Third time lucky

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 26.11.2021

At last! Having had a novel shortlisted twice before, Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize this year, which seems to suggest that there is still some justice in the world. For years he has been celebrated as one of the best contemporary novelists. A writer who loves experimenting, who does not shy away from stylistic innovation and controversial topics.

Both the political and the personal figure large in his work. He is thus the rightful heir to Gordimer, Brink, Coetzee et al., but he takes South African writing into new directions, too. The Good Doctor, published in 2003, became his breakthrough international success, and he has been going from strength to strength ever since. Now, with The Promise, his ninth novel, Galgut offers his readers yet another take on South Africa, a country in which old realities have been shattered and are tentatively being replaced. The book revolves around four funerals, each taking place in a different decade. Religion is ritual, first and foremost, but it is also key to the way some of the characters behave. As are greed and mutual distrust.

Each time, friends and family gather for a final farewell on a smallholding outside Pretoria. Each time there is a different president in power and a different mood in the country at large. In an interview Galgut explained that the original trigger for the book was a conversation with a friend who is a great raconteur. One afternoon the latter described the four family funerals he had attended – of his mother, his father, his brother and his sister. He had ended up as the last living member of the family.

Galgut’s book concentrates on one particular family, but it is also a portrait of the new South Africa. We see frustration and anger still simmering on both sides of the divide. Many a character seems to be stuck in an unhappy marriage or feel that they have been victimised by history or by fate – for want of a better word. The most intriguing feature of the novel is the narrative voice which keeps intruding upon the realities it creates in order to either rebuke a character or address the reader directly. Its cheekiness serves as a constant reminder of the choices all narratives are made up of. Yet the unexpected change of rhythm fits into the flow of events in the most natural way; there is nothing stilted or artificial about putting very different, even clashing layers together and fitting them into the same story. In fact, the playfulness allows Galgut to cut through what would otherwise be the portrayal of a bleak, chaotic world on the brink. Besides, he has a unique eye for detail – for a gesture or a token that reveal the very truths characters are seeking to hide.

Ultimately, only Amor, the youngest Swart sibling, escapes what feels at times like a family curse. But then she is also the loneliest figure of them all, someone who fights injustice relentlessly and puts principle before personal gain. A restless wanderer with a purpose, unlike her brother Anton, who has long been stuck in a fight with his own demons and oscillates between feeling on top of the world and wallowing in self-pity. Meanwhile, Astrid, the middle child, is the most conventional and predictable of the three. Ironically, though, seeking solace within the glorious precincts of a shopping mall one lazy afternoon will prove her undoing.

You might argue that, in more ways than one, Galgut does for South Africa what William Faulkner did for the American South. Like the latter, he concentrates on an extended historical period and on a family struggling to cope with their own demise, but the humour sprinkled over almost all the scenes becomes Galgut’s unique trademark. At times grotesque, at others tongue-in-cheek, it allows you to both be up close and identify with the various characters before then being made to watch them from a distance as they are trying to muddle through.

‘Mesmerising’, ‘magnificent’, ‘magic’ – there has been nothing but worldwide praise for The Promise. All you can do when you reach the end is start waiting for the collection of short stories which Galgut is currently working on. You are bound to be hungry for more.

Damon Galgut, ‘The Promise’, Chatto & Windus, London, 2021 (ISBN 978-1-784-74406-9)

Janine Goedert
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