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Diane ScharperMarch 31, 2022
Jacaranda trees line a street in Pretoria, South Africa (iStock)

Judges for the 2021 Booker Prize were unanimous in granting the award—the most prestigious literary honor for fiction in English—to Damon Galgut for The Promise. A bestselling South African novelist and playwright, Galgut wrote his first novel, A Sinless Season, at age 17. He was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2003 for The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room. Like the two earlier novels, The Promise focuses on racial tension in South Africa and the way greed promulgates that tension.

The Promiseby Damon Galgut

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The judges called Galgut’s story a testament to the flourishing of the novel and noted its unique narrative design. Maya Jasanoff, chair of the Booker judges, said the narrative pays “remarkable attention to structure and literary style” and has “a lot to chew on.” I agree.

Here’s how the story works: Using present tense, omniscient point of view and a William Faulkner-like stream-of-consciousness, Galgut takes readers into the heads of every character. He even suggests the thoughts of jackals that eat a dove (perhaps a symbol) who flew into a window and died. Beginning each section of the story inmedias res, he pushes the plot forward and adds suspense.

The Promise focuses on racial tension in South Africa and the way greed promulgates that tension.

The novel’s most unusual feature is the unnamed narrator, who speaks directly to the reader. Sounding like the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” he intervenes frequently. His presence enhances the story but also takes away from its verisimilitude, as when Rachel dies; he says, “In the hearse, I mean the house, a certain unspoken fear has ebbed….”

Set from the 1980s to the early 21st century, The Promise features an upper-middle-class white family living near Pretoria in South Africa. Galgut describes the family as “an amalgamation of everything I grew up with.” In that sense, it resembles the 2020 Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart’s first novel, which is also about a dysfunctional family facing discordant times—religious friction in Ireland in the 1980s.

Galgut’s plot probes the fortunes of the diverse Swart family, which is a mix of Jewish, Dutch Reformed and Roman Catholic. Their religious differences intensify the family dissonance and exacerbate racial problems during Apartheid and just after.

Amor Swart serves as the conscience of The Promise. The youngest of three siblings, she became clairvoyant when struck by lightning and would have died had Manie, her father, not carried her down the koppie (hill): “like Moses descending the mountain…it was the afternoon the Holy Spirit touched him and his life changed.”

Manie asks God’s forgiveness, swears off his sinful ways and begs his wife, Rachel, to pardon him for gambling and cheating with prostitutes. She refuses. Soon Rachel, who had converted to Manie’s Dutch Reformed Church, reconverts to Judaism.

Ultimately, Galgut slams Protestants, Jews, Roman Catholics and even meditation gurus.

The narrative begins as Rachel is dying. She asks Manie to give Salome, the family’s Black maid, the tumbledown shack where she lives with her son, Lukas. Manie promises to do so, and 13-year-old Amor overhears him. Galgut’s novel explores the ramifications of that promise, especially as it relates to racism, hypocrisy and lies—those the characters live with and those that destroy them.

Early on, we learn that Aunt Marina disdains Rachel because Aunt Marina disapproved of her brother’s marriage to a Jew and believed that Rachel “betrayed the whole family” when she reconverted. Marina is especially annoyed that Rachel asked Manie to give her property to a servant and he promised to do so. She is angry that Rabbi Katz insists on burying Rachel in a Jewish cemetery (as she had requested) rather than in the family burial ground, as a tearful Manie selfishly insists.

Manie reneges on his promise to Rachel and lies, saying that he did not promise any such thing. Amor tells him “a Christian never goes back on his word.” Throughout the 30 years of the story, Amor tries to influence her father and her two older siblings, Anton and Astrid, to fulfill their mother’s final wish, arguing, “A promise is a promise.”

Amor’s brother Anton is the most realized character. Sensitive and perspicacious, he considers himself the “prodigal son.” The narrator describes him as someone who “can see the right action and will not perform it…. Dunno. Just always been like that.” He disparages his father’s hypocrisy and distrusts clergymen, seeing them as liars.

Anton blasts Pastor Simmers, the nearly blind Dutch Reformed minister. The pastor, who sympathizes with Manie’s refusal to give Salome her shack, also plans to acquire a hefty section of the farm to build a fancy church through a revised will—in effect cheating the family. Later, Simmers persuades Manie to sit in a cobra cage to raise money for charity. Anton, seeing through the “Voortrekker shaman,” is infuriated.

Anton criticizes Father Batty, the Catholic priest, for his “sententious assurance” and insufferable sense of spiritual authority. Dressing up for the funeral Mass, the priest in his full regalia looks like “the human equivalent of a peacock.” He hears Astrid’s confession and reveals what she confessed. It bothers the priest only somewhat that he broke the seal of confession, a reaction that did not seem believable to this Roman Catholic. “The poor man was in pain,” Father Batty says, “and I told him the truth which cannot be a sin.”

The unfulfilled promise seems to bring on what Amor calls “the wrath of the Lord [which is] like an avenging flame.” Following the funerals of Rachel, Manie, Astrid and Anton, only Amor and Anton’s wife, Désirée, survive at the tale’s conclusion. Désirée doesn’t want to give Salome the property, saying she will just ruin it. Amor disagrees, declaring she takes promises seriously.

The storyline melds William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying with Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale”; Galgut skewers hypocrites, especially religious ones. No one in this narrative sells indulgences, but many sell themselves as exemplars of virtue even though they are evil.

Ultimately, Galgut slams Protestants, Jews, Roman Catholics and even meditation gurus. Putting it succinctly, Anton says, “There is a lie at the heart of everything,” which is as good a way as any to sum up a darkly comic story that seems less a novel than a many-layered morality tale.

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