“Promises Don’t Mean A Thing”: Damon Galgut’s “The Promise”

I was a great admirer of Damon Galgut’s 2010 novel, In A Strange Room. At the time, some questioned whether the book – a sequence of three linked novellas (short stories, really – the novel as a whole was rather short, much less its constituent elements) – could properly be called a “novel”. This hoary old debate need not detain us – the pieces fitted together thematically, and shared a main character. The book was a novel, and a good one.

It did not, however, win the Booker Prize, for which it was shortlisted that year; perhaps the judges disagreed that the question of what a novel can be so easily resolved (though since the Booker rules avoid the word “novel” in favour of “long-form fiction”, perhaps they’ve found their own circumlocution). Certainly it was beaten out by a far more traditional novel, Howard Jacobson’s amusing – but ultimately surely minor – comedy, The Finkler Question. That Galgut now has his second chance, with his rather more novelly novel, The Promise, is reason for celebration.

The Promise, though, again splits itself across separated sections. Each about eighty pages long, the novel’s four parts focus in turn on a different protagonist, although in each case the through-narrative is far clearer and the support cast entirely shared. This, after all, is a family saga, although as is Galgut’s wont it is a pared-down saga, a pithy kind of epic tragedy. It is set across three or four decades of South Africa’s recent history, from the final years of apartheid through to the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Its focus, however, remains tightly on the Swart family, a white family with a grand house and a large-ish estate in the countryside outside Pretoria, “a big mish-mash of a place, twenty-four doors on the outside that have to be locked at night, one style stuck on another“ (p. 12). History passes around and through this house; its inhabitants don’t live the great events – “trouble in all the townships, it’s being muttered about everywhere” (p. 9) – but are carried along, almost unknowingly, in their wake.

The Swarts’ bigotry is of the banal kind. The eldest child of Manie and Rachel Swart, Anton, is in a last-flush-of-adolescence relationship with the daughter of an NNP government minister whom we later learn confessed to some awful deeds as part of Truth and Reconciliation; but the Swarts don’t involve themselves any more than that with matters of state. They simply squat on their land, heedless of their own absurdity, and of the frustrated humanity of the Black people who serve them – most especially Salome, who lives with her son Lukas in another house on the Swart lands.

The titular promise of Galgut’s novel is an agreement between Rachel and Manie, overheard by their third and youngest child, Amor, that Salome will be given ownership of her house upon Rachel’s death. It is in the aftermath of this event that the novel’s first part takes place: Amor is collected from her boarding school by Manie’s domineering sister, Tannie Marina, and returned to the Swart family home for a period of mourning and fractious family politics.

Religion is a recurring theme of the novel, and the first part’s principal drama is driven by Rachel’s return to her family faith, Judaism. Years ago, in order to marry Manie, she converted to his strict Dutch Reformed Protestantism, but, as the reality of her long illness became impossible to deny, she began to insist on a Jewish funeral. When Rachel’s family arrive at the house to ensure her wishes are met, they are not greeted amicably. This despite the fact that Manie’s faith is far from strong: he is a gambler and a philanderer, and long ago Rachel “judged him and found him greatly wanting” (p. 29), in one of the unsatisfying moments of absolution that litter the text. One person’s wishes, another’s desires: this tension, too, permeates the novel, and, when Amor tells Lukas that Salome’s house is now theirs (“It’s always been his house … what is the white girl talking about?” [p. 21]), the family’s competing wills are brought into even greater tension than they are over Rachel’s funeral service.

Anton takes up Amor’s insistence that Manie keep his promise while the middle child, Astrid, desperately – and with some vanity – seeks to make the peace. But Anton’s attempts are driven not by Amor’s sense of charity but by his pronounced vengeful streak. He has returned to the family home from a compulsory tour of duty with the South African army – he has recently shot a woman dead in a township, and is racked by a self-regarding guilt – and finds himself resentful of all the trappings of Afrikaner respectability. “This country! he exclaims. He’s not sure why the country is to blame, but he repeats it. This country!” (p. 66)  Anton’s diffuse anger, his lack of willingness to name the problem, persists throughout the novel.

In this way, The Promise isn’t a broad satire of apartheid, or even an angry denunciation of white privilege. It is a novel of character, living with these white characters. It puts us inside their milieu rather than within the wider context of the well-known heroic story – “When Mandela appears in the green Springbok rugby jersey to give the cup to Francois Pienaar, well, that’s something” (p. 151) – and certainly not in the day-to-day experience of Black South Africans, who are as mysterious to the narrative as they are to the Swarts. In the novel’s second part, Manie follows Rachel to the grave (though as we learn in The Promise, “the dead are frequently unable to accept their condition,” and haunt us in myriad ways [p. 43]); the family reunite again, Anton from a long period in self-exile (“the surface closes over as if you were never gone” [p. 98]), Amor from a period of post-school travelling. Only Astrid has stayed put, wracked by an eating disorder but marrying and in some ways modelling the role expected of her: wife, mother, homemaker. 

Apartheid, too, has gone, though its primary impact is that Manie lies next to a Black man in hospital: “we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity” (p. 99). This equivocation over the story of South Africa, the value of its progress, is another of the novel’s unifying characteristics: The Promise isn’t the story of a victory, but of a series of contingencies. Amor knows that “one day she will have to answer” (p. 113) – for Manie’s promise, but perhaps also for everything else – while Anton is equally aware that “Holding on, holding out, [is] an old South African solution” (p. 95). Little is resolved, except for the fate of some land at the extremity of the Swart estate: Manie has been persuaded to leave it to the Dutch Reformed Church that Anton so despises, and the minister of the congregation, Alwyn Simmers, is the most viciously filleted of all Galgut’s characters: “he’s a pastor these days, peddling a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits” (p. 120). He is a knowing hypocrite; the Swarts are simply oblivious.

Both obliviousness and salvation come to be key focuses of the novel in its third part, in which Astrid – now in a second marriage while having an affair with an ANC politician (she “always used to find blacks unattractive, but she’s noticed lately that they’ve started to carry themselves more confidently” [p. 169]) – attends a Catholic confessional and her priest refuses her immediate absolution (again, holding on and holding out). The reader is by now conditioned to expect the title of each section to feature the name of the person whose death will be its focus, and so Astrid’s passing is not a surprise – but its violence is shocking, and its suddenness seriously disconcerting. The family again regroup, with the omniscient narrator once more skipping preternaturally fluid between them. The novel’s voice is a rare feat of prose. Sometimes, in moments of telling and equally supple slippage, it adopts first-person pronouns briefly to ground the narrative in a sense of self; at others, it explains away supposed structural defects or lapses of attentions – “the conversation takes place in the garden behind the church … [no,] more likely it happens inside” [p. 186] – in ways that both add a pleasing wryness and emphasises the novel’s conditionality. It is capable, then, of reintroducing us to characters and developing them at the same time. Anton is now the family patriarch, Amor a nurse on an HIV ward – and now they discuss once more Manie’s promise. Its keeping is again deferred, the Swarts’ knee-jerk insistence on their land much like Astrid’s need for absolution: “like a furnace that consumes whatever you throw into it and requires more” (p. 171).

Anton has become man who “appreciates it when people do their suffering offstage, out of sight” (p. 191), and this leaves he and Amor “on opposite sides”– but of what he can’t quite say: “what that division is, and where it lies … [there is] no answer to that” (p. 206). In the Catholic priest’s sermon, however, is the clue: “we are in exile, among the seed of Cain,” he tells the congregation, while reflecting privately that “he can’t entirely quell the unpleasant thought, which has stayed with him, of what he failed to do. Much easier to blame Cain!” (p. 216)   All of this refusal to grasp the nettle – that he “can see the right action and will not perform it” (p. 242) – tortures Anton as it tortures South Africa, and the novel’s fourth and final part is named after him. We know, then, what his fate will be – but it is Amor’s which is most interesting. The novel has posited her as a sort of martyr, working off her sin by ministering AIDS patients; but when she finally goes to Salome’s tiny, almost ruined, house and gives to her and Lukas the deeds, she is treated only to anger. “My mother was supposed to get this house a long time back,” the now middle-aged Lukas sneers. “Thirty years ago! Instead she got lies and promises. And you did nothing” (p. 285). Amor, the ANC politician having an affair with Astrid, the churches: none have done anything. Even the token reparation which has been established in the characters’ minds throughout the novel as the crucial act of atonement cannot make up for this. “Three fucked up rooms with a broken roof. And we must be grateful?”

Anton’s wife Desirée – his teenage lover and the daughter of the “morally repugnant” NPP minister – has a close friend (Anton thinks a lover) named Moti. He is a new-agey sort of yoga instructor, a motivational speaker with a line in vapid self-fulfilment. When, attacked by a drunk and angry husband, he intones righteously, “Aggression ultimately hurts the aggressor,” the reader might agree that this is on a certain true – but that it is also partial. Anton – a morally bankrupt character, but also an unerringly insightful one, tortured by his ability to understand but his refusal to know – snaps back, “I don’t know, I find the object of aggression suffers more” (p. 243). Everyone in The Promise suffers, but Lukas and Salome most of all – and only in its last pages do they even think to take the chance to express that. In this way, The Promise – a remarkably subtle, coherent, composed and balanced a novel – is not about the Swarts at all, but about the consequences of their solipsism. “Oh, I can deal with the tragedy,” Anton groans at one point (p. 245), “it’s the farce I can’t handle.”

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