Apartheid has fallen now, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.
South African author Damon Galgut is back. It has been a long seven years since the release of Arctic Summer, his fictionalized imagining of the creative block that filled the space between EM Forester’s conception of an “Indian novel” and the publication of A Passage to India eleven years later. It is a tale of unrequited love, rich with historical detail and Edwardian literary flavour. With The Promise, Galgut has returned to his native soil with a work that traces the cumulative misfortunes of an Afrikaner family across three decades of national transition and turmoil. Thematically and stylistically this novel echoes his earlier work, but this ambitious, original effort rises to another level, casting a critical eye at his nation’s troubled history with the insight, confidence and sly humour of a seasoned writer.
Central to The Promise are the Swarts—mother Rachel, father Manie, daughters Astrid and Amor and son Anton—their small farm outside of Pretoria, and a shifting assortment of relatives, partners and community members who come and go along the way. The first section opens with a death, Rachel has lost her battle with cancer, and the family gathers. Astrid, the middle child, is living at home, but her thirteen year-old sister Amor has been sent away to lodge at her school and nineteen year-old Anton is doing his military service. The year is 1986. Rachel’s recent return to her Jewish faith complicates the funeral proceedings and stokes existing tensions between both sides of the deceased woman’s family. But there is something more. Two weeks earlier, Amor had been present in her mother’s room when she begged Manie to promise that he would give Salome, their housekeeper, the small house that she lived in. Reluctantly he agreed. Of course Amor’s parents did not remember she was present at the time; she was, as she puts it, as invisible as a black woman to them. As invisible as Salome herself. Within her family Amor is the odd one—injured as a in a lightning strike as a child, she is seen as slow and plain and, as such, set apart from her older siblings, the golden ones.
Across the years, the members of the Swart family drift apart, each following their own path, to be pulled together only by a sequence of funerals, each separated by roughly a decade. It is by no means a spoiler to reveal that every gathering reduces the Swart clan by one. The section titles even give the victim away, but in itself that tells you little because as life and death takes its toll on the family, the children grow up and South Africa changes, for better and for worse. The promise of Independence, the strangeness of seeing racial boundaries bend, even blur, the rising crime, and the ultimate political disillusion colour the world within which the primary characters fall in and out of love, succeed and fail, and meet their ends. Guiding the entire drama is a rambling omniscient (mostly) third person narrator who is, by turns, playful, sarcastic, critical, and compassionate.
The narrative voice is exceptional, orchestrating a drama which is at once far reaching and intimate. James Wood in his review for The New Yorker says:
Technically, it’s a combination of free indirect style (third-person narration pegged to a specific character) and what might be called unidentified free indirect style (third-person narration pegged to a shadowy narrator, or a vague village chorus).
This is a helpful way to describe what Galgut is doing, but it doesn’t begin to capture what it feels like to ride the narrative wave, or the skillful way that the narrator engages with his audience echoing views of an extended cast of characters, some almost incidental, others central to the story, to call moments of historical value into relief and to further personality development with passing commentary and sideways glances. The line between the narrator and the characters is porous; it is, at times, impossible to tell if we are hearing a character’s thoughts or words, or if we are hearing the narrator’s direct response to that individual, an editorial aside, or the reflection of a group or societal opinion. One also finds moments where names are forgotten, mistakes are made and quickly corrected, and where metafictional observations step out to question the logic of novel writing/storytelling in process. However, these are not mere gimmicks, rather they underscore the willful blindness that so many of the characters, and by extension, white South Africans, cling to as their reality is challenged. And, of course, the promise at the heart of the novel, unkept and as such symbolic of this shifting terrain, is a constant stumbling block:
Not even Salome is around as she normally would be. You might have expected to see her at the funeral, but Tannie Marina told her in no uncertain terms that she would not be allowed to attend. Why not? Ag, don’t be stupid. So Salome has gone back to her own house, beg your pardon, to the Lombard Place, and changed into her church clothes, which she would have worn to the service, a black dress, patched and darned, and a black shawl, and her only good pair of shoes, and a handbag and a hat, and like that she sits out in front of her house, sorry, the Lombard Place, on a second-hand armchair from which the stuffing is bursting out, and says a prayer for Rachel.
The Promise is, all told, a rather bleak novel, though the boisterous narrator keeps it afloat. As the family falls apart, so does the farm. Everyone seems to have an interest in the house, or its presumed value, but no one is prepared to maintain it and, as we reach the closing section, it’s 2017, and there are competing claims on the land. The only person to keep a degree of distance is Amor, the youngest. At first she travels, returning home transformed, no longer the ugly duckling. She goes on to become a nurse and remains in touch with Salome while avoiding the rest of her family. If she is the Swarts’ moral compass, the price she pays is perhaps no less than that of her siblings, Astrid who marries young and has twins, and Anton who also marries but remains recklessly without a rudder. Religion, or lack thereof, a necessary feature of a tale built around four funerals, proves insufficient to hold anyone’s life intact, yet in various incarnations faith forms an important thread running through this book. But on an individual and a national level there are no easy answers and, true to form, Galgut offers no absolutes. The promise to Salome that goes unfulfilled is not the only unmet expectation—the promise of a new South Africa blooms and gradually falls apart as the book progresses. In the end, only one promise will finally be honoured, at the risk that it is, like so many things in life, too little, too late. One can only hope that for the two main characters remaining it will be enough.
The Promise by Damon Galgut is published in North America by Europa Editions.