thinking, but, no, it is there but I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what does or does not happen.
I’m a slow reader but I read this one in record time; I didn’t want it to end, but I couldn’t help turning the next page, and the next, and the next. Highly recommended.
Damon Galgut, when he is not travelling, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, is 52, and an openly gay man – which begs the question, why mention it? I mention it in relation to his latest book, Arctic Summer, which is a fictionalised account of the middle years – the early 20th century – of E.M. Forster’s life, his early career, his success with Howard’s End, his long roaming interlude that finally brought him to A Passage to India, but most importantly, his grappling with his homosexuality.
“At the time I grew up in South Africa,” said Galgut in a recent interview, “it was illegal to be gay. The whole system of apartheid was extremely patriarchal; all its values were skewed in that direction. To be gay growing up in Pretoria in the 1960s – it would be hard to overstate what a terribly suffocating oppressive place it was. I learned, like quite a lot of gay men do, to hide and to assume fake personas. That sense of concealment has stayed with me, even now. I suppose I’ve internalised a lot of self-dislike – self-doubt, maybe, is a better way to put it.”
Forster also hid and assumed a fake persona, all the more tragic that the persona he chose to hide behind was an imitation of the same persona all the men around him hid behind as well: English, literary, controlled, stiff-upper-lip, and straight, if only in that English way of not seeming to be interested in marriage. He also suffered immense self-doubt especially about his novelistic portrayal of relationships between men and women of which he had no experience at all. Yet he craved intimacy, especially sexual intimacy but had no idea of the actions or words needed to satisfy such a craving. When ‘it’ finally happened he stumbled into it, and before he knew it, there it was and his seducer did all the work; and although it was fleeting he was amazed and pleased, but he was thirty seven years old.
Arctic Summer was the name of another Forster novel but one that he abandoned in early 1913 having succumbed to a weariness at only writing, or being allowed to write, about the love between men and women.
Galgut’s writing is masterful especially in creating and colouring indecision, sexual expectation, and longing. Forster, who everyone calls Morgan, visits a country friend of a friend whom he hasn’t met yet although he has read some of the man’s writings on “Homogenic Love” which excited him. This country friend, Edward Carpenter, lives with his younger ‘companion’, George, a working class man from the Sheffield slums, and the three men have lunch, after which Morgan helps George clear the table. The following is the description of putting down the plates in the kitchen. A simple domestic act, but oh, there is so much more.
‘Looking for a clear surface on which to set down the plates, he was aware of George’s closeness behind him and of the sound of his breathing.
“Is this right?” he said. “Here?”
“Let me see. Yes, that ‘s all right. Just put them down.”
He put them down and stood, not moving. He could hear the sound of breathing, close enough to be intrusive. Then he realised it was his own.
“Oh,” he said, surprised.
And then a little frightened.
Because George was touching him.
It was merely a hand, in the lower curve of his back. The contact was suggestive though the fingers didn’t move. Perhaps it was the talk they’d been having, or the thoughts he’d entertained, but there was something subversive about that hand. Something flowed out of it, transmitted through the palm: a presumption of equality, or worse – ownership. Yes, this must be how it felt, to be touched by a lover. He could feel the heat of it, the possessive certainty of its contact. Then the hand dropped down to his bottom, wavered there for a moment, and came to rest a little above his buttocks, at the base of the spine.
It was astonishing. Something had happened to him. He wasn’t quite in the kitchen any more, not quite in his own body. His mind had flashed away from itself, to some inner place where the events of the day were still being arranged. Now they were arranged differently.
“Yes,” George said again. “That’s all right, there.”
Carpenter’s voice called outside, and the hand fell away.’
Forster did write a gay novel, Maurice, a happy-ever-after romance between men from different social backgrounds but it was only published after his death and inspired, Galgut suggests, by the scene of domestic ordinariness of that luncheon with Edward Carpenter and his companion, George.
This is a story concerning real people, real events but it is also full of conjuring, and flights of imagination, like the above quote – and Galgut’s depiction of Forster’s first sexual encounter – which sets this work as fiction, not biography. The above event may not have happened but it’s possible, and believable, that something like it did.
Galgut describes several of Forster’s relationships. The first, sexually unrequited, with an educated Indian, Masood, and the second, more successfully, although far from passionate, with an Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. Galgut also gives Forster the opportunity to tell the former about the latter: a ‘romance’ he called it, and it is due to Galgut’s skill that when Foster finally says it: vocalises his love for another man I was overjoyed for him, not so much that, finally, he had known sexual love, meagre though it was, but that he was able to express it.
Arctic Summer is not unlike Colm Toibin’s The Master, about another writer, Henry James, who also grappled with his sexuality, but in the American it was buried so deep that not even Toibin’s masterly conjuring could’ve produced a scene like that above, and nor would it have been appropriate: for James, thoughts such as those reliably never existed, whereas for Forster they plagued his every waking hour and sometimes his sleeping ones as well.
This work is an example of historical biographical fiction and if you are concerned about what is true – and you shouldn’t be – all that can be said is that this is Galgut’s version of what ‘maybe’ true; and there are many others. What IS important is what the reader understands, enjoys, is enlivened and enlightened by.
Damon Galgut was unknown to me until the arrival of my ‘book fairy’, a European friend who comes twice a year to the tropical island where I live bearing news about books and his reading adventures but also books themselves. He had forgotten the name of this book and its author but knew the work was about E.M. Forster. Google did the rest. Fancy finding it here in a local bookstore! It has only been out a year.
Galgut’s first book, A Sinless Season, was published when he was 17, and following a serious cancer scare, a collection of short stories appeared, Small Circle of Beings, in 1988. He has been short-listed for the Man-Booker prize twice: for The Good Doctor in 2003 and In a Strange Room in 2010. He has also written plays and taught drama at his alma mater, The University of Cape Town.
“… we’re constructing the story of our lives all the time, and memory, in the end, is no different than the telling of another kind of story.” Damon Galgut.
I’m going to make a space for Damon Galgut on my bookshelf between Anna Funder and Helen Garner.