The Promise by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut

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? 

Highly recommended.

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. 

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

UPDATE November 4 2021: Galgut’s The Promise won the 2021 Booker Prize!

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Don’t worry if you are woefully unread in South African literature, so is the South African writer Damon Galgut.

“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.

You can find this book here.

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut
The South African writer, Damon Galgut

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.