Sharp Read | Breaking the word

As time passes in Damon Galgut’s new book, ‘The Promise’, lives and laws change, but a deathbed pledge keeps calling up the question of land and who has claim to it.

Damon Galgut was born in Pretoria in 1963 and published his first novel, A Sinless Season (1982), as a teenager. His work since has been published in 16 languages and he has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, for his novels The Good Doctor (2003) and In a Strange Room (2010). His latest novel, The Promise (2021), has just been longlisted for the Booker. On the surface, The Promise chronicles the slow decline of the Swarts, a white Afrikaans family on a farm outside Pretoria, but Galgut is a writer of penetrating intelligence, and the book pulls at South Africa’s unresolved questions on land, race and restitution. 

Structurally, The Promise is divided into four parts, each set in a different decade and centred around the death of one of the Swart clan. The title alludes to a deathbed promise made but not kept to give the Black housekeeper, Salome, ownership of the small house in which she lives on the farm. 

Related article:

Bongani Kona (BK): First, congratulations on making the longlist for the Booker Prize. How are you feeling and where were you when you heard the news?   

Damon Galgut (DG): I was at home when I got the news – I’m a good, locked-down boy – and of course it cheered me up. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t do to get too worked up about lists and nominations; they’re nice when they come, but fine books are often overlooked, and bad books often make the cut. It’s easy to be in either category, which is to say, luck plays a big part. I’m happy to have some luck this time round.

BK: Years ago, I heard you speak about writing your novels in longhand. Is this still something that you do, and what is it about the process that appeals to you?  

DG: I have mostly always written long hand. Although that didn’t apply to my last novel, Arctic Summer (2014), but that was only because there was so much historical material it was becoming very difficult to get everything in there that I needed to. Why does the process appeal to me so much? Partly it’s because I feel a very direct connection between my mind and the words that it’s setting down. There is a physical connection. The thought is travelling down my arm and through my hand, through the pen, and onto the page. But secondly, there is something about the amount of time involved. I can type much faster than I can write, so the process of actually having to inscribe the words causes me to consider the words for a slightly longer period, which might sound absurd because we are talking about, you know, seconds, but those seconds actually matter. So, all in all, working by hand makes me feel more connected to what I’m doing and more able to bring my thoughts to bear. 

The process of correction is also quite interesting. It all gets erased on a computer. There’s no trace of the road you took to get where you eventually arrive. Whereas I find it comforting sometimes to look at old manuscripts and think, “Oh, I’m struggling in the same way I always struggle.” Something that was hopeless first time round actually turned out all right in the end, but it was like five drafts before I got there, or whatever it may be. The evidence of your struggles is on the page and that’s important to me.

BK: At one of the launches for your last novel, Arctic Summer, I remember you saying that you didn’t think you had another book in you, or something along those lines. Do you remember that? And what then sparked the writing of this novel?

DG: I don’t remember making that particular remark about not having another book in me, but it sounds like me, because I often feel that way. Honestly, I feel that way right now. It takes me a very long time to find what it is I want to write next and also, what voice to use in the writing of it. And when I say that I take a few years to find what it is that I would like to write about, I’m talking about tapping into wherever I happen to be in my life at that point, what my central preoccupation is, and obviously, that changes as you go along. But as I’ve got older my preoccupations have become more and more centred on time and the passage of time. I’m very aware of my mortality and of the fact that the greater part of my life has been lived, which was an inconceivable thought just a decade ago. Out of that self-aware quest for the right vehicle to convey that theme, I got into a conversation with a friend of mine one day. He happens to be the last surviving member of his family. His two siblings and his parents have preceded him, and he was telling me stories about the four family funerals that he’d been to and the stuff that went on at those funerals. I mean, he really made me laugh and then it occurred to me, well, that could be an interesting way, firstly, to tell the story of a particular family. But then, secondly, that you could, if you spaced those funerals out, each taking place in its own decade, that you could say a lot about the passage of time. What it does to individual people, to the laws of a country, to the politics of a country. Time beats itself out on us, on our faces, on our lives, on the property we own, on almost everything. So, it [The Promise] was a way for me to give voice to my own preoccupations and maybe to cast the net a bit wider as well, so that I could talk about some national concerns at the same time. But really, the seed of this was very personal to me. And it’s about getting older and getting closer to death.

Related article:

BK: On that subject, death or mortality seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of your writing. In the penultimate chapter of The Quarry (1995), there’s this grim image of the town’s grave digger in the warm sunlight, “smoking, looking out on the little crosses in the ground”. In a Strange Room, likewise, ends at a cemetery. Then in The Promise there are all these descriptions of bodies being prepared for burial; “the horrible meaty fact of it”. May I ask you to say something about that? 

DG: A lot of my writing, and not just this book, is centred on death and bodies, which I think in some obscure way relates to my own illness as a child. I had lymphoma when I was six and underwent five years of chemotherapy. So I became aware of mortality very young, and part of my brain is always preoccupied with the fact that bodies break down and eventually break down permanently. It’s not a subject you can afford to ignore – or you can, but you’ll be shutting out a vital part of human consciousness, because consciousness has to consider the fact that consciousness stops at some point. 

As for the preparation of the bodies, once I knew we were going to have four funerals in the book, my second thought was you need to make them different. So, then I thought, well, you could have quite a lot of fun, narratively speaking, if you found a way to make each funeral fall under a different religion. So, the Jewish thing is part of my own upbringing. My father is Jewish; my mother converted to Judaism. I was also officially converted although not raised that way, but it’s part of me. My mother then remarried. She married an Afrikaans man who was a Calvinist and I got sent off to Sunday school. So I had the Calvinist side of it, too, which was very heavy anyway growing up in Pretoria under apartheid. Calvinism was the big drum beat of the time. The Catholic thing was bit of a stretch but, you know, it’s one of the world’s main branches of religion. And then the New Age thing, well, Cape Town resembles California in that respect. It’s all very loose and woolly when it comes to what we believe and practise out here. It’s also very much part of the new South African thing, I think, that consciousness has left conventional religion behind to some extent and is now out there trying itself in various New Age forms. 

BK: The reception of this novel has been extraordinary, and one of the things most readers have marvelled at is the way the story is told, how, among other things, the narrative voice shifts from third person to first person, sometimes in a single paragraph, and jumps between characters very quickly. In a Strange Room carried out similar experiments in tense and point of view.

DG: One of my frustrations with writing is that once you commit yourself to a particular way of telling the story, which is to say, once you commit yourself to the voice of the book, you are kind of bound by the conventions that go with that voice. So, if you’re writing in the first person, like in The Good Doctor, you can’t move out of the skull of your narrator. You can only perceive things the way your narrator perceives them. That does allow you some play. If you have an unreliable narrator, there’s a certain game involved in conveying to your readers that actually, the story is not quite the way this is being told, and that appeals to me. What is being said but not being said. But mostly you’re stuck with the limits of your first person voice, and that applies just as much, really, to a third person narration. The convention is that this in an omniscient narrator who can go anywhere, but even so, you’re telling a story that people want to believe in, so you have to ground it, conventionally speaking, in a particular group of characters in particular situations, and that has to be set up in particular ways. All of which is quite laborious and bound by certain conventions. I know what the rules are, but I feel like I want to break them all the time, because I’m feeling what’s not being said or what’s not being incorporated. So, I’m quite fascinated with finding ways of breaking the rules and still making the book work. I managed to do that, I think, with In a Strange Room, where you switch between a first person and third person point of view. It made sense, I hope, with that particular narrative – because the subject there was memory and memory works like that. 

So, at some point in the writing of The Promise, I realised that what was frustrating me was not being able to round up a kind of chorus of voices. There is no one voice that can speak for South Africa. You need to create the sense of a chorus. A discordant chorus because that’s what we are, but a chorus, nevertheless. So, I actually broke away from the writing of the book. I’d started it, and then I got offered some work on a film script, which I did reluctantly but I needed money and I was feeling frustrated with the narrative I’d set up. And writing the film script, oddly, gave me a completely different take on my book. I suddenly realised that you could move very fast between different characters and different points of view, in the way that a movie camera does. And that the conventions I’d been following with the film script – it’s perfectly normal, after all, for a film script to move from a long shot to close-up, or to jump from one character to another, or to cut suddenly to some other strain of action – could be carried over to a book. The big question for me was: will people keep reading the book or will it just be a mess? That insecurity plagued me the whole way through, but it just happened to be the voice that really encapsulated what I was trying to do here, and I went with it. 

BK: Just to pick up on what you said about the discordant chorus, the writing in your previous books is quite restrained, and very sober if I may use that word. But here the language is somehow a lot looser. 

DG: It’s that feeling of restraint, or sobriety, to use your term, that I find most frustrating because I’m always feeling like that is just one path that you can take, but there are so many other paths. With prose, you can write a sentence, and write another sentence that follows on, and another sentence that follows logically on. And all of that is perfectly valid in telling a story, at least on a surface level. But if you can write a second sentence that in some ways pulls against the first one and write another that pulls against that too, the language opens up beyond what’s actually explicitly being said. It sort of opens up a space in which questions are asked, or unspoken things are suggested. Now for me that’s where prose turns into poetry and it’s what I’m straining towards. I’m not making any particular claim to success in that area, but the more you can lay down levels of language that pull against each other in different directions, the more the language speaks. That’s the closest I can come to expressing this. 

BK: The housekeeper, Salome, exerts a kind of gravitational pull on the novel even though she hardly says a word and, unlike the white characters in The Promise, we’re not given access to her inner life. We’re told early on that “nobody seems to see her, she is apparently invisible. And whatever Salome feels is invisible too”. How did you arrive at that decision?   

DG: I mean, obviously it was a question I had to consider; do I give the same treatment to the Black characters in the book that I do to this white family? Do I go into their heads in the same kind of loose way that I’m moving between the white characters? And then I thought, I’m writing primarily about white South Africans in all their limited vision of the world, and part of those limits is what they know, or rather, what they don’t know, or choose not to know, about the Black lives that cross their paths every day. I mean this book is very much born out of my earlier years growing up in Pretoria. I interacted all the time with Black people whose lives were very tied up with my own and my family but what did I know about those lives? Very little. Very, very little. And what I knew about them was more than what my parents knew about them. I don’t think my parents ever questioned the people who worked for them about their own lives. How many children they had and what they’d done before they came to Pretoria or whatever it may be. I think that blind spot, that blankness, is absolutely part of the white South Africa psyche, so I took a decision that I would only penetrate the psyches of the Black characters as far as the white characters could perceive them. That became a writerly tool, the fact that you never really hear about Salome and what she’s been through or what she wants or how she feels. I wanted to make her silence eloquent. That was the aim. Whether that came off or not is for readers to judge. 

Related article:

BK: Siblings Anton and Amor are the principal characters in The Promise and they each possess competing ideas and thoughts about what it might mean, morally, to live here, as a white South African. Could you say something about that?

DG: I guess they embody the two poles of my own dual nature as a white person in this country. Anton, the brother, is the privileged, entitled part of me that stepped into the shoes of power, just by being born in a particular time and place. And his young sister Amor is the other side of me, which feels enormous guilt about privilege and entitlement and would like to cast them aside. Not so easy to do, as she finds out. Put in different terms, Anton wants to eat the world, while Amor would like to renounce it. Soldier and saint. But also, maybe, just brother and sister, with very different views on what it takes to be fully human.

BK: The house Salome is promised is run down and it sits on a small piece of land, and in the grand scheme of things, wouldn’t cost the Swarts very much, financially, but it becomes the source of a family feud. Why this reluctance? 

DG: That story actually came from an anecdote that a friend told me. A different friend in this case. He also grew up on a bunch of small holdings that were all sort of cobbled together outside Pretoria. His mother, on her deathbed, had made the family promise that they would give one of these pieces of land with a little house on it to the Black woman who had looked after her through her last illness. The family all promised they would do it, and then just found ways not to do it for decades and decades and decades. The reason he was talking to me about it is because this matter has finally been resolved. It occurred to me, in a quite small way at the beginning, that that could be the one issue that recurs through all these four funerals. But then of course land – who owns it, who took it, who has a claim to it – is obviously central to South Africa. So, in one way, it’s just a little family dispute and in another way, it’s the central national question. And for me the fact that it’s a useless piece of land with a shoddy little house on it doesn’t take away from the importance of the question. It adds to it in a powerful symbolic way. It’s not that I have answers to these questions, but the story was a way of raising them and throwing them out there and making people engage with them. I hope!

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.