A reflection on South Africa’s third Booker Prize winner: The promise by Damon Galgut

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The promise
Damon Galgut
Cape Town: Umuzi, 2021
ISBN: 9781415210581

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer's own initiative.

The love of reading fiction is certainly one of the binding factors in my relationship with my partner, P, as is our enthusiasm for sharing what we love with other people.

P finished The promise after two days, and couldn’t stop telling our friends: “You have to read it. It’s the best book about South Africa I’ve ever read. An absolute masterpiece. Go and buy it at Die Boek Huis, our local bookstore.”

In his mega enthusiasm, he often forgets that his labelling as “the best ever” is so often used that some eyebrows rise when he goes into exaggerating mode. Mine do not; I trust his reading skills and deduct the exaggeration easily. Great was my surprise when I started reading and found the voice in the book rather irritating. How can a narrator switch in one paragraph between the third person point of view and the first person?

What isn’t weightless is the stone that suddenly comes at him, hurled from a hand who leans out of the scene, bloodshot eyes fixed only on me. (41)

Why did the writer interrupt the characters’ flow for a direct address to the reader? Why was he leaning over the pages and interpreting things as if I hadn’t a thought of my own?

She dislikes her body, as many of you do, but with special adolescent intensity …. (29)

The house is dark except for the floodlights fore and aft, note the nautical terms, illuminating the driveway …. (35)                           

P was irritated with my critical remarks. He said I failed to notice that Damon used his pen as a camera, moving through, over and in the characters.

Some famous writers we know hadn’t liked the book, so maybe I was influenced by their opinion? I think P even suspected me of being jealous, because he knows about my pretensions to being a good writer myself.

I had never had a fight with P over a book before. But, as I continued reading, he proved to be right again. Damn it!

The book is fabulous: ironic, moving, sacrilegious, shocking, painful, insightful.

The narrator’s interventions that irritated me most in the beginning turned out to be a masterful weapon to create:

    • A critical distance, a comment on the artificiality of writing

Jake follows him to a big room with a piano and fake flowers and an assortment of little ornaments, best left undescribed. No energy to name objects, let alone observe them. (167)

Yes, here it comes, the rain, like some cheap redemptive symbol in a story, falling from a turbulent sky onto rich and poor, happy and unhappy alike. It falls onto thin shacks as impartially as it falls on opulence. (241)

    • An off-sense kind of black comedy

But you’d be forgiven for believing, if you wandered into their bedroom at this moment, that they are shipwrecked in the aftermath of a white-hot flash of love making. (163)

You may have noticed it yourself, protesting at destiny is a waste of breath, what happens will happen, regardless of your NO. In the end it’s a fact as neutral as the weather that this morning your husband got up and went outside with his shotgun and contorted himself into an impossible position in order to blow his head off, just because. (209)

    • A political comment, without being hindered by any correctness that hovers over every statement about black and white

Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out. (88)

Whatever is hated is also feared, some consolation in that. (131)

It’s a public holiday, Reconciliation Day or whatever they call it lately, so the staff aren’t in. They’ve got wise to their rights and have been demanding extra pay for holidays, though what they really want is stay at home and get falling-down drunk. Same as me. (197)

In the witty interview by Marianne Thamm with Damon Galgut on YouTube, he says he made a deliberate choice not to go into the thinking and feelings of the black people, because they never had a voice.

If Salome’s home has not been mentioned before it’s because you haven’t mentioned it before it’s because you have not asked, you didn’t care to know. (237)

The only character in the book who really cares about Salome, the family’s house servant all those decades, is the youngest daughter, Amor Swart (the irony in the name!), because she knows what to ask and how to listen, and, contrary to all the other living characters, she is generous. But Amor is damaged, too, powerless to force her father and brother to keep their promises made to their dying wife and mother to give Salome her own house. But she keeps the promise alive, with the hope that redemption is possible.

Read the book, and you might be inspired to be as generous as Amor!

Also read:

Podcast: The promise – Ron Irwin in conversation with Damon Galgut

The promise by Damon Galgut: a book review

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