A decade ago, Damon Galgut captured my imagination when I devoured three of his novels in quick succession – The Good Doctor, The Impostor and In A Strange Room. All were excellent, but the latter two were even more so. His last offering Arctic Summer, while elegantly written, was somehow not in, the same league as his ‘holy trinity’ of novels, but an earlier novel, The Quarry, was quite interesting and a precursor to what Galgut was capable of writing. And now we have The Promise, released earlier this month, where Galgut is once again in top form.
The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts.
The first section dwells on the funeral of Ma, or Rachel Swart, and is set in the 1980s at the height of apartheid. The Swarts own and live on a dilapidated farm deep in the countryside. Manie Swart, who heads the family, runs a reptile park, having recently found solace in religion. With Rachel’s death, Manie is left with their three children – the eldest is Anton, followed by Astrid, and then the youngest of the brood, Amor.
When the book opens, we are first introduced to Amor, who while at her boarding school is informed of her mother’s death.
The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground.
It’s a moment that feels unreal to her, and she follows through the motions, utterly dazed. Although her mother’s death was expected given the progress of her illness, Amor can’t quite come to terms with it.
It’s at Rachel’s funeral that the true colours of the Swart family start spilling out; their racist tendencies come to the fore. For instance, Manie Swart, his sister Tannie Marina and her husband Oom Ockie find it difficult to accept that Rachel has gone back to her original religion and has wished for a Jewish funeral.
It’s the usual topic, about how Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion. Correction, by going back to her old religion. To being a Jew! Her aunt has been extremely vocal on this subject for the past half a year, ever since Ma fell ill, but what is Amor supposed to do about it? She’s just a child, she has no power, and anyway what’s so wrong about going back to your own religion if you want to?
The spotlight then zooms to Salome, the Swarts’ dedicated housemaid, who despite her many years of service as well as nursing Rachel in her final years, is hardly noticed by the rest of the Swarts and remains invisible.
To the Swarts, Salome is just a minor figure in the background. Yet, her future is the central premise of the novel, the essential moral core that rests on ‘the promise’ Rachel eked out from Manie in her last days. The promise pertains to Salome being given ownership of Lombard Place, the house where she has resided for a long time. It’s a promise that Manie refuses to acknowledge after Rachel’s death. That blank refusal shocks Amor, and it’s the first lesson that she learns regarding her family, they are well and truly lost.
Meanwhile, as the novel lurches forward in time, a picture of the Swart children begins to emerge. Anton, a soldier at the time of his mother’s funeral, deserts the Army, spends several years hiding, and only resurfaces when the political winds of change are blowing in the country – Mandela is elected PM and apartheid is abolished. Tormented by the fact that he shot a mother at the beginning of the book, Anton stares at a bleak future over the course of the novel as he gradually sinks deeper into debt and despair.
Every day since he left home has been imprinted on him as a visceral, primal endeavor and he doesn’t dwell on any of it, nothing to be savoured there. Survival isn’t instructive, just demeaning. The things he does recall with any clarity he tries not to, pushing them under the surface. Part of what you do to keep going.
You keep going because if you do there will eventually be an end. South Africa has changed, conscription stopped two years ago. Jesus, what he did by deserting the army, he’s a hero, not a criminal, amazing how fast that changed.
In sharp contrast, his younger sister Amor is quite an enigmatic, fascinating character, whose single-minded focus of giving Salome her rightful due is as powerful as the flash of lightning that strikes her at a young age. After the blatant disregard shown by her father towards her deceased mother’s wishes, Amor spends the next many years as far away from her family as possible. While she chooses to build a new life in Europe, she never really settles down, eschews meaningful relationships, as she restlessly flits from one city to another. Later, she finds her calling as a nurse working long hours in an AIDS hospital in Durban. Amor’s extreme form of selflessness is construed by her brother as her way of righting the wrongs of her morally wayward family.
Last but not the least is Astrid, the middle child, who settles for marriage and children, a destiny that fails to excite her and fills her with existential angst. Essentially frivolous and morally empty as the senior Swarts, Astrid resents Amor’s transformation into a beautiful woman, while her own looks begin to fade away.
Throughout the years, the siblings keep drifting away from each other, they barely keep in touch, and are only ever united during the four funerals. Despite their fractured relationship, the one thing that binds Anton and Amor is their deep contempt for their family, which is tottering at the edge of ruin.
One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. This is primarily showcased in Salome’s treatment. During apartheid, the rights of blacks were severely restricted and they were not allowed to own property, a fact that the Swarts hold onto in their denial of fulfilling ‘the promise’. But with the dawn of a new era and dramatic shift in South Africa’s political landscape, the Swarts’ attitude towards Salome hardly undergoes a sea of change.
Amor, appearing half asleep, winds her way slowly upright to a single question. Um, what about Salome?
Salome, who works at the farm.
Until this moment, everyone in the room has worn an almost stupid air. But now a tremor runs through the group, as if a tuning fork has been struck on the edge of the scene.
That old story, Astrid says. You’re still on that?
It was sorted out a long time ago, Tannie Marina says. We’re not going backwards now.
Amor shakes her head. It wasn’t possible for Salome to own the land. But the laws have changed and now she can.
She can, Astrid says. But she’s not going to. Don’t be stupid.
South Africa may have embarked on a new path sprinting towards progress, but Salome’s status remains the same. On paper, apartheid has been dismantled, but this is not really reflected in the ground reality, the country’s evolution has been anything but smooth.
The Swarts are the epitome of this racist thinking, first brought to our notice when they fail to understand why Rachel had to go back to her Jewish roots. Seeds of racism are also sown in Astrid, who when cheating on her second husband, worries whether she has committed a sin, not because she is having an extra-marital affair but because she is having this affair with a black man.
We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption. Money permeates the motives of many, and even religion is not spared from its poisonous pull.
Money is what it’s all about. An abstraction that shapes your fate. Notes with numbers on them, each a cryptic IOU, not the real thing itself, but the numbers denote your power and there can never be enough.
This is apparent in how the Swart property is divided among the children and also in the way the local pastor wields his influence on the family, his greed for land ensuring that he extracts quite a bit from them eventually. Indeed, the tenuous relationship between the Swart family members is a symbol for the broader social and political fabric of South Africa struggling to hold its people together against a volatile backdrop.
But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye. Indeed, Galgut’s unique narrative technique was on display in his brilliant book In A Strange Room, where he effortlessly switched between the first and the third person in the space of a paragraph. This is very much a trait in this novel too, but Galgut takes it to the next level. While In A Strange Room, the narration was from the author’s own point of view, here the narrative eye takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards.
She (Salome) shuffles off slowly around the koppie to her house, I mean the Lombard place…
The tone is as sharp as a knife and at times laced with subtle moments of black comedy. Galgut is wonderful as ever at creating an atmosphere of unease, as his characters, increasingly unmoored and unsteady, stumble towards their ominous fates. Powerful in its indictment of a country afflicted by racism and corruption, The Promise, then, is another winner from the Galgut oeuvre, and fully deserves being longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.