On white lies and hope for salvation: ‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut
Damon Galgut’s ‘The Promise’ is a kind of satire of whiteness. It gets under the skin of a South African family and it explores with equal measures of comic genius and deep despair the insanity that sustains a culture of privilege.
Living in South Africa means you’re forced to hear the way we speak to and about one another. Some of us filter out the undertones of racism, others seem content to let even the obvious overtones of hatred or condescension slide. If you listen carefully, though, you can’t help hearing the patterns we whites adopt in order to claim a particular space for ourselves, to establish where on the spectrum of entitlement we sit.
The linguistic tropes we deploy inevitably give us away, betray what is in essence our deeply ingrained white privilege. Because the words we use, the sentences we wield, serve as a kind of circular loop, like a self-affirmation of who we are, where in the hierarchy we fit. And, for many, that means clinging to the untenable belief that we’re some kind of special breed, a kind of promised people.
In The Promise, the latest novel by twice Booker-shortlisted Damon Galgut, the thing that scratches constantly at the edges of your awareness is just how utterly ordinary its cast of characters are. They are mostly white, and they are miserably, dishearteningly, tragically ordinary. Despite – or perhaps because of – this glaring ordinariness, Galgut invites us to pause and peer in, to examine, to watch, to listen, to really pay attention to these folks. To get right under their skin and into their soft tissue. Sometimes we get in there quite literally.
If you wanted to be flippant, you might describe Galgut’s novel – in terms of how it’s been structured, at least – as Four Weddings and a Funeral-ish. Except, with The Promise it’s “four funerals and a promise deferred”. And whereas the aforementioned feel-good rom-com made us giggle through its weddings and then wail with heartache-y emotions during its funeral, Galgut applies a far darker lens, a black comic one in fact, to mock the sanctity of the funerals and memorial services held for each member of the Swart family around which this novel is wrapped.
The story unfolds over a number of decades, covering the transition of South African society from the heady days of apartheid to the post-honeymoon years in which we seem to find ourselves today. Against this backdrop, Galgut swoops down and zooms in on this family. He examines their foibles, their disagreements, their nasty bits and their not-so-unkind bits, too.
The novel gets under the outer layers of skin, past the soft tissue, the taut musculature, the bone, and into the deep nervous system of whites. And, once there, he lets us observe – we listen to them whine, watch their little familial outbursts play out, share their deepest, and often darkest, thoughts. We become witness to their messed-up minds, we get a taste of their innermost nature, their very DNA. Which is where things are a bit mixed up, muddled, distorted; where some kind of socialised insanity presides. The kind of insanity that enables one group of people to assume themselves superior to another.
The tension in the novel is afforded by the fact that, at the start, there’s some kind of hope, because things in South Africa are changing. And because a husband has made a promise to his dying wife that he will do something that in some small way will serve as a kind of atonement.
The thing is, though, he fails to keep his promise. And his failure is linked to the fact that he cannot snap out of his self-delusion, his deeply held belief that he is special, that he and “his people” – his fellow whites – are somehow above the rest. That what’s been promised has been promised to a black servant, and therefore doesn’t quite matter.
The vow made by Manie Swart to his dying wife is his promise to sign over ownership of a cottage on his farm to Salome who works in his home and has helped raise his children. But once his wife – who has, in Manie’s eyes betrayed him and “his people” by reverting to the Jewish faith of her birth – is buried, there’s no one to see that he keeps his promise.
No one aside from their daughter, Amor. She alone seems to have overheard the promise, but is at the time too young to be taken seriously. Though she makes her case and is evidently the book’s moral backbone, being young and female somehow disqualifies her from having a say in grown-up matters, even if she is the only one willing to speak up on the side of fairness.
And so, like a curse, the broken promise comes back to haunt the family at roughly 10-year intervals.
And with each chapter, another family member dies in some or other unhappy manner. Manie, the promise-breaking husband, is bitten by a poisonous snake while testing his faith as part of some sort of insane fundraiser at the snake park he co-owns. Yes, there is humour in Dalgut’s choice of how the Swarts get their comeuppance, and while we know we probably shouldn’t laugh at Manie’s misfortune, we inevitably do. Because Galgut has a way with words, a way of showing us how someone’s raw deal can so easily be twisted into someone else’s joke.
A decade after Manie succumbs to his fatal snake bite, it’s the turn of his daughter Astrid who appears, through the course of her ordinary life, to have become part of that subgenre of white South Africans who don’t really know what they believe; who are so disconnected from the realities of the world that they are blind to their own complicity in it. So while she grapples with the physical sensations of the torrid sexual affair she’s having with her husband’s black, politically connected business partner, she is nevertheless unwilling to recognise her own privilege, instead finding fault in everything around her.
Astrid’s end follows an almost matter-of-fact carjacking that plays out with near-comical absurdity. It affords opportunity for Galgut to briefly segue into the mental and emotional interior of the small-time criminal who kills her for her car. Or rather kills her because she’s witness to him taking her car. Life, in South Africa, is cheap, we’re reminded. And, when it comes to crime, no one is special.
And then there’s Anton, who is haunted by the fact that, while serving in the apartheid-era defence force, he killed a black woman at more or less the same moment his own mother died. To him it is something beyond mere symbolism – he holds himself responsible for both deaths, yet he is somehow less troubled by the one for which he pulled the trigger. You kind of know Anton will not survive the book, since he does not seem mentally strong enough to endure his own miserable, ordinary existence.
You almost feel sorry for Anton, recognise the potential in him, but feel so put out by his graceless navel-gazing and his irrational, spiteful refusal to give in to Amor’s plea that he honour their family’s promise to Salome, who despite growing older, continues to work in Anton’s inherited home.
What’s simultaneously sad and amusing is the extent to which Anton wallows in self-pity. He begrudges his failure to do anything of significance despite the great promise he once showed, and yet is unwilling to accept his complicity in his own undoing. As a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-reference, Galgut turns Anton into a “promising” wannabe novelist, and has him hacking away at his novel for a vast portion of his life. At the end of his despairing existence, he is stuck in a loveless, sexually and emotionally unsatisfying marriage, and leaves behind nothing other than an unfinished book.
And so, through a series of funerals and memorial get-togethers for the members of Amor’s family – her mother, her father, her self-pitying sister, her self-absorbed brother – we witness white South Africans looking the other way, absorbed in their own sense of entitlement, their own petty grievances. Amor alone seems intent on seeing her mother’s wish honoured.
What’s worth noting is that, from even before the novel commences, this menagerie of privileged white South Africans is falling apart. They’re on a downward spiral, headed for oblivion. The more they attempt to carve for themselves some sense of specialness, the more they try to cling to the remnants of their privilege, the more they seem likely to be relegated to the dung heap of history.
Galgut’s talent here has been to home in on both the physical attributes and the inner emotional landscape of these ordinary whites, showing all their actual and metaphysical weaknesses. If you’re white and you fear the sight of yourself in the mirror, this novel will either terrify you or open your eyes and make you cringe.
Don’t worry, it’s by no means torture. This is not Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange with his eyes forcibly held open by metal clamps in order to have the medicine go down. Galgut’s book is endlessly entertaining – intensely funny, deeply absorbing and very human.
Galgut’s knack is for constantly shifting the perspective, frequently altering the point of view and switching between narrators – even mid-sentence – as though a camera operator has suddenly grown bored with one strand of thought and with the flick of a button changed to another angle.
He also transitions between ethereal and physical states, and between macro and micro observations of the world and its characters in the blink of an eye, and the effect is to provide a curiously rounded portrait of each of the characters; in so doing he illuminates aspects of the human condition that are frustrating, tricky, confusing and daunting. We are terribly boxed in by our past and by our beliefs, he seems to say, to the extent that even when we know how to fix things, when we know what is right, we stymie ourselves, as though we are warders of our own mental asylum.
It is fabulously done, and all the more remarkable because Galgut is a masterful wit. His ability to “hear” the preening and strutting implied in the voices of people whose social and racial superiority is somehow believed to be bequeathed to them as a kind of birthright, handed down in the way we’re raised with live-in servants who, by name alone have become “domestic workers” in modern parlance, but who were once referred to as “the maid” or “the girl” or “houseboy” or even simply “she” or “him”, “they” and “them”. Galgut’s point is that you simply have to listen to the ways in which we whites talk among ourselves to know that something is terribly wrong. It is not merely a political shift that is required but a shift in our internal language, a genuine change of belief, a genetic rewiring.
There is hope, though, and it’s represented by the shy and awkward character of Amor, a quiet yet committed white woman who is prepared to swallow her pride, accept what she does not know, and do right by those whom her people have wronged. She represents, perhaps, hope for the future. Even, possibly, a promise of salvation. DM/ML
Cape Town-based Damon Galgut has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice (for The Good Doctor, in 2003, and In a Strange Room, in 2010) – now, The Promise received another nod and won the Booker Prize for 2020.
Diagnosed with cancer when he was six, Galgut was for a long time bed-bound – he says being read to by relatives during that time played a significant role in his development as a writer. Incredibly, he wrote his first novel when he was 17 – not something he likes to discuss almost 40 years later, but that first book, A Sinless Season (1984), was about three juvenile delinquents sent to a reformatory where the illusion of civilisation begins to erode when one of the boys is found dead under suspicious circumstances. It’s published by Umuzi.
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