“The Promise” by Damon Galgut

Picture of a small cottage overlooking a pond. A car is parked to the right. There is wood beneath the stoep. There is a stone braai on the bank of the pond in front of the cottage.
Kweekkraal – stone cottage over pond – photo by Henrik van den Berg; licensed under creative commons 3.00

A Tale of Four Funerals

This novel, by a white South African, has just won the 2021 Booker prize. The setting is a farm outside Pretoria, owned by the Swart family. The plot is a series of four funerals, each occurring in a different decade of politics, 1980s to 2018. The ethical kernel is a promise made by a dying woman to bequeath to her Black servant the little cottage she occupies on the far side of the farm.

About the Author

The author, Damon Galgut, was brought up in Pretoria. He was a former Head Boy at Pretoria Boys High School in the 1980s, the same school that Elon Musk attended. Like him, Damon comes from the Jewish community, his mother having converted on marrying his Jewish father.

He admits his family were complacent about the racist policies that prevailed during apartheid days. Damon himself was even a poster boy soldier during his time in the national service. He later graduated in drama at the University of Cape Town, and since the age of 17 has published some nine novels, two of them short-listed for the Booker (The Good Doctor and In a Strange Room).

Damon suffered cancer as a young child, which he claims stimulated his love of books, associating them with “comfort and attention”. He now lives in Cape Town, and is still writing plays and short stories, and he is gay. All these biographic facts about him somewhat illuminate aspects of this recent Booker-prize-winning novel.

The First Funeral

The novel begins at the time of the mother’s funeral (1986 – a time of riots in the townships) when the oldest son, Anton, is a young conscript. He has casually shot a woman in the townships just before he is told the news of his mother’s death. The family gathers at the farm: the Afrikaner Swart relatives, and the Jewish side reclaiming their erring daughter who married out but who is now about to be buried with Jewish rites as she returned to her roots during her terminal illness.

Her husband, Manie, is distressed at this because he has recently returned to his Calvinist roots, under the influence of the ambitious local dominee, Alwyn Simmers. The cultural tensions are vividly described, and satirised, with the sharpest barbs against the Afrikaner mannerisms.

It is during this funeral period that the news of the promise is disclosed. The youngest daughter, Amor, overheard her father promising her dying mother to give the Black servant, Salome, the tied cottage. Amor then tells this to Salome’s son, Lukas – and also to Anton, who blurts it out at the pre-funeral braai, disconcerting the Swart relatives and his Pa. This braai was also the time that Amor realised that meat-eating is revolting, “What are we, that we have to eat each other’s bodies to keep going?”

Lust and Loving

There is much about bodily functions in this novel: Anton clinching it with his schoolgirl love, Desiree, in the house of her politician father; his sister Astrid doing it with her first love behind the sheds, and the youngest sister, Amor, getting her first  menstruation during the funeral.

This follows through into the later sections, with descriptions of the desires and emotions (from inside?) of mainly the female characters, the young mother, the lesbian, the woman having an affair, the childless woman, the menopausal woman. This is a daring feat of the imagination for a gay author. I can’t help speculating whether it would work the other way about – a female author about gay men?

The Political Context

The political epochs are well chosen to resonate with South African readers.  The mother’s funeral occurs during the 1986 township riots. Pa’s funeral coincides with the week when South Africa won the world cup, at the apex of the Mandela era. The next one is in the optimistic years of the Mbeki presidency, when some, of any race, were getting very rich. But they have to live with high security: the gated communities of the Pretoria suburbs are well described. The final funeral takes place just after President Zuma resigned (2018).

By this time, Amor, estranged from her family, is working as a nurse in Cape Town among the most wretched street populations, during the time of drought and electricity cuts. But she is the one who returns to fulfil the promise.

This novel plays on the underlying tensions about land restitution that bedevil post-apartheid South African politics. But to represent it as just about a small servant’s house somehow sentimentalises what is essentially a huge matter about the productive use of agricultural land, and food security for urban populations. Actually one never gets a sense of the Swarts as serious farmers.

Whose Funeral Is It?

As well as the careful choice of political highpoints, there is also careful choice of which religions to bring into the novel, mostly seen from how they behave for funeral rites. There is Jewish, Dutch Reformed Church, a fundamentist prosperity church,  Roman Catholic, and a touch of  the Yoga guru. Anton is sceptical of them all, and unsurprisingly has decreed a non-religious cremation for his own body.

Where’s the Irony?

Galgut is recorded as stating that South African readers lack a sense of irony. I guess this is defending his own use of irony. Much of the humour in some of the social scenes in this book are poking fun at the incongruities between stiff social expectations and the degraded reality.  Sometimes it is fun, but there is a dark undertone of nihilism about this “earthly charade”. I found this also in The Good Doctor which appears to be a story of a dedicated doctor working in the most appalling conditions in the sticks, but who actually turns out to be in suicidal depression.

The Promise is Kept

In The Promise, however, the heroine survives and does the right thing, even though the gift may turn out to be legally void.  So what is the moral of this story? There is not the simple satisfaction of the good winning out in the end and evil slinking away. Instead, there is the bitter insight that the idealistic may toil for years among the most wretched, and the cheaters and criminals may be winning out, even in the new South Africa. The gift may turn out to be void, but the fact that a promise has been kept is a shining end to this novel.

This is an engrossing read, especially for those with experience of South Africa. It is in stock in Kent libraries.