Damon Galgut on Confronting South Africa’s Racist History With Booker-Winning The Promise

South African author Damon GalgutThis week, he was awarded the Booker Prize for his novel The PromiseWhich?The story of a confronts him with the racism of his homeland through the lens of the story of Troubled Afrikaner family with its broken promise to Black domestic employees.

The Booker judges voted Galgut as the winner. The Promise a “spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh.” Structured around four funerals spanning a 40-year time frame—including the period of apartheid, the election of Nelson Mandela, and years of post-segregation corruption—The Promise Following The Swarts is a highly privileged family of whites who reside on a farm in Pretoria. In a token of gratitude for their dedicated service to Salome, Salome and the Swarts give Salome’s home, on their farm, to Salome. The family has four decades to honour this promise.
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The family members who break the promise are eventually killed, leaving Salome as the sole remaining character. Speaking with TIME following his win, Galgut says he wanted to approach the story from an “unconventional angle.”

“Not establishing who your central characters are, or what the central situation is right at the beginning, but letting that show slowly, like a photograph developing,” he says.

The “four acts of a play,” as Galgut refers to the novel’s structure, are interspersed with historical details which haunt the characters. It paints a picture of poverty, racism and settler-colonial identity in South Africa. Although Galgut wasn’t trying to make a political statement, he recognizes the novel is a “portrait of decline, rather than progress,” a characterization of South Africa he believes to be true. He says that the country has not been in a better place for almost three decades after the end of apartheid.

“The sort of ironic, second meaning of The Promise is implied,” he says. “It’s the promise of South Africa in 1994, something we all felt and attached a lot of hope to. It was an opportunity that could have transformed the country but was wasted. And where we are now, economically, morally, is not where most of us hoped we would be.”

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Despite the rampant corruption and a “sense of exhaustion,” Galgut sees glimmers of hope. “You cannot transform the economic situation that apartheid bequeathed to us overnight,” he says. “But it was always heartening to me that people knew this was going to be a process, not just a flip of the switch.”

Galgut identifies the center of Galgut’s work as The Promise is “the white South African psyche,” or the mentality used to justify the subjugation of Black South Africans for more than three centuries, which can be seen in the dynamic between the Swarts family and Salome.

“The white South African psyche is not very perceptive about Black citizens that are really, really close to hand. I mean, so close that sometimes these are people who’ve worked for your family for years,” he says. “A lot of white South Africans just don’t care to ask, or aren’t interested enough to ask.”

This purposeful ignorance underpins Galgut’s narrative choices in the novel. While Salome and her rightful inheritor are the main focus of the story’s narrative, Galgut seems to be able to jump over her. a decision Galgut says he made to “make her silence an issue,” and to “make that bothersome for the reader.”

“People are wondering if I refrained from voicing Salome’s sensibility out of fear of identity politics or something like that,” he says. “That’s really not the case.”

Instead, Galgut wants to confront the reader with Salome’s silence and “make that bothersome.” At one point the narrator turns on the reader, questioning their lack of interest in a character whose fate is decided by her “fairly deplorable” white employers.

However The Promise The novel is South African by its setting and scope, while the central themes were undoubtedly South African. “If there’s any release of emotion in the usual cathartic way, it probably only comes at the end,” Galgut says. Whether the relief is Salome’s, the Swarts’ or the reader’s, is for each reader to decide.


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