The Promise

by Damon Galgut

reviewed by Ella Fox-Martens

Somewhere in apartheid Pretoria, 1985, Rachel Swart, a recently re-converted Jewish woman, dies of cancer. On her deathbed, she feverishly forces her Christian, Afrikaans husband to promise to give the maid, Salome, the house where she already lives. Despite its illegality—Black people could not own property at the time—the conversation is overheard by Rachel’s teenage daughter Amor, who spends the next thirty years attempting to convince her father and two siblings to make good on her mother’s dying wish. 

So goes the setup of Damon Galgut’s Man Booker Award–winning novel The Promise, which is much less about the Swarts, and much more about deconstructing the place where such a story could feasibly be told. “Do you have no idea what country you’re living in?” Amor’s brother asks her. “No,” Galgut answers for us, “she doesn’t … history has not yet trod on her.” By the time The Promise ends in 2018, history will have ground its boot not only on Amor and her family, but the entire nation. Galgut, though–whom I interviewed in 2021–welcomes the death of the old South Africa, which allows him to consider the central question of what grows out of its ashes.

Each of The Promise’s four sections centers around the death of a different Swart. They’re also set in defining eras of South African politics, from the State of Emergency to Mandela’s presidency, Mbeki’s inauguration and Jacob Zuma’s eventual resignation. The romp through South Africa’s sordid past is a bizarre one, populated by impossible coincidences and brutal violence, with a chorus of odd supporting characters: a case of snakes, an incestuous priest, a yoga teacher called Mowgli, an evil reptile park salesman. 

The Promise’s sweeping scope and utilization of quasi-magical realism to evoke the dysfunction of life in postcolonial states renders it closer to Midnight’s Children than Coetzee’s Disgrace. There is a neat strangeness to the proceedings that suggests a fable; Amor herself gets struck by lightning as a child. It’s a risky approach, given that apartheid and its consequences are raw enough for this kind of fictionalization to feel condescending. Yet, from a distance, the last thirty years—with the absurd scandals, dashed hopes, and constant corruption—do seem like a staged tragedy. After all, it was Jane Taylor’s 1998 play Ubu and the Truth Commission, with its puppets and talking crocodile, that emerged as one of the most painful artistic representations of racist violence under apartheid. The decision to open the novel with a Fellini quote is then eminently sensible. Disdaining unflinching realism as a sufficient vehicle for conveying the weight of history, The Promise instead offers a narrative that is only matched in surrealism by the facts themselves. In South Africa, Galgut implies, art can only ever hope to imitate life.

Even more polarizing is Galgut’s knowingly theatrical voice, which is unsurprising given his background as a playwright. Thoughts swirl around on the page, their origins unclear. Rachel’s ghost floats off to evaluate her own dead body before she is swiftly excised on grounds of unimportance. Galgut’s direction is ever-present, intruding upon events to offer moral judgements, or to muddy the waters until objective truth is blurred. “The family has returned,” he writes, “or maybe they have never left.” He picks people up and sets them down again. Perhaps they were in the living room, or the lounge. Amor left on a Tuesday, or a Wednesday, either in the evening or morning. As he notes, whatever actually happens “doesn’t matter.” Galgut implicates the reader with his frequent asides. “Shall we say” and “let us pretend” have the effect of rapping on the glass of an aquarium to startle the fish. The intention that underlies Galgut’s chaotic narration is simple: The reader must never become comfortable enough to forget that this is a story. Galgut’s refusal to allow suspension of disbelief strips the machinations of fiction bare, revealing people as symbols and place as setting—drawing constant attention to the ugly wiring that sustains personal and national propaganda.

What saves The Promise from being an exercise in history is its pitch-black sense of humor. Galgut even manages to force a genuine laugh during a murder scene with his stinging depiction of “South Africa’s finest”—two corrupt and incompetent detectives, one of whom is a little too happy to be examining a body. His ability to eviscerate racist, bourgeois white South Africans is unparalleled:

Astrid huffs audibly. Since she married a rich man, she finds the notion of work distasteful, especially when it’s a job. Running a house and raising a family is bad enough, but that’s why you have servants, to help you. It seems to Astrid that her little sister has chosen the life of a servant instead, and what for? To punish herself?

This is Galgut’s wisest stylistic choice. Without the embrace of satire, The Promise would never work as well as it does. When it comes to apartheid fiction by white writers, earnest sentimentality can reduce an otherwise competent novel into a spectacle of pearl-clutching and exploitation, placing white guilt above Black experience. Galgut never falls into that trap, mostly because he is always aware of his characters as devices. 

Yes, as others have noted, Salome is barely developed—nobody is. As Amor journeys home for the last time, having devoted her life to serving others out of a misguided sense of martyrdom, she proves herself incapable of seeing Salome (or Black people at large) as anything other than the answer to her own problems of conscience. Decades have passed, and Salome is an old woman now. As her son Lukas makes clear, it’s “thirty years too late” to be grateful for anything. Amor’s supposedly noble resolution to keep Rachel’s promise has always been self-serving. Without her guilt, she barely exists. Her peaceful ruminations on her own death sum up Galgut’s core idea elegantly: “Other branches will fill the space,” he writes. “Other stories will write themselves over yours, scratching out every word.” Like a cauterized wound, the Swarts and the South Africa they represent need to die for the new country to decide its own future. With that hope, Galgut ends The Promise on a wistful note as Amor climbs down from the roof, having just scattered her brother’s ashes. She descends towards a fragile blank slate, where the past must be laid to rest in order to survive whatever happens next.

Published on March 17, 2022