BPS Book Club ; review of The Promise, Damon Galgut ( May 2022)
Book Review, May 2022 : The Promise, Damon Galgut
Re-reading over my notes, what’s our overall take of this book and this discussion? Absolute chaos! So many mixed feelings, so much misery and tragedy, but yet there is a playfulness and a sardonic approach that is original and refreshing. Not to mention a colourful cast of characters who we either feel empathy for, or actually can’t imagine liking at all.
The narrator voice is literally all over the place, from character, to reader, to author. The Promise? What promise? It’s an unspoken, unwritten something that hangs over the entire family and ultimately comes to nothing, but somehow affects the entire ambience of the family - not to mention Salome and her family.
There was a lot of excellent stuff we all agreed on. The really clever structure, of four funerals over four decades. The subtle references to contextual touchpoints in South Africa which land the story firmly in a political moment in time. ( Side note – notable how the younger generation are less aware of South Africa’s history, when anyone of adult age in the 1980’s could not avoid being caught up in Mandela’s struggle). The language : despite its simplicity, Galgut has a lovely way with a simile and a metaphor. ( Another sidenote : lots of interesting discussion on the basic simplicity of Afrikaans as a language)
As for the characters… some great little cameos of minor characters, from the priest, to Astrid’s two husbands, to the son of Salome. The three children are the main interest : as we watch them age through the decades, we feel invested in their personal growth, or lack of it, in this ‘very ordinary’ white family. But did we actually like any of them? Did we care enough that both Astrid and Anton meet very tragic ends? Anton is perhaps the classic victim of his country, forced into military service, bouncing between hubris and a complete lack of confidence in himself. Did we feel sympathy for Amor’s altruistic idealism, or just frustration at her lack of persuasion or force within her own family? There’s an inevitability about them, that all of their lives seem to parallel the changes and demise of ‘White South Africa’, which somehow prevents us from feeling too much sympathy with any of them.
Galgut drops in many a critical line against religion, but doesn’t limit himself to one faith. Every single religion mentioned gets their hypocrisy exposed in a vulgar but playful way.
In a way, The Promise is a surprising Booker winner. Not too dense or didactic, not too ‘literary.’ But very clever ( if a little chaotic) and very illuminating over a period of massive change in South Africa.
The last word goes to a better critic than me who seems to have summed him up well in this paragraph :
Reading Damon Galgut is not a comfortable process. Landscapes are bleak, characters troubled, situations tense, and atmospheres brooding. Yet where other South African writers have been forced by the loss of a cause to reinvent themselves, Galgut has found a compelling way of dealing with complex situations – and the weight of politics and history – in a subtle, engaging way. The scalpel-sharp precision of his writing ensures that readers are drawn in and stay the course.
Susan Tranter, 2006
PS if any of you feel like engaging with a more straightforward, serious tale of South Africa, the Booker prize winning Disgrace, by JM Coetzee, is highly recommended.