The Promise, by Damon Galgut

Sometimes, the library gods smile on us.  We read so many enticing reviews from our blogging friends that they exceed the book-buying budget and so we reserve the books at the library.  And then we wait for ages, and lo! the reservations all come at once.  Meaning that reading plans, such as they are, have to be put on hold so that the pile of books can all be read before the due date.  Not a bad problem to have, but still… The Promise, however, which I reserved after reading Joe’s compelling review at Rough Ghosts, came in on reserve for me, one day before the announcement that it’s on the Booker Prize shortlist.  Today there are 19 reserves ahead of a would-be borrower for this remarkable book.  I’ve read it as promptly as I could so that others can have the pleasure of reading it too. The Promise is not only a very engaging story penned by a master storyteller, it also offers great riches for readers who are alert to passing allusions.  Even the surname of the white family that is central to the story has meaning: ‘Swart’ is an Afrikaans surname meaning ‘black’, and the word ‘swart’ is also an archaic form of ‘swarthy’, so for a story that begins in South Africa under apartheid where skin colour determined every aspect of life, Galgut has employed ironic naming for these racist characters.  Also, the origin of the surname in England comes from a family seat as Lords of the Manor of Sward in Cornwall, and the Swart family of The Promise certainly regard themselves as lords of their estate in Pretoria, as did landowners throughout South Africa in the apartheid era. …the person in the room isn’t Ma.  It’s Salome, of course, who has been here on the farm forever, or that’s how it feels.  My grandfather always talked about her like that, Oh, Salome, I got her along with the land. Pause a moment to observe, as she takes the sheets off the bed.  A stout, solid woman, wearing a second-hand dress, given to her by Ma years ago.  A headscarf tied over her hair.  She is barefoot, and the soles of her feet are cracked and dirty.  Her hands have marks on them too, the scuffs and scars of innumerable collisions.  Same age as Ma supposedly, forty, though she looks much older.  Hard to put an exact number on her.  Not much shows in her face, she wears her life like a mask, like a graven image. (p.18) A graven image who is unseen. She was with Ma when she died, right there next to the bed, though nobody seems to see her, she is apparently invisible.  And whatever Salome feels is invisible too. (p.19) Ironies abound in The Promise. The Promise traces the fate of five main characters, linked by a sequence of funerals.  The story begins with the death of Rachel Swart from cancer in 1986.  13-year-old Amor, sent away for the last phase of her mother’s illness, is recalled for the funeral, and collected by her aunt Marina who is hungry for drama and gossip and cheap spectacle. Tannie Marina is outraged that Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion, to going back to her old religion.  To being a Jew!  Religion has never been a force for good in South Africa.  Believers have cherry-picked the Bible for scripture to support apartheid, and post-apartheid, false traditional beliefs have hindered efforts to contain HIV. These beliefs and other forms of denialism — notably by President Thabo Mbeki— have led to South Africa having 7.5 million people living with HIV, the highest in the world.  A tsunami of suffering that Amor cannot hope to ease in her work as a palliative care nurse. Unconscious of the fact that apartheid routinely separates Black South Africans in death, Manie Swart is distraught that his wife’s decision about religion means that they will not be buried together in the same family plot.  At the funeral service we see the divisions in society laid bare.  Salome, the servant who nursed Ma in her last days, did all the jobs that people in her own family didn’t want to do, too dirty or too intimate, is not present.  It doesn’t occur to anyone that she should be there, so she offers up a prayer for Rachel in the privacy of the shack she lives in.  Whatever god Salome and her disenfranchised fellow-Blacks have been praying to over the long years of thankless servitude, he hasn’t been listening. The shack is not Salome’s home, it’s the subject of the broken promise that weaves its way through the novel.  On her death bed, even though she must know that South African law prohibits Black ownership of land, Rachel makes Manie promise to give the shack to Salome.  But this promise is overheard only by Amor, and Amor — who is ‘not quite right’ since she was struck by lightning — isn’t taken seriously by anyone.  (And her father’s promise to her, not to send her back to the hostel after the funeral, even though a Christian never goes back on his word, isn’t kept either.)  In a family whose decline and fall mirrors the state of life in South Africa, Amor is the one who exiles herself as soon as she can, leaving Pr

The Promise, by Damon Galgut

Sometimes, the library gods smile on us.  We read so many enticing reviews from our blogging friends that they exceed the book-buying budget and so we reserve the books at the library.  And then we wait for ages, and lo! the reservations all come at once.  Meaning that reading plans, such as they are, have to be put on hold so that the pile of books can all be read before the due date.  Not a bad problem to have, but still… The Promise, however, which I reserved after reading Joe’s compelling review at Rough Ghosts, came in on reserve for me, one day before the announcement that it’s on the Booker Prize shortlist.  Today there are 19 reserves ahead of a would-be borrower for this remarkable book.  I’ve read it as promptly as I could so that others can have the pleasure of reading it too.

The Promise is not only a very engaging story penned by a master storyteller, it also offers great riches for readers who are alert to passing allusions.  Even the surname of the white family that is central to the story has meaning: ‘Swart’ is an Afrikaans surname meaning ‘black’, and the word ‘swart’ is also an archaic form of ‘swarthy’, so for a story that begins in South Africa under apartheid where skin colour determined every aspect of life, Galgut has employed ironic naming for these racist characters.  Also, the origin of the surname in England comes from a family seat as Lords of the Manor of Sward in Cornwall, and the Swart family of The Promise certainly regard themselves as lords of their estate in Pretoria, as did landowners throughout South Africa in the apartheid era.

…the person in the room isn’t Ma.  It’s Salome, of course, who has been here on the farm forever, or that’s how it feels.  My grandfather always talked about her like that, Oh, Salome, I got her along with the land.

Pause a moment to observe, as she takes the sheets off the bed.  A stout, solid woman, wearing a second-hand dress, given to her by Ma years ago.  A headscarf tied over her hair.  She is barefoot, and the soles of her feet are cracked and dirty.  Her hands have marks on them too, the scuffs and scars of innumerable collisions.  Same age as Ma supposedly, forty, though she looks much older.  Hard to put an exact number on her.  Not much shows in her face, she wears her life like a mask, like a graven image. (p.18)

A graven image who is unseen.

She was with Ma when she died, right there next to the bed, though nobody seems to see her, she is apparently invisible.  And whatever Salome feels is invisible too. (p.19)

Ironies abound in The Promise.

The Promise traces the fate of five main characters, linked by a sequence of funerals.  The story begins with the death of Rachel Swart from cancer in 1986.  13-year-old Amor, sent away for the last phase of her mother’s illness, is recalled for the funeral, and collected by her aunt Marina who is hungry for drama and gossip and cheap spectacle. Tannie Marina is outraged that Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion, to going back to her old religion.  To being a Jew! 

Religion has never been a force for good in South Africa.  Believers have cherry-picked the Bible for scripture to support apartheid, and post-apartheid, false traditional beliefs have hindered efforts to contain HIV. These beliefs and other forms of denialism — notably by President Thabo Mbeki— have led to South Africa having 7.5 million people living with HIV, the highest in the world.  A tsunami of suffering that Amor cannot hope to ease in her work as a palliative care nurse.

Unconscious of the fact that apartheid routinely separates Black South Africans in death, Manie Swart is distraught that his wife’s decision about religion means that they will not be buried together in the same family plot.  At the funeral service we see the divisions in society laid bare.  Salome, the servant who nursed Ma in her last days, did all the jobs that people in her own family didn’t want to do, too dirty or too intimate, is not present.  It doesn’t occur to anyone that she should be there, so she offers up a prayer for Rachel in the privacy of the shack she lives in.  Whatever god Salome and her disenfranchised fellow-Blacks have been praying to over the long years of thankless servitude, he hasn’t been listening.

The shack is not Salome’s home, it’s the subject of the broken promise that weaves its way through the novel.  On her death bed, even though she must know that South African law prohibits Black ownership of land, Rachel makes Manie promise to give the shack to Salome.  But this promise is overheard only by Amor, and Amor — who is ‘not quite right’ since she was struck by lightning — isn’t taken seriously by anyone.  (And her father’s promise to her, not to send her back to the hostel after the funeral, even though a Christian never goes back on his word, isn’t kept either.)  In a family whose decline and fall mirrors the state of life in South Africa, Amor is the one who exiles herself as soon as she can, leaving Pretoria as soon as she is old enough, trying to make reparation for injustice by nursing HIV patients in palliative care.

Biblical symbolism pervades the novel.  Amor remembers when her mother extracted the promise from her father:

She sees the picture still, her parents tangled together like Jesus and His mother, a terrible sad knot of clutching and crying.  […]

She’s sitting in the spot she likes, between the rocks, at the bottom of the burnt tree.  Where I was when the lightning struck, when I nearly died.  Pow, white fire dropping out of the sky.  As if God pointed at you, Pa says, but how would he know, he wasn’t here when it happened.  The wrath of the Lord is like an avenging flame.  But I didn’t burn, not like the tree.  Except for my feet.  (p.20)

For Manie, carrying Amor down the hill afterwards, it was like Moses descending the mountain, it was the afternoon the Holy Spirit touched him and his life changed.  Save her, he pleads. Save her, Lord, and I’ll be Yours for ever.

Amor remembers it differently, as the reek of burnt meat on the air, like a braaivleis, the stink of sacrifice at the centre of the world. (p. 27)

As we can see from the jaunty, often sardonic narration like a gossipy Greek chorus, these riffs are a satire on Afrikaaner religiosity. Anton Swart, the firstborn, the only son […] is anointed to what he doesn’t know but the future is his.  He deserts from national service after a crisis of conscience because he shot a Black woman, and slouches towards Bethlehem in the Free State. He thinks that the death of his mother is some kind of atonement for the death of the innocent woman he shot.

Manie slaughters a lamb for the funeral, cutting its throat, a small flowering of violence in the midst of this helplessness, oh it felt good.  

So people will pity themselves, soaked in sadness over what they’ve lost, with no awareness of other losses close to hand that they have brought about. (p.60)

The minister officiating at the funeral breaks his glasses and his driver deserts him, prompting him to liken his travails to those of Job:

Thou art forsaken in the hour of thy need, Alwyn, where is thy succour now?  It is only the just man who is tested, remember! (p.64)

Alwyn Simmers emerges as a man who isn’t a just man at all.

Middle daughter Astrid — who so casually appropriates her dead mother’s bracelet the way colonisers appropriated land — seeks absolution for her adultery in confession, having taken to Catholicism easily.

Her new faith, which she experiences as a kind of waterproof garment she’s buttoned down over herself, doesn’t stop her acting on her fears and desires, but it provides a way of washing them off afterwards. She will receive her penance and the karmic clock will be set again to zero and she will swear to the priest that she will follow his instructions, that this is the last, last time she will ever stray, and she will deeply mean it. (p.171)

The Swarts of this novel are a kind of collective Everyman.

For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in.  Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.

But don’t say we never change! (p.221)

They don’t change enough to bring themselves to offer the one small bit of justice that they could provide, by keeping the promise.

This is a serious novel but the narration offers lighter moments.  When the loss of her mother is reinforced by Amor’s first period occurring at the funeral, Marina knows she ought to help her niece, but leaving now would be terrible, it would be like when Ockie erased the who-shot-JR episode of Dallas from the VHA player by mistake before she’d seen it.  

Anton’s novel, which begins so well, fizzles out into chaos, not unlike the disappointing state of South Africa today…

I should not complain about the publishers who brought us this remarkable book, but honestly, that cover on the Chatto & Windus edition is not just awful, it’s irrelevant.  The Europa edition is much better: the bolt of lightning refers to something that actually happens in the novel and it’s symbolic too of the cataclysmic changes in South Africa.

Author: Damon Galgut
Title: The Promise
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 2021
ISBN: 9781784744076, pbk., 293 pages
Source: Bayside Library