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Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize–Winning Novel Examines a Betrayal in Apartheid South Africa

“The Promise” is a portrait of a society where words lose their meaning.

Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut’s latest novel, The Promise, which last week won the 2021 Booker Prize, is set in a land of almost absurd extremity. Tightly structured in place but not in time, it hews closely to a patch of property in Johannesburg, South Africa, owned by an Afrikaner family called the Swarts, who periodically live on it or return there when attending their relatives’ funerals. In a society famously more unequal than any other, on top of the koppie, a hill on the property, the youngest Swart daughter is struck by lightning and loses a toe to its fire. A snake bites her father.

The Promise: A Novel
by Damon Galgut
Europa Editions, 256 pp., $25.00

Although it will eventually flow through decades, The Promise begins in the thick of the apartheid era of South African history, during the childhoods of sisters Amor and Astrid and the young adulthood of the eldest son, Anton, a conscript in the South African army. Their mother, Rachel, has died, slowly, of cancer, and in the course of her dying decided to give a house to her nurse and domestic employee, Salome, who is Black; not Rachel’s own house, but another on the land, where Salome and her family already live.

Rachel secures her husband Manie’s promise on this point, but it’s Anton who explains to 13-year-old Amor that “Salome can’t own the house. Even if Pa wanted to, he can’t give it to her.” Amor is confused and asks why. “Because, he says. It’s against the law.” This true fact about apartheid-era South African property law changes as the novel’s action progresses, but other aspects of the situation, like the color of everybody’s skin, do not.

“​​When white people fight,” Astrid recalls her mother saying, “it is always over property!” The question of ownership of the land remains an evergreen one in South African politics, where a new “land court” will soon try to resolve disputes over the outcome of initiatives aiming to fulfill the part of the South African constitution that demands that property settled by Europeans be returned, in essence, to the heirs of those from whom it was stolen. In The Promise, Salome has a rightful claim on some of the Swarts’ land, but she is not the only one, for other local people say that this patch of earth was theirs in the first place. 

With this combination of abrupt acts of God, childish misapprehensions, and subtly layered thefts, The Promise thrums with the nonsensical aspect of apartheid, when white families like the Swarts experienced the historically freakish circumstance of true minority rule over a subjugated majority of nonwhite compatriots. By focusing on a small piece of land and the acrimonious, drawn-out disputes over its ownership, and keeping the narrative voice loose and roving, flitting among the Swarts’ minds, Galgut punctures their sense of their own importance with sharp doses of reality, eventually finding a nasty kind of hilarity in an era of history whose traumatic remnants still bear useful scrutiny.

In Afrikaans, swart means “black.” “The Blacks,” however, are white. This does not appear to be remarkable, in the world of The Promise, because on the Swarts’ property, the meaning of certain words simply vanishes.

For example, the word promise seems to mean totally different things depending on whom and what it refers to. If a white man promises something to his white wife, for example, his white children are entitled to remind him of it. But if the subject of the promise is Black, he can refer those children to the language of the law books of the apartheid government, which frees him from all obligation. For a man whose reality works this way, it’s hard to know how to interpret the other things he says, like the vows he makes at the altar to his wife. Rather than verbal, Galgut presents a lot of Anton’s experiences as sensory. He hears, “Crackle and burn. The fuse is lit. There’s a smell in his nostrils perpetually, of rubber on fire, rising from somewhere inside him.”

Salome herself has an even more mysterious relationship to language, because she is mostly silent. Galgut writes her as a void at the center of the novel, projected upon by each Swart family member but very rarely replying to them at length. To some Swarts, she’s not even there. Later in the book, for example, Anton’s wife will describe Black domestic workers like Salome as being “like ghosts, you almost don’t notice them”—although “it’s a mistake to think the same applies in reverse.” They “know all your secrets,” she thinks, “everything about you, even the things other white people don’t know.”

On this piece of land, the meaning of words in such moments of blithe dehumanization is always bound up with questions of audience: Who is listening, who is talking, whose ears matter, and whose don’t? These are the questions that Rachel’s promise causes Amor to contemplate, as well as the reasons that the promise is hollow from the very instant it’s made. A contract made with reference to Black people and property will make itself into nonsense in a country with laws like those of South Africa; the speech act of the promise breaks and releases its participants.    

In the Swarts’ compound, where words don’t seem to work properly, meaninglessness proliferates like the chaotic vocabulary of apartheid, puffed up with the hot air of fake race science and stubbornly clung-to delusions about who owns what, by what right. 

It’s a strange fact of contemporary literature that South Africa’s biggest literary exports were for some time mostly white people of anti-colonial political sentiments. Born in Pretoria in 1963, Galgut is a generation or two younger than most of this group. He has been nominated for the Booker Prize twice before, for 2003’s The Good Doctor and 2010’s In a Strange Room. He is the third white South African to win the prize, after Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, who won the Booker twice. An outsize number of white African writers have also been nominated for the prize: André Brink, Doris Lessing (a British Zimbabwean), and Deborah Levy. This abundance is partly explained by the fact that the Booker was from 1969 until 2014 only open to authors from the Commonwealth, Ireland, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, but it’s still an overrepresentation in terms of sheer number of eligible citizens.

The Promise is just as good as all the rapturous reviews suggest, but it contributes to an already bristling quiver of fiction about white existence under apartheid. Who exists in South African history? Countless Black and brown people’s life stories went unrecorded during apartheid’s great silencing. But now it’s the white past that is fading: Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last white head of state of South Africa, died yesterday. The product of guilt and genius in equal measure, the corpus of great white fictions about apartheid only captures a sliver of the South African experience. There are other Johannesburg fictions out there to balance Galgut’s picture of the city, if you look for them: Kgebetli Moele’s 2006 novel Room 207 is high-rise gold, as is the late Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow: a Novel of Postapartheid South Africa (2001). And if The Promise is a microscopic story with very wide historical implications, then C.A. Davids’s 2022 novel How to Be a Revolutionary, whose heroine traces paths between Shanghai and Cape Town, will be its opposite and its complement.

In his review of The Promise, James Wood wrote that Galgut, as a white South African writer, “inherits a subject that must feel, at different times, liberating in its dimensions and imprisoning in its inescapability”—a comment, it seems, on both the lightning-strike nature of apartheid’s severity and the horrible specialness of a memory that could only have happened in one place.