Damon Galgut: ‘There’s something jagged and incoherent about the South African psyche’

The author’s Booker-shortlisted novel gives a palpable sense of the nation’s political and social realities

When Damon Galgut was writing The Promise, the story of a dysfunctional white South African family told through a series of funerals years apart, now shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, the arrival of an entirely different project changed the novel profoundly. He was to write a film script – a job he took on, he tells me candidly, because he needed the money. But when he returned to his work in progress, something had shifted. He had been feeling “cramped and limited” by a traditional approach to storytelling; but now he saw how using techniques more common to film could free him.

“So I started playing with the narrative voice in the same way that the camera is a presence in a film; you still get with a movie the onward rush of a steady narrative arc, but inside that arc and inside each scene, you’re jumping from one perspective to another.” The liberation, he explains, came in acknowledging that the novel is a construction, and deciding to show readers how it was being constructed; to dispense with “the illusion of realism” and to jump between characters and settings and times. It was, he says, “pleasing to me, but also worrying, because it’s not how you’re supposed to do it. So I really didn’t know until I was done that this worked. I did show pages along the way to some people I trust and just said to them, ‘Look, I mean, just tell me: is this a road smash? Is this just a mess? Or is it actually working, is it holding your attention?’”

[The] promise – from a white Afrikaner to a black South African – is to become the key contention at the heart of the book

Those who have read The Promise – including the Booker panel – seem to agree pretty overwhelmingly that the technique has, indeed, been successful. The novel begins in 1986, with the off-screen death of Rachel Swart, wife of Manie and mother to Anton, Amor and Astrid. As family and friends assemble at the Swart farm, outside Pretoria, it becomes clear that tense relationships, unresolved enmities and uncertain futures will propel the narrative forward. Galgut’s dedication to multiple viewpoints – a chattering aunt proffering cakes, a florid pastor, even a pair of jackals – is clear from the outset, but he simultaneously manages to foreground the internal worlds of the brother and sister, Anton and Amor, who become the novel’s different, often polarised, twin consciousnesses.


One character remains largely out of view, unheard: Salome, the Swart’s maid, to whom Rachel has made a promise: that she will be given the deeds to the annexe she occupies with her son on the Swart land. That promise – from a white Afrikaner to a black South African – is to become the key contention at the heart of the book; and to reflect the way that the vigorous optimism of the era that immediately followed the end of apartheid, has given way to something far more fragile and compromised.

Galgut, who is now 57, reached adulthood in the 1980s and observes that when the political landscape of a country changes so dramatically, so too does its reigning spirit: in South Africa, he believes, “there’s something jagged and incoherent about the national psyche”. One of the characters who emerges from The Promise is Lucas, Salome’s son, enraged by his family’s treatment by the Swarts and, by extension, the whole of the white elite. “Lucas is a voice that’s very audible right now in South Africa,” says Galgut. “In the years immediately after the transition in 1994, there was an almost deluded euphoria over all of us that we had now arrived somewhere totally different, and things were just going to be wonderful here on in. And of course, that was naive.

When I decided that something had happened to Amor to make her different, I thought, well, I would code my own experience into that

“The truth is that a lot of the promise of those early years has been squandered, utterly squandered. And there’s a whole new generation that speaks in the way that Lucas does. Basically, apartheid’s dead and gone, but apartheid is still here. The laws of apartheid are not on the statute books anymore. But effectively, the economy keeps everyone more or less where they were. There’s been some evolution, I guess, in the sense that there’s a growing black middle class and there’s a new black elite in power but, by and large, the people with money and power in this country are white, and the people without it are not. [It is] the system that apartheid set up, even though the structures that supported it have been dismantled. And there’s enormous anger and resentment, which is very, very close to the surface here a lot of the time. It’s frightening.”

Fascinatingly, this sense of the political and social realities of life in South Africa is palpable throughout The Promise, without ever being made overwhelmingly explicit; its dramas and dynamics are largely familial and interpersonal. Galgut’s achievement is to suggest the country without depriving his characters of their individuality and idiosyncrasy. I was particularly interested in Amor, who we learn has been struck by lightning as a young child and who seems, whether as a direct result of that or not, to be set apart from her family, to display an almost unheimlich super-sensitivity to what’s going on around her.

As a young child, Galgut suffered lymphoma, and spent long periods in sickrooms and hospitals – it’s a time that he credits with sparking his love of books, as relatives read to him and he later read independently, gobbling up stories and words. Does he have something of Amor’s detachment, her sideways look at the world? “It’s not that I was trying to say something about myself there necessarily,” he replies, “but I did feel that experience set me apart in some way. You know, when you’re six years old, you’re not meant to have an awareness of your own mortality. That’s supposed to be something that dawns on you much later. But it did give me that awareness. And it did make me feel different; not special, but different. And in many ways, that difference was hard to negotiate as a child. So when I decided that something had happened to Amor to make her different, I thought, well, I would code my own experience into that, basically.”

I don't think [South Africa] is a country that gives much of a damn about its creative citizens. Books are not held in high esteem. But nor are the other arts

Galgut believes that his early obsession with books and writing proceeded from that experience of illness and isolation. His first novel, A Sinless Season, was published when he was still in his teens. His real breakthrough came with The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003; a second appearance on the list came in 2010 with In a Strange Room, the story of a writer named Damon who becomes compelled to pick up his backpack and travel. (Of the confinement of lockdown, he jokes that he isn’t sure he could even pick up a backpack these days, and believes his nomadic days to be in the past.) His last novel, Arctic Summer, was an imagined recreation of episodes and relationships in the life of EM Forster, its title taken from an unfinished novel by Forster.

His two previous bites at the Booker cherry mean that Galgut has a phlegmatic approach to all the hullabaloo that surrounds it now: “I’ve got a bit more seasoned, and I know what to brace for now,” he explains. Nonetheless, he hopes that travel restrictions might have eased to the extent that he can travel from his home in Cape Town to attend the ceremony in London at the beginning of November. Certainly, recognition of his work must be welcome, especially as he doesn’t feel that the arts are valued at home. “I don’t think this is a country that gives much of a damn about its creative citizens,” he contends. “Books are not held in high esteem. But nor are the other arts, actually. You know, the arts and culture ministry in government is where they put politicians to punish them.”

Galgut is working on a collection of short stories, but confides that he rarely knows what will come next, creatively speaking. "I'm not one of those writers who feels the next idea kind of rising in the oven while I'm still serving up this one. I don't know what's coming next, and it usually feels like, you know, nothing will." I suspect that another idea will seize him before too long, but it's true that there is something about his prose that feels hard-won, as if there are serious issues at stake. Which is, of course, just the way you want it to be.
Damon Galgut joins Colm Tóibín in an online event, discussing their new novels, on October 22nd at 8pm. The event will also be available on demand until November 7th as part of the BIAF Digital Pass. For more information: belfastinternationalartsfestival.com/event/colm-toibin-damon-galgut