The Promise of genuine literary stylistic innovation
I came to this book with preconceived ideas of reading something written in sparse and controlled emotional intensity, the usual things I adore about Damon Galgut’s writing style which I first discovered in books like: In A Strange Room and Arctic Summer. Galgut has relinquished that control in this more exuberant and linguistically loose book that caricatures the gestalt of an Afrikaner family through the years and generations. Its structure reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Years, which, like The Promise, is also a brilliant commentary on the sociopolitical mores of a given age.
Woolf is noted as the first english writer to abandon the pretence of factitious coherence of the stream of consciousness, followed by William Faulkner and then mastered by Toni Morrison. A similar thing is happening on The Promise, whose four chapters are based on four funerals of the members of a boorish Afrikaner family in different eras. The first two chapters of the book are typical of Galgut’s masterly writing craftsmanship: profound psychological observations that are beautifully narrated in unique phrases. For instance, this is the Pretoria most readers will immediately recognize:
A city of moustaches and uniforms, Boer statues and big cement plazas. [p.33] There’s a snory sound of bees, jacaranda blossoms pop absurdly underfoot. [p.57]
Many people have complained about the abruptly changing voice from first to second personal to distant third impersonal in the novel. I didn’t really have much problem with this, in fact I found it mostly enchanting, although sometimes it felt vertiginous, as if you were watching a movie captured with a fast-shifting lens. I did feel the trick a little exaggerated when done mid-sentence sometimes, because it became too demanding on me as the reader. I found myself having to often re-read the sentences and passages, even the whole page sometimes, because I had lost my reading moorings, getting confused and wondering if I had missed something. Somewhere it took me as much as three rereads before I discovered that a ghost had entered the narrative. I first blamed this on my concentration lapses, until I realised that the forcing of a re-read is part of the author’s intentions. I found plenty of reward in some of the re-reads, when suddenly sentences took on a deeper meaning now that I knew where things were going. In fact the first two chapters of the book read like an epic prose poem. There, for me, lies one of the strengths and the beauty of this novel.
For those interested in such things, the known history of varying voices in the English novel goes back as far as Dickens’ masterpiece, Bleak House. Recently, Tsitsi Dangarembga, in This Mournable Body, employs the trick of unpopular (in academic circles) second voice personal, which was mastered by the Scottish Poet, Ron Butlin, in his marvelous novel of degeneration, The Sound of My Voice. The idea goes beyond mere stylistics as a way of exposing dissonance between the societal mores and the character’s inner lifer, especially when contrasted with their external failings.
What these books, including The Promise, also have in common is the unremitting critique of the political/cultural/spiritual vacuousness of the Zeitgeist of the respective eras they interrogate. The style, especially the tone of second voice personal, involves, even implicates, the reader in what is being interrogated or critiqued. The reader is made to feel uncomfortable, taken out of their comfort zone. In The Promise the target is mostly the white reader.
Sometimes, as a black reader, you find yourself yawning because you’ve heard the story before: from J.M. Coetzee to Antjie Krog to Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat.
The Promise is a post ’94 upgraded form of this genre that effectively uses the (racial/gender/sexual orientation) scalpels of our age to excise our zeitgeist tumours with penetrating psychological insights. Even the intertextuality is deliberately made to echo those that came before, as someone who has read Krog’s Jerusalem Gangers will recognise this all the way back to W.B. Yeats:
Slumber, little soldiers, while the minotaur stamps by. Slouching towards Bethlehem in the Free State. [p.32]
I’m not a fan of the current fetish of not using apostrophes: punctuation, diacritical marks and all. But when done properly, like it is in The Promise, it works just fine. Another writer I encountered doing it is Sally Rooney. Somehow it gives the book the intimacy of a diary form. The Asian American writer, Charles Yu, in his recent book, Interior China, takes it to another level by writing the novel in a script form, font and all. I felt similarities to it with The Promise.
The second serious issue I had with the book is the erasure of black people’s interior lives, especially Salome’s family for whom The Promise of the house/land was made to be the centre of the story. I would accept this if it was done only by the caricatured Afrikaner family, but unfortunately the author also does it by describing without explaining black people. For me the driver, Lexington, is the epitome of this erasure.
Though I dare not presume to impose themes on a writer’s work I feel the opportunity to engage and critique the situation from the black point of view was lost in these instances. In some interviews Galgut has explained this by saying his intent was to depict the black characters only in a way they appear from the Afrikaner Weltanschauung he was trying to caricature. I wouldn’t have a problem with this had he at the same time somehow succeeded in giving us a less stereotypical portrayel of the inner lives of the black characters as well. Or to at least show us how things appear from their own interior point of view. Instead we only see them through cowered dialogue at best, and interior prejudice monologues of white others at worst.
Even the last born family daughter (Amor) who is mostly depicted as having divergent views to the racialised boorishness of her family seems only to sympathise with Salome as form of rebellion and protest against her family prejudices. As a result she treats Salome as some kind of a personal project through which to settle scores with her family. In short, she’s also OTHERING her even if from a point of no malice.
I can almost understand white writers fearing of being accused of cultural appropriation in this sometimes overly sensitive social media age with its accompanying Cancel Culture. But writers, especially fiction ones, must refuse to self-censor by cowering to unjustifiable fads.
Writers must not limit themselves from writing freely about issues they’ve no personal experience of if they’ve invested enough research and empathic imagination into it. Otherwise they castrate the magical wonder of the imagination most of us go to fiction for.
The important thing, when writing about characters you’ve no natural experience of or affiliation with, is doing so with a sense of empathy, even deeper sympathy if they belong to the historically abused class/race/gender and other minority groups that the white male hegemonic prejudices have relegated to the literary peripheries in the past. What is irritating is when you stereotype characters, or write to reinforce the presumed insignificance of their lives or point view.
I’ve talked at length about this in my review of Marguerite Poland’s A Sin of Omission. I am always baffled by white South African authors’ failure to write authentically about black South African lives; from Brink to Coetzee to Poland and now Galgut. Gordimer is probably the only major white South African writer who was able to write authentically about black lives by somehow portraying their lives in a manner that goes beyond just serving the story’s plot or white literary gaze.
You may say this door swings both ways, that black South African writers also are not known for delineating fully bodied and rounded white characters.
I accept that critique. It is indeed a sin of omission of our non-integrated lives, which is why it is glaring in our literature. But there’s hope when you read Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s two books, The Theory of Flight and The Theory of Man.
My favourite character in The Promise is Anton, the conscripted soldier who killed a black woman in the township. I found him more honest and believable in his anguish than his holier than thou younger sister Amor. In fact I even found the naively confused and opportunistically adept character of Astrid more endearing. I felt something for her because I recognised her greedy to get by at all costs character. But I like Anton more because I welcome the emerging writing topics by white South African writers who are beginning to wrestle honestly with their apartheid demons. It is also interrogated at length in Mark Winkler’s Due South of Copenhagen.
You can read The Promise, especially the story of Salome (the black maid), on a metaphorical national level as deferred hope for the majority black South Africans whose frustration are starting to implode. This is rendered not only in the endemic violence of our society, but in the insurrection that led to commodity looting we had a taste of last July as our fire next time moment or Mzantsi Spring. The new generation in particular is losing patience with the gross lack of economic justice in our country. To his credit Galgut doesn’t push the metaphor too far but only hints at it subliminally.
I loved The Promise though I felt something snapped in it from chapter three when the characterizations began to falter, the plot took a strange angle and became almost too contrived. Towards the end the story had a touch too much overt caricature, like a failed tragi-comedy. I think they’re a little disingenuous, those who try to bury this fault with the sweeping assumption that it is just satire. Most certainly Galgut doesn’t consider it as being just that, if anything he sees it as a slightly caricatured social commentary of our past and present. Hence I felt it such a pity that this wonderful book deflated and felt rushed towards the end where it ultimately lacks the quintessential Galgut masterly narrative refinement. It is still a wonderful book of genuine literary stylistic innovation.
The Promise is the 2021 Booker Prize winner. Damon Galgut is the third South African writer to win the prestigious award, after Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.