The Promise by Damon Galgut


This 2021 Booker Prize winner is set in South Africa and spans the time from deepest apartheid years (mid-1980s) through the euphoric times of the mid-1990s when South Africa was allowed to rejoin the community of nations and for some years beyond that time. Each chapter centers on the funeral of a member of the Swart family until the only member left is Amor who checked out of the family as soon as she was old enough.

The promise the title refers to was made in response to the request Ma made to Pa to give their African servant Salome the house she lived in. It was only the 10-year-old Amor who heard Pa make the promise and she brings it up at each of the funerals to no avail. The first time she mentioned it, when her mother died, her older brother explained Pa could not keep that promise, because it was against the law. Amor asks why and her brother says. “Oh, dear me, he says. Do you have no idea what country you’re living in?” Amor asks then why her brother Anton had urged their father to give her the house. He shrugs and then “And it’s exactly then, in the tiniest way, without even knowing it herself, that she begins to understand what country she’s living in.” This is one of those rare books that successfully examines the story of a society and individuals and the connections between them.

It happens that Pa’s funeral is at the very time of famous final game of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, causing consternation that the funeral might be scheduled at the same time as the game. It was an important moment for South Africa when Nelson Mandela handed the cup to the Springbok rugby player Francois Pienaar; all these years later, you can see that moving moment on YouTube.

One of the interesting stylistic features the author uses is to change point of view abruptly, sometimes mid-thought. The first time or two I wondered if I had not been paying attention, but it was clearly a feature. There are some beautifully written moments I want to remember:

It is night, the same night, but later, the stars have moved on. Only a cuticle of moon, casting the faintest metallic glow onto this landscape of rocks and hills, making it look almost liquid, a mercurial sea. The line of the main road is stitched out now and then in slow motion by the headlamps of a car, carrying its cargo of human lives, going from somewhere to somewhere.

The family lawyer in the later years, the daughter of the original one, is remarkable as the one who describes Pa’s will to the three children. The day she met with them, her nails were painted gold. “Ms. Coutts, whose professional demeanour is very close to boredom, squares the pages neatly with those amazing golden nails….She looks at them all with disdain, as if peering down from a ledge.”

This description comes when Anton arrives at the hospital to see his dying father:  “He’s dropped outside the main entrance to the hospital and has to find his way like a little germ through miles of intestinal passages. What an image, but in its way appropriate, given the setting.”

It is thanks to Tony’s Book World that I read this. He described it as “near perfection.” I should note that the characters are unusually unpleasant and descriptions of the physical aspects of death are sometimes detailed. For me it has the elements of a great book:  insight into characters that feel real, an attempt to understand the connections between the lives of ordinary people and the social fabric they inhabit, and an impetus to learn more about a time and place I knew little about. Being moved to watch a video of a sports moment that united people was a bonus.

Damon Gadgut, The Promise, Europa Editions, 2021, 269 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library.

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