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The Promise by Damon Galgut

By Kole Omotoso
28 November 2021   |   3:10 am
Damon Galgut published his first novel when he was 18 years of age. As usual for such early displays of genius, nobody, least of all the writer, wants to talk of it today.

Damon Galgut published his first novel when he was 18 years of age. As usual for such early displays of genius, nobody, least of all the writer, wants to talk of it today. Other than the title of that novel, nothing else is ever mentioned. For now let it remain thus. Let us go to the reason A Sinless Season is mentioned. The Promise published in 2021. This is the ninth novel of Damon Galgut, counting the first novel or not.

The Quarry (2005, Grove Paperback) was my first encounter with Damon Galgut. It was the film adaptation of it that I saw and liked. It is to be noted that Damon Galgut wrote the film script. This is mentioned because so much is made of the fact that Damon Galgut took on a film script job in-between the beginning and finishing of the writing of The Promise and hence the fact that the novel reads very much like a film script.

Galgut himself points out examples of places in the novel where the dialogue is influenced by the film script writing format. The fact is that writing film scripts has been part of Damon Galgut’s expertise from the beginning of his writing career.

The important matter that needs to be discussed before going into the novel itself is the matter of the ease with which South Africa and South Africa’s history lends itself to fables and proverbs in the hands of South African writers. To the question, ‘What does this story teach us?’ Can be answered in the positive by any South African novel or play or poem.

The Promise is a novel in four parts, each section a narrative of 10 or so years, and each section separated by the death of a member of the family. The mother, the father, the eldest daughter ASTRID, and finally the eldest son ANTON, in that sequence. Each section of the narration is tormented by a promise that Mr. Swart makes to his wife, Mrs. Swart that the house in which Salome, the house maid lives in now, should be given to her in perpetuity. Once Mrs. Swart passes on the family begins to forget the promise. With the exception of the youngest daughter of the family, Amor.

There are reasons Salome ought to inherit the house. She is already the occupier of the house; effective occupation makes her the owner of the house. And anyway, the promise was made to Mrs. Black, ‘Swart’ meaning ‘Black’ in Afrikaans.

The novel begins when the news that everyone had been waiting for arrives and nobody believes it. But arrangements go ahead for the burial of Ma. Unfortunately, she had returned to her original Jewish religion. She had converted to her husband’s religion on her marriage. In her death, she insisted on going back to her original religion.

This upsets her husband. He had expected and had arranged that he will be buried next to his wife, while the other children would be buried with other members of the family as well. He offers to make a donation to the Catholic Church in order for Ma’s last wishes to be changed. The Church refuses and rebukes him for making such an offer.

Anton, their eldest child insisted that their mother’s wishes must be respected. It led to a confrontation between father and son. The father insisted that his son was rude to him and unless he apologises to him for his rudeness, he would never speak to him again. Anton refused to apologise to his father and their family priest and he is kicked out of the house.

The second part of the novel begins with a phone call to Anton that his father had been bitten by a snake and so, he must return home to the farm, to the possible death of his father. The sisters were anxious that Anton should get home in time to reconcile with his father, should in case matters become otherwise.

Anton is tormented by the use of such reconciliation for either of them. Anyway, he goes and finds that his father had passed on. He visits the funeral home for his meeting with his father. Previously, he had had another meeting with the family priest to whom he was also rude. He apologised and they all became part of the committee that arranged the burial of his father.

Three or four days later, the will of Mr. Manie Swart is read and nothing is mentioned about Salome. Her name does not appear in his will. And why should it appear? Although when Anton goes to drop Amor at the Durban bus stop the following day, Amor told him that they should be able to do something about the Salome house sometime. Do what and when? Neither Anton nor Amor could answer the questions and they parted.

Part three is titled ASTRID, the eldest daughter. She enjoys shopping. In fact, shopping is the one thing that relieves her of the burdensomeness of human existence. She has been doing some confession and she promises the priest she would stop the affair she confessed to and resume taking communion. She drives out to the mall to shop. Loaded, she is driving home when she realises that some man is sitting next to her. With a gun to her side. She is hi-jacked. She is killed.

Amor comes from Durban to attend her sister’s funeral. And hopefully, to settle the Salome house issue. Anton refuses to deal and Amor leaves the second and final mass for Astrid, promising never to speak to her brother again.

Of what use is the Booker Prize as an indication of future Nobel Prize? None at all, if we were to go by Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel Prize of this year. The nearest that Gurnah got to the Booker prize was his nomination for it for Paradise in 1994.

Yet, the other two Nobel prize winners were both Booker prize winners, Coetzee twice. The question of the relevance of Booker to Nobel is the greatness that the Booker prize has acquired today. The best that can be said, for now, is that it matters and it does not matter.

Part four of The Promise is entitled ANTON…

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