A Story We’ve Heard Before: A Review of Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-Winning The Promise

Review by Kenau Bester

The candles were lit. The table laid. I can still recall the smell of the tablecloth, the smell of ordained fabric only taken from the cupboard once a year. I recall the dissonant scratching of the record’s needle as it dipped in and out the grooves of the Christmas hymns. I recall the unrelenting scratching of the starched dress my mother had forced me into that morning to attend an unfathomably long church service. I recall saying grace and the coarse callouses on my grandmother’s hands from years of domestic servitude and the absence of callouses on my own. I recall the relief of finally being permitted to eat the food that had been enticing me for the three days leading up to this occasion. I recall asking my grandmother: “Ouma (grandma), why isn’t Nellie sitting with us? Is she not also hungry?” “My kind” (my child) she responded, “she does not eat with us because she prefers it that way.”

Like any four-year-old caught in the “why” phase of childhood, I was easily appeased and did not think to question this further. It had been a mere six years before that when Nelson Mandela had delivered his inaugural speech becoming the first black president of South Africa and marking the end of apartheid. It was in this moment that I was dubbed a child of the “born free generation,” a term that now has become widely contested. As a child I was largely unaware of the political underpinnings that had led us to this juncture and did not think to further question why my grandmother’s housekeeper did not eat Christmas dinner with us, a meal she had helped prepare. What I further did not know at the time was something that Damon Galgut articulates so well in his Booker Prize-winning novel The Promise: “There [was] nothing remarkable about [my] family… [we were] just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans…”

I have taken some obvious poetic licence in the appropriation of this quote, but it rings true. Just like the Swart family, I too come from a long line of white Afrikaners, and although the new generations are largely city dwellers, we too once occupied farmlands throughout South Africa.  And yet, as I crawled to the end of The Promise, I could not shake the prevailing thought, so what?

Yes, Galgut successfully and bluntly portrays the post-apartheid psyche of the white Afrikaner. Yes, Galgut had accurately painted a bleak reality of South African society after the death of the “rainbow nation” euphoria. Yes, each character could be read as an allegory of a greater narrative, but I could not shirk the feeling that this was simply nothing new. To this you may respond that for non-South Africans this does indeed provide a new and interesting perspective, to which my rebuff would be, “But is this perspective still relevant?”

When I first heard that Damon Galgut’s novel was nominated for the Booker Prize, I thought, okay, a white South African, that’s interesting. Surely this novel must be bringing a new perspective to the ongoing socio-political pandemonium that is current-day South Africa. What I found instead was a story that I couldn’t help but feel I’d read before. This is not to say that I agree with the commonly shared sentiment among white South Africans that “apartheid is over” and therefore ‘people’ should move on. This is not a particularly well-veiled nod towards any black South African who dares to mention the prevailing systematic inequality and racism that is experienced on a daily basis. So no, I do not mean to say that novels about apartheid are no longer relevant, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee barely scratched the surface of attempting to heal decades of generational trauma. These are stories that want to be told, that need to be told.

It was in this vein that I picked up The Promise. The Swarts are an ‘ordinary’ white South African family unable to cope with the transition into democracy. As a family of five, they live on a small farm outside of Pretoria with their domestic worker Salome and her son Lukas. When the mother of the family, Rachel, lies dying on her deathbed, she pleads with her husband to give their house to Salome who had so devotedly cared for her throughout her illness. It is a promise that hangs like a duplicitous shadow over their lives as each family member fails to fulfil her dying wish.

Perhaps the most masterful aspect of Galgut’s novel is how he plays with post-modernist aspects of form. He employs a type of free-floating narrator, which like the shadow of the promise infiltrates each character’s consciousness and lays bare their interiority. An example of this can be found relatively early on in the novel where the now deceased Rachel finds herself a ghost:

She touches down where her spirit was once thick, but she’s no longer solid, a watercolour woman…Eventually she fetches up somewhere she certainly hasn’t been before, except there she already is, lying naked on a flanged metal table, the splitting image of herself, but grey and cold, like somebody dead.

From here the narrator delves into the mind of the elderly female volunteer who has been preparing the body for burial, then drifts off into the room next door where Manie, Rachel’s sister is meeting with Rabbi Katz who is responsible for conducting the ceremony the next day. Next, we find ourselves in the mind of Anton, Rachel’s son who while conscripted in the South African defence Force kills an innocent black woman and must now reconcile ‘duty’ with conscience.

The novel is sectioned into four parts, each section centered around the funeral of a family member. The motif of ‘four’ is carried throughout the novel; four family members, four decades, four deaths, four funerals, four presidents. This was a deliberate choice on Galgut’s part as he told The Guardian,

The dramatist in me saw the potential in staging a family history in four acts, each one centred on a burial. And if each act took place in a different decade, with a different president in power, I saw a way to show the nation behind the family, and give a taste of the time.

Although the passing of time can become quite bewildering with the disembodied narration, Galgut does execute the passage of time in a persuasive manner. As Maya Jasanoff a, chair of the judges of the Booker Prize denotes, “It combines an extraordinary story, rich themes and the history of the last 40 years of South Africa in an incredibly well-wrought package.”

Thus, I do agree with the unequivocal consensus that Galgut has delivered a novel with a unique and effective narrative form. It is, in my view, an objectively fine piece of writing and I would certainly not dissuade others from reading it. My real objection lies in the content of the novel, that it mirrors already established and, in my opinion, tired tropes within post-apartheid writing. I didn’t need to look far to support this supposition, three authors which immediately come to mind are JM. Coetzee with his novel Disgrace, 1999, Mark Behr with his novel The Smell of Apples, 1995, and My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan, 1990. To further this point, I would like to draw your attention to this excerpt on Disgrace from the Penguin Random House website: “Disgrace was lauded primarily as a searing examination of racial tension and the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, a contemporary classic of postcolonial literature.”

Remove the word Disgrace and you could be speaking about any four of these novels. What Coetzee’s Disgrace shares with The Promise is their mutual nomination and subsequent win of the Booker Prize. While Mark Behr’s novel does not share this particular status, The Smell of Apples has been nominated for numerous awards including the Booker Prize and won the Betty Trask award. Perhaps coincidentally, the authors are all white men speaking about the white South African experience. In a country marked by racial segregation, oppression and authoritarianism under apartheid, one would imagine that the stories which are gaining the kind of traction that a prize like the Booker propagates, would work more ardently to give a voice to the previously silenced. Instead, I find myself reading one-dimensional characterisations of people of colour. They are either depicted as villians and violent criminals as is the case with all four novels, or they are depicted as vacant, uneducated characters who are only present to serve their white employers. When asked why the character Salome in the novel is so underdeveloped, Galgut responds that he ‘based his decision on the ‘brute fact’ that ‘most’ South Africans do not perceive the inner lives of their fellow Black South Africans to the same extent at all’.

Thus, a deliberate narrative choice made by Galgut, a case can be made that this lack of representation is merely not enough anymore. It raises the question of why we are continuing to praise and re-read narratives which continue to relegate black South Africans to the margins of the white perspective. This of course begs the question, who should we be reading instead?

The following titles come to mind: Barbara Boswell’s And Wrote My Story Anyway, 1990, Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eats Dog, 2004, The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga, 2014, Zoe Wicomb’s Race, Nation, Translation: South African Essays, 1990-2013, 2018. These are but a few examples of what to me forms a more representative canon of the South African literary sphere.

And Wrote My Story Anyway published in 1990, is a text by Barbara Boswell where she critically analyses English novels written by black female South African authors. Utilising ten texts as a lens through which to examine the transition into democracy, Boswell challenges ideas about nationalism, exclusion and inclusivity of the democratic nation as well as proposing and alternative vision for a more equal and just South Africa.

Dog Eats Dog by Niq Mhlongo narrates the story of a young black university student, Dingz. Dingz occupies a position of the in-between, depicted as a subject of both the apartheid and post-apartheid era. Through Dingz as the focalizer, Mhlongo addresses the endemic of xenophobia that perforated South Africa in May of 2008. In a review by Uche Peter Umez on Dog Eats Dog, he denotes how Mhlongo’s appraisal of xenophobia described its effects as, “crushing lives and property, displacing thousands of Amakwerekwere and threatening to decimate the country’s age-old multicultural reputation.”

The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga similarly deals with the taboo topic of the HIV/AIDS epidemic after years of denial by the South African government under President Thabo Mbeki. Nathi, our young protagonist and AIDS sufferer, narrates his story through a drug-induced haze alongside his two best friends Cuan and Cissie. They travel through Cape Town selling ARVs (antiretroviral treatment) on the black market to buyers they meet at AIDS support meetings. Not unlike The Promise, the narration follows a stream of consciousness narrative style where Nathi muses about both mundane and pertinent aspects of his daily existence. For example, he writes, “Perhaps language, having once begun as a system of indistinct symbols, would never develop beyond what we knew, but instead would continue to function as a barrier between ourselves and others.”  This barrier that he perceives between himself and others, is a recurring theme throughout the novel as he wrestles with his black male identity. Similarly to Dingz, he is stuck somewhere between his present and his past as he continues to grapple with what it means to be a black man in current day South Africa. He demonstrates this when he writes that the protagonist was a “studious boarding-school boy, a kid who “didn’t know his clan name from his asshole.” This further exemplifies the incongruence in his identity as he struggles to reconcile his urban, white schooling experience with the expectations of his uncles who want him to undergo a traditional initiation into manhood.

It would be immensely difficult to synthesize Wicomb’s essays, Race, Nation, Translation: South African Essays, 1990-2013, 2018  into one discernible excerpt, so I will try to be brief. Like the other authors she begins her writings in the culminative years of apartheid and then moves towards the dawn of democracy. Wicomb focuses largely on coloured identity in South Africa, a population group that was often caught in the racialised binary of blackness and whiteness; being both, but simultaneously not enough of either. Additionally, she speaks about the disillusionment with Desmond Tutu’s vision of the Rainbow Nation and notes how the youth are impatient with a country that is not transforming quickly enough.

It is at the edge of this precipice that South Africa currently sits, and it was with this in mind that I picked up The Promise by Damon Galgut. I expected similar issues to be dealt with as is present in the novels that I outlined in my discussion. Instead, I was left woefully disappointed, faced with a narrative closely echoed in the writings of other white South African authors. It was a story I had read before.

Kenau Bester is one of the chief editors of RevUU, born and raised in South Africa and currently enrolled in the MA program Literature Today at Utrecht University. She completed her Bachelor studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa with a double major in Philosophy and English and a further honours degree in English Literature. Kenau’s research interests centre on the subject of post-colonial identity with specific reference to social media and challenging perceptions of the “authentic self”.

Works Cited 

  • Behr, Mark. The Smell of Apples: A Novel. First Ed., Picador, 1997.
  • Boswell, Barbara. And Wrote My Story Anyway: Black South African Women’s Novels as Feminism. Wits UP, 2020.
  • Coetzee.J. M Disgrace. (1999-11-01). Viking Penguin, 2022.
  • Definition of “Amakwerekwere.” Dictionary, www.dictionary.com/browse/amakwerekwere.
  • Flood, Alison. “Damon Galgut Wins Booker Prize With ‘Spectacular’ Novel the Promise.” The Guardian, 4 Nov. 2021, www.theguardian.com/books/2021/nov/03/damon-galgut-wins-booker-prize-the-promise.
  • Galgut, Damon. The Promise: A Novel (Booker Prize Winner). Europa Editions, 2022.
  • Levy, Paul. “Eyes on the Booker Prize: Coetzee Wins for ‘Disgrace.’” WSJ, 26 Oct. 1999, www.wsj.com/articles/SB940892119143957157.
  • Malan, Rian, My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience. Reprint, Grove Press, 2000.
  • Mhlongo, Niq. Dog Eat Dog: A Novel (Modern African Writing Series). 1st ed., Ohio UP, 2012.
  • Nthunya, Manosa. Race, Nation, Translation: South African Essays, 1990–2013 by Zoë Wicomb. Edited by Andrew van der Vlies, Yale University Press, 2018.
  • Ntshanga, Masande. The Reactive. 1st ed., Two Dollar Radio, 2016.
  • NYU Press. “Book Details.” NYU Press, 2 Jul. 2019, nyupress.org/9781776146185/and-wrote-my-story-anyway.
  • Parker, Sam. “What ‘Disgrace’ Was Telling Us Before We Were Ready to Listen.” Penguin, 7 Apr. 2020, www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/02/disgrace-coetzee-feminism-metoo.
  • Ryan, Marian. “‘Ten Years Ago, I Helped a Handful of Men Take My Little Brother’s Life.’” Slate Magazine, 6 Jul. 2016, slate.com/culture/2016/07/masande-ntshangas-the-reactive-reviewed.html.
  • Siméus, Jenny. “Race, Nation, Translation: South African Essays, 1990–2013 by Zoë Wicomb (review).” Comparative Literary Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2020, pp. 565-67. 
  • Ulaby, Neda. “Novelist Damon Galgut Wins Booker Prize for ‘The Promise.’” NPR, 3 Nov. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/11/03/1052097552/novelist-damon-galgut-wins-booker-prize-for-the-promise.
  • Umez, Uche Peter. “Dog Eat Dog.” Eclectica, Oct. 2022, www.eclectica.org/v12n4/umez.html. Walsh, Colleen. “Damon Galgut Wanted to Challenge His Readers, Especially the White Ones.” Harvard Gazette, 25 Mar. 2022, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/03/damon-galgut-wanted-to-challenge-his-readers-especially-the-white-ones.

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