Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Damon Galgut, ‘The Promise’ (2021)

Here’s one promise: this review contains spoilers.

The Promise is another piece of elegantly turned Galguttian neoFaulknerism. It’s very elegantly and often very insightfully done, this novel, and it has striking and I daresay important things to say about race relations and social change in South Africa 1984-present. Not a bag of laughs, but that’s understandable given its subject.

At any rate, it strikes me as a notably Faulknerian novel, as did the last Galgut I read, In A Strange Room (the title itself is a quotation from Faulkner), not just because specific elements from the Yoknapatawphanian scribe’s oeuvre are reworked, and not just because Galgut’s fluent, nimbly perspective-shifting prose traces similar rhythms to Faulkner’s (though it does), but in the larger sense that this is a novel about racial tension in a segregated white-run society. Maybe Faulkner is a good model to follow for a writer interested in writing about that. I’m suppose he is.

What specific elements? Well, The Promise struck me as a kind of midrash on As I Lay Dying. Galgut’s novel doesn’t have eighteen (or whatever it is) stream-of-consciousness narratorial focal-points — there are eight, or maybe nine, I think. The book is divided into four sections, each one centred on the death of one member of a particular South African family, the Swart clan, who are, despite their ironically chosen name, not black. On the contrary, the Swarts are, most of them, old-fashioned, racist, white South Africans. The book starts starts with the death of the mother. ‘My mother is a fish’, says Faulkner’s Vardaman, drilling holes into her coffin. ‘I heard that my mother is dead’ says Faulkner’s Dewey Dell. Galgut’s son character, Anton, is serving in the SA army and recently shot a woman dead as part of riot control, something about which he is hugely if secretly guilty: ‘my mother is dead,’ he thinks; ‘I killed her. I shot and killed her yesterday morning’ [36]. Amor, one of two daughters, is more direct: ‘my mother is dead and she lies inside that box’ [70]. Faulkner takes Addie’s coffin on a long physical journey. Galgut takes his novel on a long temporal one, from apartheid-era South Africa to the modern day.

The titular promise is one that dying Rachel extracts from her reluctant husband Manie: that their black servant, Salome, be given the deeds to the annex (off the family home) in which she lives — given, that is, a house of her own. Over the course of the novel this promise is ignored, or deferred, or denied (it would be strictly illegal under apartheid laws it seems; and even after the fall of that regime it seems other people might have prior claim on the whole estate, preventing Salome from inheriting). Making the promise, evading it and finally trying, belatedly, to honour it is the throughline of the whole.

Rachel’s death leaves behind her husband Manie and three children: Anton, Astrid and Amor. The first part of the novel, ‘Ma’, set in 1984, is an 85 page account of Rachel’s funeral. Part 2, ‘Pa’, starts with Manie ‘unconscious in the ICU at H F Verwoerd Hospital in Pretoria’. Over the following 70 pages we follow his death and funeral, events Galgut uses to give us a sense of South Africa in 1995, and we catch up, with ever-so-slightly soap-opera-y interest, with what’s happened to the other family members. Part 3, named for Astrid, tells of her death (murdered during a carjacking) and funeral. Finally, part 4, named for Anton, is set in 2018, and narrates his death and its aftermath.

Some wag online — I’m not sure where I saw, and Google’s not helping me — described this four-part novel as ‘not Four Weddings and a Funeral so much as Four Funerals and a Partheid’. There’s something in that.

Poor old Anton. In the novel’s final section he has moved back on his dead parents’ farm. He has spend decades trying to write the great South African novel, without success. Unhappily married, alcoholic, still haunted by the woman he killed when he was a kid in the army, he reels home late one night, gets into an inconclusive fight with his wife’s lover, and falls asleep. This is what he dreams:

The anxiety-dream marks impermanence — a hotel room rather than a home, ‘he shouldn’t be here’ — that speaks both to the white presence in South Africa and something broader, more existential: we are all renting our spaces in this life, we will all die. Something is knocking on our door and it doesn’t mean us well, for it is death. The money that dream-Anton is trying to extract is what is owed to Salome, from Rachel’s promise; it is more generally the wealth white settlers appropriated from Africa. Back in the real world nobody is knocking, though paranoid Anton takes a shotgun and goes patrolling the outside of the house to check. Blam blam anticipates the sound of his gun when he puts it into his mouth.

After his suicide his wife, her lover and the one surviving sister Amor converge on the farm — Amor has been away for many decades, hiding away in a different part of the country, trying to escape her family and their racist inertial past. She comes back after her brother’s death to make good, if she can, on the book’s titular promise. Desirée, Anton’s widow, offers Amor the spare bedroom but she asks to sleep in her own room: Anton had been using it as a study, so she has to clear a lot of junk away .’The room you grew up in is a room you never leave and Amor has been living here for forty-four years’ [275]. We all end up in a grave room we never leave.

Houses, property, the material stake people have in a country — which is wealth, among other things — is partly what this novel is about. But Galgut’s austerely existential Weltanschauung sees the epitome of all houses, and all belonging to the land, in the coffin. That’s what the room of In A Strange Room is: a coffin. Here the floating promise of a house for Salome is grounded, settled, and ultimately evaded, by a smaller ‘house’ for Rachel: ‘as they drive away, Rachel’s body is already being lifted into its final container and the lid screwed down. For ever.’ Every section begins with a key character in a house, and focuses in on a coffin, or a funereal urn: Part 1 in Amor’s school, when the tannoy calls her to the headmistress’ office where she is to be informed her mother has died (‘the moment the metal box speaks her name,’ is how the novel stars, ‘Amor knows it’s happened’). Part 2 opens in an apartment in Johannesburg (‘He [Anton] has just come out of the shower when the phone rings’ [91]); part 3 in ‘a modest, two-bedroom home in the Berea area of Durban. Susan’s place’ (‘She [Amor] gets back from the hospital to an impatient message from Astrid on the answering machine’ [164]). Finally the novel returns to the family farm: ‘Anton wandering around his house’ [235].

There is much to admire in this novel, although it’s hard to love, or at least I found it so. The tone, generally one of Galgut’s strong writerly suits, wobbles ever so slightly: arch little twists when the narratorial voice addresses the reader (‘you get the idea’ and so on) and gestures that we readers are complicit with the Swartz’s attitude, which I found irksome. There are jarring moments of sentimentality, as when Rachel’s ghost wanders nostalgically around her house after her death. And when the sister-in-law, obese, elderly Tannie Marina, sleeps Galgut reports her dream: ‘she’s on a picnic with P. W. Botha and he’s feeding her strawberries with thick white fingers’ [34] and it’s like: yes, we get it, she’s an old racist. I don’t mean to overplay this element, mind you: there are a great many finely observed and expertly written moments too. I don’t know though: I’m not sure it’s a novel that [clears throat] quite lives up to its promise.



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