The Promise 
by Damon Galgut.
Chatto, 293 pp., £16.99, June, 978 1 78474 406 9
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The appetite​ for an authoritative portrait of the new South Africa was both catered to and resisted by J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning Disgrace, in which a narrative of disintegration and one of reconstruction were superimposed on each other, leaving it to the reader to decide which was the lower layer. (The last page might clinch it.) Twenty years later, Damon Galgut’s The Promise has followed this trajectory, with a Booker-shortlisted family narrative that’s also in two minds about its status as a document of historic social change.

There’s certainly an element of chronicle in the book, a notation of changing circumstances and expectations, though it takes second place to family drama. A farm that once had no need for security measures must now have its gate fastened with multiple locks. ‘Some bad trouble lately. A big land invasion out on the eastern side, closest to the township, fences cut and shacks put up, all in plain view. Plus one or two other incidents, a storeroom broken into one night, strangers having a prayer meeting on the koppie.’ There are changes in the city, too, with metal detectors at the mall, and the hopeful and welcoming light above the priest’s front door contradicted by the security gate and electric fence.

The narrative framework of The Promise is almost retro in its sturdiness. In 1986 Rachel Swart, on her deathbed, makes her husband promise to give Salome, the black servant who has nursed her through her illness, the house in which she lives on the Swart property. A clash of values and generations is set up. Will the white family recognise its responsibility towards the black servant, in a novel set in the years either side of the dismantling of apartheid, the dramatic period when Nelson Mandela went ‘from a cell to a throne’?

Manie, the widower, preoccupied with complications such as Rachel’s return to her Jewish faith in her illness (this means the funeral arrangements are out of his hands), doesn’t keep his promise. Readers outside South Africa are unlikely to realise, until told so later, that under the legal system in force at the beginning of the book it wasn’t possible for Salome to own the house, something that seems to undermine the sincerity of Rachel’s gesture. It may be partly theatrical.

There are three Swart children, Anton, who is doing his military service; Astrid, nearly grown up and newly aware of her sexual allure; and 13-year-old Amor, who actually hears the promise being made and considers its fulfilment to be an imperative. The reader who wants to find a moral accounting for the original sin of racial oppression, as they might in a Faulkner novel, can find it with little effort – perhaps in the freshly butchered lamb the newly widowed Manie serves barbecued to his guests: not just hospitality but a product of ‘the need to slaughter some living thing’. It’s certainly there in Anton’s attitude to his girlfriend’s father, ‘a physically as well as morally repugnant person’, a cabinet minister ‘with the blood of innocents on his hands’, whose power nevertheless excites Anton, to the point that ‘his most memorable thunderclap of an orgasm took place in a chair where the buttocks of the minister of justice had only recently rested.’

Galgut claims the writerly privilege of entering his characters’ minds, though he tends not to stick around for long. The family members gathered for Rachel’s funeral (including Manie’s sister, Marina, and her husband, Ockie) might be individual notes on a keyboard, allowing him to play a scale:

To counter the paganism around her, Tannie Marina is reciting the Lord’s Prayer quietly, under her breath. She feels her faith swelling in her almost physically, like a tumour. Ag, sis. It’s a tumour that killed Rachel, Ockie has often thought about it, what would it actually look like, if you lift it up, into the light? A clot of rubber and blood, like something that blocks the sink, or is it something more subtle? A foreign object penetrating your body, the memory of it so recent that it stirs your very cells, and Astrid shifts on the hard pew, moist and restless. She had sex yesterday with Dean de Wet in one of the cells down at the stables, and it was beautiful, despite the smell of fresh dung. The horse stamped and huffed in a neighbouring stall, rustling the straw with his hooves. Shit, that’s what it is, thinks Anton, all of it is horseshit, everything you’re saying, not one word of it is true.

The overlapping themes and voices here, as people drift ‘sideways in their minds’, perhaps makes the stretto of a fugue a closer musical analogy. This passage is unusual for being discreet despite its showiness, keeping inside the points of view as they shift, though it’s odd to have interconnectedness and separation so strongly emphasised at the same time.

There are surprisingly few examples of free indirect style here, though its advantages are obvious in a passage like this:

When the blacks took over the country [Astrid] thought she’d have a cadenza, people were stockpiling food and buying guns, it was like the end had come. And then nothing happened and everyone just went on like before, except it was nicer because there was forgiveness and no more boycotts. It’s not wonderful worrying about your safety all the time, of course, but the upside is that Jake’s business is booming. Never been better. And at home, it goes without saying, they’ve got the most upmarket protection.

It would be an odd reader who thought Astrid’s perspective was being endorsed, but there’s nothing here she couldn’t think or say. Try to blend in too crudely chosen a word, though, and the tone spoils. That’s what happens in a scene that features a Catholic priest: ‘I have no doubt, Father Batty says, that she is in the arms of her Redeemer as we speak. This kind of sententious assurance comes easily to him, it always has, even from a young age his sense of spiritual authority was insufferable.’ Isn’t it the adjective that is insufferable? There’s no one inside the book to pronounce such a verdict, and any number of slyer, more smoothly flowing alternatives could have been used.

Galgut doesn’t observe the convention whereby major characters have privileged access to the narrative locus. Anyone can chip in. A homeless man with visions of supernatural beings (unconnected to the other characters) steers the narrative for several pages. It comes to seem as if the significant departure would be not having your point of view represented. It’s standard novelistic practice to make the transitions between points of view and between scenes as smooth as possible, as in the funeral passage cited above, but almost everywhere else in The Promise those transitions are made awkward and arbitrary by a narrative voice determined to draw attention to itself. The pronouns ‘she’, ‘I’ and ‘you’ can all be used, in the course of a single short paragraph, to denote the same person. Information about the timing or location of a scene is arbitrarily delayed (‘This is later, outside the house’; ‘This is in the car, Astrid’s little Honda, on the way back to the farm’) or altered with ostentatiously casual postmodernism: ‘This conversation takes place in the garden behind the church. No, more likely it takes place inside the church itself, in one of the pews.’ Details are given then taken away: ‘She has a cat curled up on her lap. No, she doesn’t, there is no cat.’

The disruption of continuity and flow is relentless, sometimes low-key but often insistent:

But where is Amor?

I don’t know, she was around a while ago …

Who asks the question, who answers it, all that is lost, if the question is asked at all. But it’s certainly true that Amor is not nearby at the big moment, she has slipped out and gone somewhere. Come to think of it, was she ever here?

Well, leave her then. If she doesn’t want to be part of it.

Such interventions by the narrative voice are anything but neutral, calling attention to themselves with idiosyncratic subjectivity, for instance, by describing one of a family of morticians as ‘the sensitive one, could have been a painter, or perhaps a homosexual’ – not usually considered mutually exclusive careers. The writer within the book will take an approach to storytelling then disown it in a way that is if anything even more intrusive:

Twenty-two cups of tea, six mugs of coffee, three glasses of cool drink and six brandy-and-Cokes have been consumed. The three toilets downstairs, unused to such traffic, have between them flushed twenty-seven times, carrying away nine point eight litres of urine, five point two litres of shit, one stomachful of regurgitated food and five millilitres of sperm. Numbers go on and on, but what does mathematics help? In any human life there is really only one of everything.

No point in asking the reader about the usefulness of maths when you introduced the subject.

This pattern of rhetorical withdrawal is pronounced, and is at its most elaborate with the homeless man, christened Bob (‘Who knows, it might even be the right name’) because he keeps singing the first line of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. The narrative follows Bob for several pages, hinting at knowledge withheld (‘Can’t prove it to you, but he once had a high-paying job and an identity that commanded attention and respect’) before disavowing him in fits and starts:

He has a long walk ahead of him, back to the church that he regards as home, but there’s no reason to accompany him and, come to think of it, there never was. Why is he obscuring our view, this unwashed, raggedy man, demanding sympathy, using a name that doesn’t belong to him, how did he waste our time with his stories? He’s very insistent on being noticed, how self-centred of him, what an egotist he is. Pay him no further mind.

Even so, his progress out of the book is sketched so as to produce a neat join with the next scene (perversely neat, given the book’s often rough transitions), in which Anton rehearses his marital difficulties: ‘Let’s say he goes up a quiet suburban street, past a quiet suburban house, on which it would be easy to miss a small brass plaque advertising the services of a psychotherapist within.’ There Anton talks about his life and a family tragedy to a professional who sees him as viewing everything through ‘his usual prism of narcissistic injury’.

Though Bob has been reprimanded for intruding where he doesn’t belong, Galgut brings him back to participate in a later scene. On every page the narrative voice draws attention to itself, to the point where some sort of narcissistic prism does indeed seem to be involved. Why insist on upstaging the characters and preventing the reader from becoming absorbed in their world? Plot, characters and narrative voice all have the same source in the writer, and although harmony is neither guaranteed nor necessarily wanted, self-sabotage is eminently possible. Sometimes the material is milked for a significance it hardly seems to have, as in a sententious pronouncement at a moment that is only mildly dramatic: ‘Nor will the moment return, which is true of all moments, though not equally.’ At other times a scene will be brusquely dismissed: ‘No need to linger on what follows, the putting into the ground, the heart-rending grief as the final goodbyes are said, etc, etc. It’s a very old scene, perhaps the oldest of all, and nothing about it is unique.’ If the episode was so short of literary promise there was no requirement to include it.

The narrative voice makes a habit of addressing the reader directly: ‘not unlike yourself, perhaps’; ‘she dislikes her whole body, as many of you do’; ‘don’t let that deceive you’; ‘note the nautical terms’; ‘you really wouldn’t want to see the rest, under his clothes’; ‘you get the idea.’ You get the idea. In a play this would count as breaking the fourth wall, but such effects are much more powerful in the theatre, where three walls have actually been provided. In fiction any impression of solidity is a sandcastle built jointly by writer and reader, easily kicked over by either party. Wilful underminings are particularly counterproductive if it comes to seem that the narrating presence is not just a character in the book but the only one. This presence scatters disorders (bulimia, self-harm) between the characters with an arbitrary hand and shows little interest in their underlying psychological states. A character hasn’t been characterised enough in the first section for his Flannery O’Connor ending in the second to come either as a surprise or a logical extension of what we already know: he’s bitten by a cobra while trying to beat the world record for living in a glass case full of cobras, an attempt undertaken both as a test of faith and to raise funds for his church.

There’s a sour relish to the narrative’s disclosure of unspeakable secrets elsewhere in the cast list:

In a brief lapse of probity forty years ago, Alwyn Simmers and his sister committed the sin of fornication, unfortunately with each other, and although neither of them has ever mentioned it again, he does occasionally feel the urge to confess it aloud from the pulpit. On days like these he fears he actually might. But no, keep telling the other story, the one we agreed on, you know which one I mean, about salvation and honour and renewal and forgiveness, if we are truly Christians we won’t fuck our sisters, the thought won’t occur to us.

A theme of incest between otherwise celibate siblings needs either to be developed with enormous dexterity or scrapped. There isn’t a middle way.

There is a persistent association between grave ceremonial moments (this is a book full of funerals) and bodily indignity. A girl beginning her periods causes disarray at one such occasion; an undertaker is unable to hold his water at another (‘Such release! Nothing joins a man to the earth more completely than an umbilical arc of hot yellow urine’), making no greater effort at discretion than turning his back on graveyard and mourners. The yoking of supposedly high and low aspects of life isn’t new, it’s there in Lawrence, and John Cowper Powys finds in it a sort of transgressive holiness, but here it represents no more than a reflex of disgust.

Before the ceremony a grieving relative had insisted on the coffin being opened, motivated supposedly by ‘a Huisgenoot article she read last week while she was on the toilet, about a dodgy funeral home on the edge of Johannesburg where they’d discovered decomposing bodies piled up in a shed’. The deeper reason seems to be a generalised impulse on the author’s part to defile and dishonour, and that detail about reading a corpse scare story while on the toilet is entirely consistent with this. A screwdriver is fetched and the dead man’s body exposed in all its nightmare dissolution in the back of the hearse, just in time for his young grandchildren to see it and be traumatised.

In the course of the book, and the chain of deaths that makes up its narrative, a number of faiths are represented. There’s Catholic Father Batty and Dominee Simmers of the Dutch Reformed Church, both of them crude sketches. The dominee becomes a pastoor when he founds his own breakaway church, the First Assembly of the Revelation on the Highveld, where the flock may more easily be fleeced and encouraged to test their faith in a cage of poisonous snakes. Followers of less institutionalised faiths have some sort of exemption from scorn. Rachel’s ritual laying out is described with appropriate reverence: ‘It is required, both the ritual and the cleanliness. And there is great respect and tenderness in doing it, which brings peace to this older woman, whose name, according to the tag she wears on her lapel, is Sara. One day soon, somebody will do this for her.’ Though Sara has no personal connection with the Swart family, Galgut inhabits her serenely troubled point of view for two pages, until he remembers that death is not sufficiently undignified in itself and must be combined with some orificial event. Sara gets a sidelong glimpse of Rachel’s ghost and mistakes the visual disturbance for a migraine: ‘Sara retreats, pulling off her rubber gloves, fumbling for her suppositories. They sometimes help if you can catch it in time. No need to dwell on the image of the old woman with her knickers round her ankles and her finger up her fundament.’ Again – you suggested the image you pretend to deprecate.

This is the second encounter with Rachel’s ghost, a form of permanence not extended to the other dead people in the book, suggesting not just that Jewish rituals are humane but that the faith underlying them is true, however little encouragement it gives to speculations about the afterlife. The shomer at her funeral chants the tehillim, which has an effect not granted to other prayers and wishes in the book: ‘See the words fly, through the door of the room, down the passage, out the window. Watch them rise over the city and wing their way in a little psalm-shaped flock to the farm, in search of the woman to whom they are chanted.’ The next body is also watched over, though at the moment of death, and this time by someone of a faith not shared by the person dying. ‘The only person present when he goes is a Muslim nurse called Waheeda who secretly recites a verse from the Koran over him, Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un, though whether this intervention has any effect on his soul is impossible to say.’

As the book progresses, the theme of the promise to Salome becomes more and more of an irrelevance. It was Amor, present when the promise was made, who saw it as all-important, and without that overhearing there would be no story. She is attuned to Salome’s thoughts: ‘(Will you help me?) It isn’t spoken aloud, but Amor hears it as if it is.’ The logical moment to broach the subject is when the family is gathered round the dinner table. ‘She’s about to ask the question, the words are actually in her mouth, their individual syllables completely innocent (Can Salome have her house now?)’

The words are never spoken, because with a noise like a soft punch (‘Whaddah!’) something crashes into the glass door. It’s a bird, and not just any bird but a dove. The crude symbolism crashes into the text with a ‘Whaddah!’ of its own – the bird that represents peace and reconciliation slain (‘a thin thread of blood leaks from one nostril’) at the very moment the family must show its true colours. Isn’t symbolism supposed to deepen the human drama, rather than simply replacing it? One reading of the dove’s crash is that Amor has created this traumatic interruption herself. A hundred pages earlier it was mentioned that sometimes she knows in advance,

just a millisecond ahead of time, that a picture will drop off the wall, a window will fly open, a pencil will roll across the desk. Today she looks past her reflection in the mirror, feeling certain that a fire-blackened tortoise shell, which sits on the bedside table, will lift into the air. She watches it lift. As if she’s carrying it with her eyes, she observes it move calmly into the middle of the room. Then she lets it drop, or throws it perhaps, for it smashes quite forcefully onto the floor and breaks.

At this point Amor is thirteen to the sixteen of Stephen King’s Carrie White, but like Carrie on the brink of her first period. Perhaps her powers have developed in the near decade since – if so, this is the only time she uses them, or the only time they use her. Whether or not she is responsible for aborting the family showdown, her reaction must be pivotal, except it isn’t. It’s not there. Galgut gives his readers the reactions of Astrid, her husband, Tannie Marina and Ockie, but Amor has disappeared from the scene. She takes a little holiday from the narrative, one that lasts for nearly twenty pages. Instead we follow a pair of jackals who unearth the dove from the shallow grave where it has been buried, tear it apart and then slink off obligingly to provide a smooth transition to the next scene, which takes place in a graveyard. It’s characteristic of the perverse workings of the novel that Galgut should insist on providing a trivial continuity immediately after he has erased a necessary one.

If​ the domestic realism you’ve chosen to work in doesn’t do the job without being nibbled at the edges by ghosts, half-hearted telekinesis and clangingly symbolic events, then it’s the wrong genre. And why bother to tell us what the characters think if you’re constantly upstaging them? If the story you’re telling doesn’t represent your concerns as a writer, it’s the wrong story. The framework established by Rachel Swart’s promise can seem like a cynical feint, a gesture at moral seriousness from someone with no real interest. Discussion of what the family owes to Salome occupies a handful of pages. Amor at thirteen has the simple idea that ‘a Christian never goes back on his word.’ In her twenties she plans to ask if Salome can have her house at last, but doesn’t. Later, on a visit home from abroad, she’s surprised by ‘how much it matters to her, this buried question from long ago.’ She urges Anton to agree to the transfer, but he will only do so if she agrees to his selling off some family property. He suggests that she asks Salome what she thinks, but apparently that’s not relevant. ‘Whatever Salome thinks, Amor tells him, our mother wanted her to have the Lombard place. It was her last wish and Pa agreed to it. He promised.’ What is important is that her father gave his word, not the justice of the arrangement.

Salome is used without subtlety as a touchstone for other people’s behaviour, for instance when Tannie Marina complains that it’s ‘unforgivable to be lazy on a big day like this, she has to be pushed along like a boulder, it’s exhausting giving orders all the time.’ What she is to herself is a mystery, though she works for the Swarts for the span of the novel, from Botha’s presidency to the resignation of Jacob Zuma in 2018. In a book that dips casually into the minds of passing undertakers and spiritualists she hardly gets a sniff at the point of view.

Banned from Rachel’s funeral by Tannie Marina, Salome changes into her church clothes just the same, sits outside her house on a broken-down armchair and says a prayer: ‘Please welcome the madam where You are and look after her carefully, because I wish to see her again one day in Heaven. I have known her a long time, from before she was a madam even, from when she and I were both young women, and in these past days we were sometimes one person.’ That is empathy at its highest pitch, and it would be unreasonable to expect the family to match it. In fact, Salome is ‘apparently invisible. And whatever Salome feels is invisible too.’ There’s no formal reason for her to be invisible to the author, when so many other minds are open to him. Her dominant characteristic is a rather two-dimensional loyalty to the family that employs her, particularly to Amor, who can’t really be felt to deserve it. She glibly compares overhearing her parents’ conversation to Salome’s permanent condition: ‘They forgot I was there, in the corner. They didn’t see me, I was a black woman to them.’ As an adult, Anton looks through Salome, but ‘when he was little he used to call her Mama and tried to suck on her nipple, a common South African confusion. No secrets between them.’ That intrusive authorial comment about common confusion draws attention away from the oddity of the last sentence, another baffling portrayal of an asymmetrical relationship as evenly balanced.

Galgut’s physical description of Salome is meagre and standard-issue.

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 marks of innumerable collisions. Same age as Ma, supposedly, forty, though she looks 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.

Nothing here to compare with the erratic aria devised by Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury, his heavy-duty modernist melodrama of family dysfunction, to honour Dilsey, strangely loyal to the Compsons just as Salome is to the Swarts:

She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts.

The instability of language here is close to comical, though even to attempt so lofty a register for a black servant was brave in 1929, and sometimes Dilsey has a hidden power: ‘Dilsey raised her face as if her eyes could and did penetrate the walls and ceiling and saw the old woman in her quilted dressing gown at the head of the stairs, calling her name with machine-like regularity.’ Faulkner is not prodigal with point of view, choosing only to inhabit the consciousness of a handful of Compson family members. If Galgut had made the same formal choice, there could be no complaint about the thinness of Salome’s presence.

Dilsey has a family life (three children and a grandson) and Salome has a son called Lukas, who makes infrequent appearances. At one point he helps to dig a grave and his lack of deference is pointed up: ‘Lukas would never use the word baas, at least not any more.’ (The year is 1995.) He has ‘an air of proud reserve, or perhaps it’s disdain’. When he undresses at home to wash, ‘his long dark body is ridged with muscle, a pink scar zigzags across his back. Some private history there, don’t know him well enough to ask.’ It can’t be Galgut’s intention to oversimplify the black experience in South Africa, in a story set during the period in which it changed most, but that’s the effect. Later, asked by Amor how he is, he answers: ‘I’m average … I’m just your average black guy in these parts. So, not well at all.’ Generic might be as apt a word as average.

Salome has her faith, or at least goes to church since she has ‘church clothes’. It’s mentioned that she ends up as a worshipper at Pastoor Simmers’s First Assembly of the Revelation on the Highveld, but not whether she followed him there from the Dutch Reformed Church, which seems an unlikely starting point for such a person. Faulkner’s Dilsey has any amount of faith – it’s what she has instead of everything else. There’s a substantial scene in The Sound and the Fury set in the ‘coloured’ church she attends. Faulkner takes the risk of immersion in the alien, coming up with a huge haul of clichés but also an ethical framework to set against the decline of the Compsons.

Information about Salome’s origins arrives very late in The Promise, with a characteristic flourish: ‘If Salome’s home hasn’t been mentioned before it’s because you have not asked, you didn’t care to know.’ Postmodernism need not be this fatuous and self-serving. The relationship between reader and writer is just as asymmetrical as those between masters and servants, parents and children, but it holds a possibility of equality not available in those cases.

When Lukas is handed the microphone at last, he produces righteous rhetoric: ‘You don’t understand, it’s not yours to give. It already belongs to us. This house, but also the house where you live, and the land it’s standing on. Ours! Not yours to give out as a favour when you’re finished with it. Everything you have, white lady, is already mine. I don’t have to ask.’ This could have been produced by the reader without help from the writer. What the reader hopes to find in a novel set in a turbulent period of recent history is imaginative understanding, not sloganising followed by the faux closure of remarks about ‘the strange, simple fusions that hold this country together. Sometimes only barely.’

Dilsey leaves the church with tears streaming down her face, though her daughter, Frony, tries to make her wipe them away (‘We be passin white folks soon’). She achieves some sort of rapture of tragedy and can say, echoing the preacher but with her mind on the Compsons: ‘I’ve seed de first en de last.’ Salome could have said something similar, if Galgut had allowed himself to inhabit her experience rather than incessantly exploiting her value as a symbol.

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