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Damon Galgut’s The Promise is a masterpiece of guile and empathy


Damon Galgut's latest novel is a great family study. Picture by Marthinus Basson

Damon Galgut's latest novel is a great family study. Picture by Marthinus Basson

The Promise

The Promise


Damon Galgut's latest novel is a great family study. Picture by Marthinus Basson

The Promise Damon Galgut Chatto & Windus €19.60

Damon Galgut probably should have won the Booker Prize for his brilliant novel The Good Doctor in 2003. It was shortlisted at least and was followed by The Imposter. In a Strange Room was again shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010. And then came the EM Forster-inspired Arctic Summer; each novel was different from the other, all excellent.

One thing Galgut’s novels share is an existential anguish at the centre of their characters’ lives. They struggle with themselves, with their family, with the tangled politics of a country they have found themselves in; they struggle with loved ones, with God, or God’s absence.

They struggle, and wonder. They go on living, and dying, regardless. These are sombre novels, in other words, but these are also devastatingly honest and with The Promise, Galgut’s latest novel, he joins, indisputably, the ranks of other great South African writers.

The Promise delves into the Swarts, an Afrikaner family living on a farm outside Pretoria. There are four sections, over four decades, all of which contain a funeral. That’s not a plot-spoiler.

The premise centres around a promise made to the family’s maid Salome; she is to be given ownership of the house she lives in. Of course, the Swarts, made up of mother and father, Rachel, and Manie, and their children Anton, Amor, and Astrid, all have differing opinions and memories on whether and how the promise should be honoured.

But really, the plot is just the vehicle for a story that reveals the dark heart of South Africa’s recent and turbulent history; apartheid, conscription, peace and reconciliation are all glossed.

As one character puts it, “If South Africa fails, Moscow will be drinking champagne.”

The novel flows through consciousness and time at a pace. We hear of Mandela, transported “from a cell to a throne”, and the rugby world cup, of leaders Zuma, and Mbeki. “See how much has changed,” one character declaims.

One by one the Swarts pass away. Astrid is vain; she has cheated on her husband. He discovers this when the family’s priest discloses his late wife’s confession to him.

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Anton has committed a crime as a soldier and is haunted his whole life by it.

The one surviving member of the family, Amor, who returns to make the promise right is also the most sympathetic.

But of course, it’s not that simple, and the new judicial system decrees there may be an historical claim on the land which the Swarts have promised to Salome.

The Promise is a significant and exciting technical departure from Galgut’s earlier work. It is also a meditative, lyrical, and self-conscious novel. Third person swerves into first, for example. The reader is addressed directly, and even though these modernist techniques could have had, and sometimes intend to have, an estranging effect, what they actually achieve in The Promise, is a kind of fluid narrativity which means we, the reader, are literally swept along, while Galgut pays a very direct tribute to Joyce in the final cadenced pages.

In that sense, and many others, this is a beguiling novel. As soon as I had finished it, I turned back to page one in awe; “What has Galgut done?” I asked myself.

He may have written a novel that goes to the heart of political instability, to petty greed, desire, and into the depths of the human heart and reveals the contradictions of our fragile condition. Indeed, he might, but how has he done it?

He’s done it with mastery, guile and a generous amount of empathy. The Promise is a masterpiece. 

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