Wednesday, January 26

Damon Galgut’s Promise Review – Legacies of Apartheid | Fiction


In Damon Galgut’s 2008 book The Impostor, a man named Adam loses his job and moves to a hut in the Karoo to try to write poetry. Like Galgut himself, who wrote his first novel, A season without sinWhen he was 17, Adam’s first collection – “fiery, intense, romantic poems about the natural world” – was published when he was a young man. But Adam has realized the weight of history ever since and wonders if such poetry is acceptable in contemporary South Africa:

When his first collection came out, he had been stunned by a particularly scathing review, which had accused him of deliberately avoiding the moral crisis in the heart of South Africa. He had had no ideological project in mind with his quest for Beauty, and the suggestion that he was indifferent to suffering had pained him. But in his weakest moments he mused privately that perhaps it was true; maybe he didn’t care enough about people.

The fall of apartheid promised to give South African novelists license to write, as Galgut put it in a 2003 interview, about “things like love … that would have been considered slightly immoral as a subject until apartheid collapsed”, but their The novels themselves have only become more politically involved in the course of their careers. At times, his early works were criticized, like Adam’s poetry, for neglecting their moral responsibilities. Both A season without sin (1982), a child cruelty novel set in a prison for young offenders (Galgut has since disavowed it), and the novel that formed the backbone of his collection. Small circle of beings (1988) a stark domestic miniature about a mother caring for her sick child: they were precocious and emotionally perceptive, but neither seemed particularly interested in the world outside themselves.

Since the mid-1990s, he has been more willing to directly address the legacies of apartheid in his fiction. On The good doctorShortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, a cynical South African doctor is challenged by a naively ideological new colleague. In a strange room – Which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2010 and is by far Galgut’s best novel – is an autofiction in which a man named Damon makes three trips through Europe, Africa and India, bearing his nationality like a smudge on the back. His most recent book, Arctic summer It was a historical novel about a decade in the life of EM Forster, but even here the tension between individual innocence – or ignorance or indifference – and the scope of the story is evident.

The promise it is one of Galgut’s most directly political novels. It is also one of his more formally inventive, borrowing many of the narrative techniques that he developed so effectively in On a strange room. If the results are mixed, this could be because the novel sometimes tries too hard to present a balanced collective perspective, or because it fails to reconcile aesthetic and moral issues. Not that it is crude or simplistic at all; rather than the injustices he wants to examine are rendered slightly inert by the intrusion of something like a conscience, a storyteller, at times that could have been more effective had they not been resolved.

The novel is divided into four sections, beginning in the mid-1980s, during the state of emergency that marked the height of apartheid, and ending in 2018. The Swarts are a white family who own a ramshackle farm in the depths of the city. plain. The head of the family is Herman “Manie” Swart, a staunch racist who runs a reptile park called Scaly City and has recently found religion. His wife, Rachel, converted (or reverted) to Judaism on her deathbed, and her death marks the beginning of the book. He leaves behind three children: Anton, Astrid and Amor.

The title’s “promise” is literal, made by Rachel before she died: to give her black servant, Salome, a house on the farm. It is also metaphorical. Over the years, as family members find reasons to deny or defer Salome’s inheritance, the moral promise, potential, or expectation, of the next generation of South Africans and of the nation itself, it shows as committed as her parents.

In your topics The promise aspires to a Joycean universalism, and stylistically too, it is a neo-modernist novel. The narrator occupies an indistinct space, midway between the first and third person, moving from a strict focus on a single character to a more penetrating and detached view, often within a single paragraph. There is a lot of free indirect speech and sections written on something that is close to the Joycean stream of consciousness.

Galgut is too good of a writer to spoil all of this, but the gears occasionally shift when the focus shifts between characters. Astrid on the line, Anton thinks, too kindly, when his sister calls him. “He can hear that it is her, although only fragments of words are heard. Probably on that new cell phone of his, so proud of it, useless heavy brick with buttons. It is not an invention that is going to last. “The irony is not subtle at the moment and consequently the characterization may seem a bit crude. But then, Anton is a rough man. Every now and then the effect is more jarring. When an older aunt’s disappointment is described as “almost palpable, like a secret fart,” or when Amor is described as “ugly when she cries, like a tomato breaking,” it is not clear whether the similes belong to the characters themselves, to the characters who watch them, or to an external narrator.

At other times, it is clear who is speaking. After Rachel’s death, Salomé offers a prayer. “Oh God. I hope you can hear me. It’s me, Salomé. Please welcome the lady where you are and take care of her carefully, because I wish to see her again one day in heaven.” A little later the narrator intervenes: “Perhaps she does not pray with these words, or with any word, many prayers are pronounced without language and appear like all the others. Or perhaps she prays for other things, because in the end the prayers are secret and not all for the same God.” The moment is revealing in the way the novel wants to be able to speak on behalf of Salomé and, at the same time, denies any hope of doing so. Perhaps this is just one more example of Salomé’s disenfranchisement: homeless, voiceless. , without narrated inner life.But novels are made of words and it seems doubly cruel, or at least too easy, to deny Salomé even this degree of self-expression.

For Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the story was a “nightmare from which I am trying to wake up,” and also in Galgut’s novels, the story exists independently of the individuals who are inevitably shaped by it. On The Impostor, Adam recalls that when black students were first accepted into his school, he realized that history was affecting their existence, which is a strange way to put it, and might reveal more about their views than he could, with its uninterrupted liberal values. – can admit it to himself. On The promiseAmor, 13, cannot understand that her mother’s promise to Salomé will not be fulfilled because, says the narrator, “history has not yet stepped on her”. That is a way of looking at history, as an external force that comes for you when you least expect it and against which it is impossible to take a position. But it is not the only way.

Galgut is a tremendously agile and constantly interesting novelist, no doubt on a par with Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee as a chronicler of the agonizing complexity of his nation. And in trying to navigate the demands of being a South African writer and being a writer who happens to be South African, The promise it is a fascinating achievement, though inevitably partial. But as he read it, he sometimes wished Galgut would go back to the smaller frame of On a strange roomAnd remember that it is not a self-denial of artistic responsibilities to paint with a small brush and attend to personal rather than historical dramas.

The promise is published by Chatto & Windus (£ 16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, request a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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