The Promise—Damon Galgut

[This 2021 novel is in four sections, and I am reading one section at a time. I write about what I read in each section before reading further, and so far I have read two of them. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]

2 April 2022
I’m loving what Galgut is doing here. He’s in debt to the Modernists—I thought of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf almost from the start—but this is a blatantly 21st Century novel. His narrator is endowed with an unblinking, freewheeling omniscience, hitching rides in the thought-streams of a dozen characters. The way he leaves it to the reader to keep up with the sometimes vertiginous leaps from one to another reminds me most of Woolf in both To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. It’s refreshing, at a time when novelists often use a technique of polite turn-taking in order to follow different thought-streams—we will have a chapter from one point of view, then a chapter from another—to find an author who is having none of that. His narrator is the opposite of polite, and will often switch points of view in an instant to reveal the darkest corners of these people’s souls. In Afrikaans-speaking South Africa in 1986, some of those corners are very dark indeed.

The key protagonists are the troubled members of the ironically-named Swart family, but we also get to know the people they are involved with in the days following the death of the mother. Some of Galgut’s cast of characters are highly unattractive, but there seem to be no real villains. It occurred to me as I was wondering why Galgut might have assembled such messy bunch that perhaps there is a villain of the piece after all, South Africa itself in the dying years of Apartheid. There are constant reminders of the obscenity of the system and the mindset it has led to among the whites— there’s something very telling about the young daughter realising that she is ‘as invisible as a black’ to her father…

…and the political situation is becoming volatile enough to intrude into their lives. When Anton, the son, is returning from an army camp where he is doing his national service, he is injured by a thrown rock when he overrides the black driver’s advice to avoid a trouble-spot. And there’s a harsh political awakening for Amor, that same young daughter, when she thinks their black housekeeper could possibly be offered a house. She has told Anton, but he hadn’t taken it seriously. Then he realises she thinks this is real: ‘You are not serious. But then he looks at her and sees how serious she is. Oh, dear me, he says. Do you have no idea what country you’re living in?’ The promise of this house, witnessed by the ‘invisible’ Amor and subsequently denied by their father, seems to be what gives the book its title. But I suspect, in fact, that this is only one broken promise among many. When did the whites in South Africa ever keep a promise?

The novel opens with Amor, unable to process the news she’s just been given at her boarding school that her mother has died. The mother is the ‘Ma’ who gives this section its title, despite being dead before it opens. We’re in As I Lay Dying territory, and the patriarchal self-centredness of the father, with his son and two daughters little more than satellites in his mind, is a theme of this whole section. We follow Amor back to the family homestead, to a drive full of cars and a house full of people… and she immediately escapes to the ‘koppie’, the little hill that seems always to have been her retreat.

The son of the housekeeper is also there—they have practically grown up together, so Amor doesn’t have the same ingrained prejudices of the adults—and he doesn’t understand when she tells him the house is promised to them. Of course it’s their house, it’s where he’s always lived. Meanwhile, she’s still in denial about the death, knowing that it’s true and pretending that if she doesn’t go to the house and pay her respects her mother might still be alive. She’s also avoiding her father, the selfish, good-looking older sister who treats her like an ugly little kid (Amor is thirteen), and relatives she doesn’t want to see.

We can see her point. Her aunt, ‘Tannie’ Marina, is small-minded, snobbish, and loves to tell the housekeeper and everybody else what they ought to be doing. Her husband is an alcoholic, and who can blame him? Astrid, Amor’s sister, only ever wants to tell her off, and her father… what? His solution to the problem of what to do with her through the final months of Ma’s life had been to send her to what they all refer to as a hostel. It’s basic, and Amor hates it. And, after the two or three days that this first section covers, she’s back there. That hadn’t been the plan, but it’s what happens. When she arrives back there, it’s exactly as bad as when she left.

Not, we gather, that home was ever a great place to grow up. Pa, Manie Swartz—not Mannie, he reminds his wife’s Jewish relatives—has been a lifelong womaniser, only recently reformed having brought Jesus into his life. The Lord seems to have had no effect on his behaviour beyond an unwelcome veneer of sanctimoniousness when it suits him. Ma had been born and raised Jewish, and had converted to the Dutch Reformed version of Christianity on their marriage. She had reverted to Judaism when (I think) she discovered she was ill a year or two back, and it’s difficult for Pa. He knows he has to accept it but, from the pastor’s resigned tolerance of him during these difficult days, he has clearly been plagued for a long time by the insistent difficulties of the Swartz family. His assistant is having doubts about his own vocation—he’s realising he doesn’t believe any of it—and we guess the Swartz family has had its part to play in his crisis of faith. How can there be a God if there are Christians like Mr Swartz?

We don’t actually hear the poor man put this into words, but nobody seems to survive contact with this family unscathed. The family doctor seems somehow long-suffering, hating to have to be called in the day after the death to dress Anton’s head wound. And the visit Manie makes with his sister Marina (among others) to see the Jewish clergy—Ma is to be buried in their cemetery, not in the family plot to rest next to Manie for eternity in spite of their having slept apart for years—has to be cut short for everybody’s sake. The ‘Levi’ is rarely impressed by the Christians he meets, and this session confirms his dislike. As for Mamie, the only thing to make him feel anything good about the day will be the satisfaction of killing something. (It’s always hard to believe this man has really found Jesus. This scene makes me wonder what he would do if he really found him. Knock him down, probably.)

For the whites in Galgut’s version of South Africa, civilisation sometimes seems to be a barely perceptible veneer, as in the lamb-murdering episode. But usually it’s a contempt for anything and anyone that doesn’t contribute to satisfying immediate needs—often demanding ones, and usually based on fairly basic appetites. Earlier on I might have referred to the characters’ thought-streams, but we become at least as intimately involved with more physical functions as anything going on in their heads. The second sentence of the novel, as Amor immediately guesses why she’s being called from the classroom to the office, sets the tone: ‘She’s been in a tense, headachey mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream….’ This is a physical world, and sex is a big part of that even for the unworldly Amor. She looks at the teacher speaking to her, ‘covering her big teeth behind thin, pressed-together lips. Some of the other girls say Miss Starkey is a lesbian, but it’s hard to imagine her doing anything sexy with anyone. Or maybe she did once and has been permanently disgusted ever since.’ This is still the first page, and the tone soon becomes familiar.

There’s little that seems charitable in these people’s lives and relationships. We quickly hear of Manie’s womanising, know that he gave it up in a pact with God to save Ma. Marina thinks of him as merely weak, ‘unravelling like the bottom of his jersey.’ Yes. We are witness to his reaction to Amor’s neediness: ‘Manie tires of her clinging, and has to quell an unseemly urge to push her away. He has always worried, based on nothing tangible, about whether Amor is actually his child. The last-born, not planned, she was conceived in the most troubled period of his marriage, the middle bit when he and his wife started keeping separate bedrooms. Not a lot of loving going on, yet that was when Amor arrived.’ Amor’s sister Astrid seems only to be interested in sex. We know she’s been to bed with Dean, the boy she lusts after, before the end of this section.

But the most extraordinary confirmation of Galgut’s determination to reduce all these people to their physical functions comes in a bravura set piece. A statistical list starts blandly enough: ‘a hundred and thirty-two minutes have passed since she ran away. Four cars have departed….’ But quickly—and this is still only 20-odd pages in—we are taken somewhere else entirely: ‘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.’ The food, we later discover, is Astrid’s, deliberately vomited up to avoid putting on weight. I’m not sure about the sperm, or about this determinedly pitiless narrator.

When it arrives, we’re fully prepared for Amor’s body-horror moment at the funeral. She might be thirteen, but her sister and brother like to laugh at her unworldliness. Astrid isn’t laughing now, as she’s the one who has to deal with what might well be Amor’s first experience of menstruation. ‘I can’t help it, Amor says, and at this moment feels a cramp go through her, a hot wringing close to the core. It’s like when she stepped on a nail that time, running in the grass. How she’d wailed. Ma, Ma, please help me!’ It isn’t at all surprising that Astrid and Marina react with a mixture of blame and disgust. ‘Astrid is amazed. She has never thought of Amor as a possible adult, somebody with breasts and blood and opinions, much less with the power to expel her from their mother’s funeral and to shame her in the process. Yet here they are, while everybody is chugging along in one direction, the two of them heading in the other. Outside, she turns on her sister. How could you do this? she says.’

In many ways, Amor is the key consciousness in this section, but I think Anton is just as important. He is as much a product of Afrikaans culture as his father—and just as interested in sex as both him and Astrid—but he is much more troubled by it. When we first meet him, some way into this first section, he is trying to come to terms with the fact that he killed a Black woman while on duty the day before—the day he hears of his own mother’s death. The two become fused in his mind, to the extent that he tells a man on sentry duty that he has killed his own mother, the one whose funeral he has leave to attend. He constantly thinks of leaving South Africa, of how he hates his father. When Amor tells him about Manie’s promise regarding the housekeeper’s house, he takes up the cause—even though he later tells Amor the promise is meaningless….

This is the moment when he seems to mock his younger sister. It comes near the end of the section, just before he leaves to go back to his army camp, and I mention it again because the conversation moves on from there. He has just asked her if she knows what country she is living in: ‘No, she doesn’t. Amor is thirteen years old, history has not yet trod on her. She has no idea what country she’s living in. She has seen black people running away from the police because they’re not carrying their passbooks and heard adults talking in urgent, low voices about riots in the townships….’ And maybe the terrible experiences of the last couple of days have made her ready to start looking harder. ‘One thing, though, perturbs her. / But why? she says. Why did you tell Pa to give Salome her house if you knew he couldn’t? / He shrugs. Because, he says. I felt like it. / And it’s exactly then, in the tiniest way, without even knowing it herself, that she begins to understand what country she’s living in.’

All through the novel, Amor has believed that the people close to her do the right thing because it’s the Christian thing to do. At first, she had fully believed her rather would keep his promise for exactly that reason and is still coming to terms with the truth of it. Now she is perturbed by Anton, pretending to be on her side when all he is doing is both mocking her and shaming their father. His answer to her question is quietly devastating to her. He felt like saying it. No right, no wrong, just a whim. It’s white South Africa in a nutshell.

Amor is packed off back to the hostel for no fathomable reason beyond her father’s dislike. But the end of the section is given over to Anton’s return to camp—and his almost immediate desertion. It comes as no surprise, but it doesn’t seem premeditated. Beyond having packed a few clothes into a plastic bag he seems to have no plan. ‘What I’ve just done is a crime, he thinks, and yet it felt so weightless. He chokes down a momentary dread, feeling how very big the world is, and trudges to a likely spot near the off-ramp to the highway. Showing himself in the fluorescent glare, one hopeful thumb outstretched. Got to have some faith! It might take a while but sooner or later, if you just keep trying, someone will stop for you.’

Which is how this section ends.

14 April
Time passes. We don’t know at first that it’s nine years that have passed—we don’t even know who has just come out of the shower in the first sentence, but he’s picking up the phone to a disjointed call from Astrid. Over the next pages, the seriousness and stupidity of the reason for the call becomes clear. It’s Anton receiving it, hearing the news he’s been half expecting: their father’s attempt to prove his Christian faith in a cage of snakes has ended with him being bitten, probably fatally. And in these same pages, his uneasy relationship with his sister during all these years of self-imposed exile from his father is laid out for us. His irritation with her for buying a stupid mobile phone, her insistence on letting him know what he should do now, make him stubborn. She’s right, he needs to return home at last, but that doesn’t make him like it. Instead, he mocks her terror of the idea of death. ‘But he isn’t dead, she says, starting to make that whimpering sound again.’

Soon, he will be. Dead. And Galgut lets the narrative follow him most of the way to wherever he’s going: ‘where he is is harder to describe. Picture a tunnel underground where no light has ever shone. Something like that, a crack in the bedrock of himself, is where Pa has retreated. The passion, no, the poison in his blood has driven him down there. And will drive him further still. Riding the fumes of evil, toxic dreams. Accompanied by the last flicker, the last ember, of a voice. Saying what? Saying nothing. I am, I was, nonsense like that.’ Whose voice is this? The second-rate consciousness that is Pa? Or a narrator who can’t be bothered to spend too much time on him. ‘Something like that’ is good enough for this man.

This isn’t the first time this narrator has taken us outside the consciousness of the fully alive. Before her burial, but definitely after her death—I can’t think why I neglected to mention it last time—Ma hasn’t actually left yet. Some part of her ‘lingers around the house in a state of confusion. She becomes almost visible at certain moments, when the light or the mood is right … at the edges of things. She peered at Amor out of the mirror not long ago, though what she was really gazing at was the scene of her final exit, a fact she finds hard to take in. … Astrid thinks she hears her calling from her room down the passage, needing help again, always at the worst possible moment, but of course it’s just a loose window hinge in the wind.’ This is from a much longer passage—Ma has a wander around in the town as well—and, in a different way, the narrator seems as underwhelmed by her experience as by Pa’s. There are jokes, like the dead finding it as hard as the living to accept their condition, and Astrid’s typically self-centred error—which she repeats in the second section, this time misidentifying the howl of jackals. Is absolutely everybody in this family second-rate?

Something else I forgot to mention is that at Ma’s funeral, very publicly, Anton had made it very clear to the ‘dominie’ that he had no time for him or his self-serving conduct. He’s absolutely right, as we keep seeing in the second section. But, through a stipulation in Manie’s will, Anton is forced to apologise or lose his inheritance. Over his dead body, he says… but we know by now that Anton has been living too long on the charity of (mainly) women, so he says the necessary words. Simmers, who is now the ‘pastoor’ in an ugly new church on the family’s land—he really could make Manie do whatever he wanted, it seems—regrets this vice when he sees it in others. ‘Truly, men have made an altar unto Mammon.’ He is driven around in a big limousine, and lives very comfortably with ‘his spouse, sorry, his sister.’ This is another of the narrator’s sarcasms. It prepares the reader, elsewhere, to hear of the little act of fornication they had been guilty of a long time ago. But whose slip is it, Simmers’ or the narrator’s, when mention is made of ‘his customers, ahem, his flock,’ who pay for his expensive lifestyle? It seems that Simmers is somebody else not worthy of the narrator’s full attention.

But I’m not telling you the plot. Astrid has called Anton, who returns despite saying he definitely won’t—we’re seeing a pattern here—and he calls Amor in England. She, when she returns, is transformed. The awkward teenager has grown into a striking young woman of 22, to the extent that Astrid, when she sees her, is appalled. Later, after visiting the funeral parlour with Amor, and having confessed—Astrid has no understanding of the honesty in Amor that seems to invite confidences, and wonders why on earth she is telling her anything—both that she married the blob-like Dean because she had to, and that she has had an affair with Jake, the man who fixed up their security system. Astrid really doesn’t get Amor, and feels undermined and dispirited: ‘she feels the need to withdraw to the bathroom to purge her inner turmoil. She really wants to turn herself inside out today. Poor, mistaken Astrid! You can’t puke up the thought which pains you most, namely that you and your sister have somehow changed places, and Amor is on a trajectory that by rights should be yours. Not true. Not how Amor sees it, in any case. For she too has her little pains, and they wear her out, though she does not speak of them, or is not asked….’

Who would ask in this family? That little aside of the narrator’s tells us all we need to know. Amor seems to have been in England since the moment she could leave South Africa, and the final stages of her transformation have taken place there. When Anton had called her number, a man had answered and sounded possessive. Amor tells them nothing when she arrives at the farm, because why should she? Like everybody else, she’s locked into her own private self. But unlike the others, she has thoughts beyond her own needs and wants. She is still as determined that Salome should get the house she was promised, still feels mystified that her siblings don’t seem to see anything in this world like she does. When she leaves, it’s after Anton has told her they will do the right thing for Salome, and she’s satisfied. She’s hoping to go and become a nurse in Durban, like a friend of hers who lives there.

But that’s at the end of this section, after their father has been buried with all the Dutch Reformed Church trimmings. Like so much else in this novel, everything about the funeral is a satire on white South Africa. Astrid decides that the coffin has to be of the right-on, expensive, African Ubuntu wood, despite Amor’s indifference to everything about it. The handles almost become a sticking-point, and Astrid regrets bringing the sister she’d hoped would offer moral support with the arrangements. As ever, Astrid is clueless about Amor. On the day of the funeral the undertaker, as uncomfortable in his own skin as so many of the other characters, is perpetually reminded of his too-tight trousers and his tendency to sweat inappropriately. Later, his discomfort is crowned when Tattie Marina, suspicious of the rampant malpractice she’s read about in some magazine, insists on the coffin being unscrewed so she can check inside. By accident, Astrid’s teenage twins catch an appalling glimpse of what the dead body of a close relative looks like.

Simmers, by contrast, is comfortable in every way. He has good, well-fitting clothes, an expensive, showy watch and, most of all, an immovable sense of his own moral rightness. Manie’s will had stipulated that he must officiate at the funeral—No way, says Anton, predictably and powerlessly—so that’s what Simmers does. And it’s awful. The black gravediggers had been present for Simmers’ dry run, which he had needed because he’s nearly blind. (Galgut’s narrator doesn’t make any comment about the blindness, so neither will I.) Looking out from inside the grave, they wonder about the man dressed as a woman emerging from the big car to help the pastor, but it’s the spouse, sorry sister. Does Simmers’ expensive watch interrupt to tell the time? Probably, because he always forgets to disable the sound, and it always seems to be going off.

It certainly goes off during the actual funeral.  Simmers thinks he has his captive little graveside group in the palm of his hand–he ‘has found his rhetorical flow’—but the narrator is having none of it. First, because the ‘beautiful voice’—we assume the opinion of it is Simmers’ own—is ‘curling away between termite hills and tussocks of grass.’ Then we are inside the man’s consciousness as he speaks, dwelling not on elevated thoughts but on that 40-year-old ‘sin of fornication’ with his sister. Which, of course, is never spoken of but ‘which he does occasionally feel the urge to confess out loud. … But no, keep telling the other story, the one we all agreed on, you know which one I mean, about salvation and humour and renewal and forgiveness, if we are truly Christians we won’t ever fuck our sisters, the thought won’t occur to us.’ Which is when—‘Beep beep. The time is ten thirty’—the whole thing collapses. ‘Everybody laughs and shuffles.’

It isn’t hard to see why Anton hates him and his self-righteous façade. But there is nothing in Anton that offers any kind of alternative. He has drifted for nine years, achieving only a sense of failure and a catalogue of lovers and friends who have had more than enough of his borrowings and promises to repay. Before returning home, he promises the lover whose apartment he is in at the start of the section that one more loan will be the last before he is able to return after claiming his inheritance. He means it at the time—he always seems to mean it at the time—but it doesn’t happen. He is as selfish as Simmers, and he always takes the path of least resistance. Once back home, he seeks out Desiree, the woman he had left without a word nine years before. And he is happy to take over his father’s place, right down to his car. He’s likeable and entertaining in company, but seems to have missed nine years of personal development. By the time we reach the end of the section, after the will has been read and all the siblings own a share, we are pretty sure that his promise to Amor as he drives her to the bus station—‘You know, we can work something out with Salome’s house’—is as empty as his father’s had been to Ma.

Amor, on the other hand, thinks she can finally relax her vigilance. She has been insistent all through her stay, but as she leaves on the bus to Durban—Anton can’t understand why she behaves as though she is poor—she ‘settles back in her seat, feeling happy for the first time since she touched down. Salome will get her house.’ Oh, yeh?


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