Denouncing the reader

Zoë Wicomb thinks she knows why black South African readers appreciate Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel 'The Promise' (2021) whilst many white readers were turned off by it.

Trevor Samson via World Bank Flickr CC.

From his earlier works, readers have come to think of Damon Galgut as a writer of minimalist aesthetic, one who depicts sparse worlds in pared-down prose. With its broader canvas, a new mode of narration, scatological as never before, and most markedly humorous, The Promise (2020) is a radical departure.

The novel tells the story of “an ordinary bunch of white South Africans” called Swart: Ma, Pa and their children, Anton, Astrid and Amor. The death and funeral of each are narrated, except for Amor who remains. Funerals turn out to be a vehicle for satirizing the manners and mores of this society in all its grotesquerie. At the first death, the issue of the promise is raised: Amor has overheard Pa promising her dying mother that he would give the black servant Salome the dilapidated house that she has lived in most of her life. At each of the funerals, Amor raises the question of the promise, but no other member of the family cares about it; indeed, her father is dismissive; he has promised nothing.

The Promise is stylistically extraordinary, with seamless shifts between speech and thought, and focalization of events through any one character that shifts almost imperceptibly to another, all via deft use of free indirect style. There is also the self-reflexive “I” of the narrator who occasionally intrudes in the third person account, often with a disavowal: such as an impatient, “Oh balls, Anton, who scripts these thoughts for you?”

Most markedly, is the use of the pronoun “you” that may refer to a character, but at times addresses the reader directly, and this implied reader is unquestionably white South African. This may account for the fact that, according to my informal sounding out of friends and acquaintances in Cape Town, black readers appreciate the novel whilst many white readers find it “clichéd,” “cold,” “supercilious,” “lacking in compassion” or “cheap caricature.”

In the London Review of Books (LRB), Adam Mars-Jones is equally dismissive. He decries the “awkward and arbitrary” transitions where different pronouns are used in a single paragraph to denote the same person. What he overlooks is that the pronominal riot often records Galgut’s acknowledgment of the problem of representation that exercises contemporary literary culture. Dismissing the ready-made “giving the Other a voice,” the vexed question of who is qualified to represent the Other is addressed, for instance, when Salome’s son Lukas is on his way home from Pa’s funeral. The pronouns shift within focalization through Lukas, from first person (he refers to “Where I live”) to second person, and then to the third:

Hello? Your own voice coming back at you. His mother is not home…Tending the children of another woman, over the hill. Leaving him alone… (p.142)

As Lukas washes himself, we are told of a scar on his back, then the narrative voice intrudes: “Some private history there, [I] don’t know him well enough to ask.” In other words, narratorial hesitation as an admission that in such a divided society the privileged cannot or do not know about the lives of the Other. Disavowal is also seen in relation to Salome when her prayer for the deceased is swiftly followed by, “Perhaps she doesn’t pray in these words… .”

In the main, Galgut settles on the more thoughtful question of what constitutes an ethical way of representing Salome. With a bold  aesthetic/ethical solution he directly addresses the white South African reader as “you.” This reader stands accused, held responsible for the erasure of the black servant’s interiority. Salome is “apparently invisible. And whatever Salome feels is invisible too.” The charge in the LRB that “there’s no formal reason for her to be invisible to the author, when so many other minds are open to him” fails to consider the racial politics that Galgut confronts and misses the point of irony’s echoic function. A mirror is being held up to “you” the readers who view your servants as silent and enduring. Salome’s thoughts, feelings and point of view are therefore strategically withheld.

The narrator dramatizes the othering of Salome, already commodified in the quoted words of Oupa Swart: “Oh Salome, I got her along with the land.” When we first see her entering the Swart house, she is seen from the point of view of the accused reader in the typical anthropological present tense of colonial discourse that situates the Other outside of the normal flow of time or history, interiority deliberately eschewed in favor of routinely repeated actions: “it might be any day…she’s allowed to use the bathroom for two minutes to change. Then hangs her own clothes out of sight…” (p.80). An excoriating indictment comes at the end of the novel when Amor finally gives the servant the promised house. Salome has already thought of returning to her home village: “Just outside Mahikeng … and if Salome’s home hasn’t been mentioned before it’s because you have not asked, you didn’t care to know” (p.285). The “you” who is directly addressed has already been established in the text; here the referent segues from Amor to the servant-dependent South African reader. Or the reader interpellated when Tannie Marina’s house is described: “where you, perhaps, also grew up. Where all of it began.” (p.6) And where “it” endures, in spite of so-called political transformation. (Galgut reminded his 2022 Edinburgh Festival audience that South Africa has since the demise of apartheid risen to top position in the Wealth Inequality Index.) Small wonder that political change itself is satirized via the brand of an “Ubuntu coffin” for Pa or Astrid’s titillating affair with a black businessman, and her ludicrous imagining that Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa from 1999 to 2008, has given her the eye.

Significantly, Galgut chooses the genre of the plaasroman (farm novel) as a vehicle for his commentary on South African culture. Aware of earlier refigurations by writers like J.M. Coetzee and Marlene Van Niekerk, he continues to drain its tropes of their traditional meanings. In The Promise it is stripped of affect; events are anchored to historical change and satirized with generic hyperbole and scatology. Satire is marked by its didactic function, and to that purpose the animal world is at times invoked, as in the burlesque of baboons falling upon the after-funeral feast, or jackals marking out their territory in the veld with piss and shit that invites comparison with white ownership of the land. It is Lukas who at the end points out to Amor: “… 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 … Everything you have white lady, is already mine” (p.286). The novel signals the end of the farm, in ruins under Anton’s feckless stewardship, and of the family only Amor in her menopausal sweats survives. If in the plaasroman drought resolves in rain that affirms God’s chosen people, Galgut ends with rain coming “like a cheap redemptive symbol in a story,” washing all away.

Galgut destabilizes his narrative by building an ambiguity into the actual promise. The child Amor recollects a scene in which her dying mother extracts a promise from her father: “I really want her to have something. After everything she’s done.” Manie utters the words, “I promise.” Only later, as Amor sitting on a hillock observes Salome in the distance, she finally “understands who they were talking about”; however,  no basis for her arrival at this inference is given. An ambiguous conversation between Amor and her father follows:

You will keep your promise, she says…

Ja, he says vaguely, if I promised then I’ll do it…

What are we actually talking about? he says.

(Salome’s house.) But Amor also runs out of power and collapses back against his chest. When she speaks he can’t hear her.  (pp.27-28)

The bracketed “Salome’s house” is not uttered; the ambiguity is sustained and transfers to Amor’s commitment. No wonder it takes decades for her to act. Indeed, when years later Anton tries to bargain with her, Amor takes the high moral ground of a promise being non-negotiable. Her commitment to the abstract notion of a promise fails to see the issue from Salome’s point of view.

If Amor the child is ignorant of the law that prevents Salome from owning her house, her mother surely was better informed. Thus the child’s inference is either wrong or the “gift” to Salome is a matter of sentimental wittering on the mother’s part. Lukas the child is puzzled by Amor’s news: “It’s always been his house. He was born there, he sleeps there, what is the white girl talking about?” (p.21) The novel underscores the strange logic of economic domination and the problem it poses for one like Amor who, as an adult, distances herself from her family’s complacency by adopting an ascetic lifestyle. Having refused her inherited money, she is, after Anton’s death, able to hand it over to Salome along with the deeds of the house. Ironically, there is by now a land claim by a prior black owner that casts further ambiguity over the promise.

For all his acceptance of the status quo, Anton the failed writer has intimations of the rot at the heart of the country. His literary references to colonial domination are telling. From Conrad he quotes Kurtz’s “Oh the horror; the horror” albeit hyperbolically in relation to the now aged Tannie Marina. Anton’s notes that include Dingane’s “Kill the Wizards” and again Kurtz’s “Exterminate the brutes” hint at both his ambivalence and culpability.

Like any work of art, The Promise does not offer solutions. Instead, it trades in ambiguities and through satire defamiliarizes a socioeconomic situation that is generally seen as a given. Excluding blacks from narratology’s “implied reader” is Galgut’s bold device for destabilizing such acceptance of post-apartheid culture.

Further Reading

Sankara is not dead

Thomas Sankara has emerged as both a lesson on the uncertainties of revolutionary change and the possibilities for people-centered development for the present and future.

History time

The historical novel is in vogue across the continent, challenging how we conceive of the nation, and how we write its histories.