Sofia Kostelac, University of the WitwatersrandSouth African writer Damon Galgut has won the UK’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, for his work The Promise. It was Galgut’s third shortlisting for the career-defining award, which has evaded him until now. In 2003 he was shortlisted for The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room. So what is it that makes his latest novel The Promise so special? We asked Galgut expert Sofia Kostelac to fill us in about the writer and his tale of a white South African family’s reckoning with a racist past – and why the book is important, especially in South Africa where it is set.
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Who is Damon Galgut?
Damon Galgut is a South African writer born in Pretoria in 1963. He now lives and works in Cape Town. He made his literary debut at the age of 18, with the publication of his first novel, A Sinless Season, in 1982. The Promise is his ninth novel, and the third to be shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Although best known for his novels, Galgut has also authored several plays, screenplays and short stories.
Like many readers, I was first made aware of Galgut’s writing when The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. That novel encompasses many of the themes that Galgut has become best known for, including his searching meditations on the devastating legacies of apartheid and white-minority rule in South Africa. Yet his literary range also extends well beyond forms of politically engaged realism. It includes experiments with fictionalised memoir or ‘autrebiography’ (In a Strange Room), biographical fiction (Arctic Summer) and metaphysical crime writing (The Quarry and The Impostor).
What is The Promise all about?
The Promise is a carefully layered novel that spans just over three decades in the lives of the Swarts, a white South African family living on a farm just outside of Pretoria. The promise of the novel’s title refers to the commitment that Manie makes to fulfil his wife Rachel’s dying wish: to give their domestic worker Salome, who has worked for the family for decades, the house on the Swart farm in which she lives. The promise remains unfulfilled for the next 31 years as successive inheritors of the land refuse to cede the property to Salome.
The novel is divided into four parts, each focused on the death and funeral of a member of the Swart family. The deaths occur roughly a decade apart from each other. This is a structuring device that allows Galgut to hold three decades of South African history – from the violent state of emergency in the mid-1980s to the tumult of contemporary times – in view. While the dramatic socio-political changes of these years are apparent in every aspect of the Swart family’s lives, little changes for Salome, whose wait for the dignity and safety represented by land and property endures.
Why does the book matter?
At the heart of the novel – and the unfulfilled promise to Salome – lies the question of what sort of restitution is possible in the context of South Africa’s brutally iniquitous history? The bitter irony on which the story rests is that Salome’s house is entirely undesirable, consisting of “three rooms and a broken roof. On a tough piece of land.” It holds almost no material value for the Swarts, yet the family is torn asunder by their disagreements over its fate.
What would it take, the novel implicitly asks, for a family like the Swarts to give up a modicum of their privilege to nudge us towards a more equitable society? The Promise attends, with meticulous detail and insight, to the pathologies of racism, pride and fear that make such acts unlikely.
Galgut has rightly been praised by reviewers and the Booker judges for the formal skill with which he handles these vexing themes. The narrative voice is a remarkably inventive one that ranges between diverse characters with apparent ease, and delivers a rare combination of irony and empathy that wryly critiques the novel’s deeply flawed and afflicted characters without dehumanising them.
Does the Booker Prize matter and what will it do for Galgut’s career?
The Booker Prize is almost unparalleled in the attention and esteem it affords its winners. The prize has played a significant role in shaping the South African literary canon, and Galgut is now likely to take up a well-earned place alongside pantheons like J.M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer as among the most recognised, studied and anthologised of the country’s writers.
Sofia Kostelac, Lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand
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