Booker-nominated author Damon Galgut’s ninth novel, The Promise, is painful and wry; a portrait of a fractured family and a fractured nation. Woven with Galgut’s masterful prose and expertly-navigated perspective, the novel dissects national eras through the dissolution of a family, and a betrayal that echoes after them into history. It is so true to life in its characters and narration – the violence and the grief and the absurdity – that it manages to produce both a deep melancholy and genuine laughter (often concurrently). In the shattered mirror that Galgut raises, I saw the country I loved and the one that had broken my heart; the atrocities and victories and joys and indignities that South Africa has survived through, and the ones that continue to reverberate through the faultlines of the land.
I was lucky enough to sit down (via Zoom) with Damon, and draw out some of his thoughts on history, the writer’s role, and the state of the nation. As he says, the mood is grim – it has been for years. Nobody can know what the future holds, or if there is cause for hope. But in the end The Promise, and Galgut’s writing at large, embodies what South Africans do best: continue, in spite of it all.
Ella Fox-Martens: First of all, I just loved this book. Full disclosure, my family's from Maritzburg, which is about as glamorous as Pretoria – even less probably.
Damon Galgut: Actually, I think Maritzburg has the edge on the trending front. Pretoria is the sort of low point.
EFM: I think you've said before, when you're writing works set outside of South Africa, that it's a relief to be free of the history, and free of answering those questions that South African writers are always expected to answer. But when I was reading The Promise, it felt indirectly like an answer to those questions. So I'm curious about what drew you back home, in a literary sense?
DG: Well, I do live here. It is my country. And whether I like it or not, I am affected by what happens here, or what doesn't happen here. So occasionally I can allow myself a little excursion as a treat to go into E. M. Forster territory, but by and large, most writers are writing about what they've known. South Africa, and its troubles and victories, are part of what I know. So it's inevitable that I will keep coming back to it, even though it can be worrying to the soul in lots of ways. But it also provides quite rich, literary material a lot of the time, because South Africa's issues are so important, as opposed to a lot of places that may have evolved to a social point where you're debating things that don't really have a crucial effect on people's lives. That's not the case here. Obviously, politics matters greatly, and its history matters greatly. So that's heavy in one way, and in another way is kind of a gift for a writer.
EFM: Will you keep leaving as well?
DG: I don't know. You know, I live book to book, to be honest. I don't really know what my next project is. When I've finished something, I have to find it or it finds me. And I don't really know, until I've embarked on something, what's going to be occupying me. I'm not one of those writers who's got their work planned out far in advance, so it's hard to answer.
EFM: I'm curious about how The Promise began. It's structured around death, but also around eras of South African politics – these four connective episodes. I was wondering how that structure came to you originally.
DG: I actually began it in a more modest way. I was having a conversation with a friend who's a bit older than me. And he's lost all his immediate family, his mother and father and brother and sister; he's the last person left. And he's a very funny guy. And he was telling me the stories of the four family funerals he'd been to, which sounds like a very depressing topic, but in fact, he was being very, very funny about it. And it occurred to me that that might be an interesting way to tell a family story. That if you open the window on this family for the few days around each funeral, and if the funerals were spaced out, that you would get an unusually structured look at how that family had developed over time. So that was the initial germ of the project, but when I actually sat with it for a while, I realized that you could do quite a lot more; that if you set each funeral in a different decade of South African history, you could throw a light onto the background history and where the country was at. So that second aspect of it really came to me a bit later. But of course, it became exciting to think, "Well, I could cover the span of my lifetime memory." From apartheid days, back when I was growing up in Pretoria, through to where we are now, and through the presidencies of Mandela and Mbeki and Zuma. Books build up, they don't tend to arrive as one package where everything's clear. They arrive in little bits and pieces, and this idea welds on to that one, and then as the writer, you pick and choose. But this one accumulated in much the same way as I've just described.
EFM: I would have imagined it was difficult to stop writing, just given the wealth of things that have happened between the end of the novel and now, politically. But you chose these moments, not only in the family, but for South Africa as a whole, that function as a microcosm of the country's state. Whether that's the World Cup match, or Zuma leaving the presidency, they provide a really good idea of the era. And I think it chronicles another kind of death – or rather, rise and fall; that of the dream of the "rainbow nation."
DG: Once I'd made the decision to locate each section of the book in a different decade, then I thought, "well, you need to try and situate it at a point that kind of defines the decade." So you picked up on the rugby match.
EFM: My dad still talks about that.
DG: My dad too. I mean, it was a big moment for South Africa; we hosted and won the Rugby World Cup, after a very long time of being excluded from international sports. So, symbolically it was a great moment that really captured the spirit of the Mandela presidency, which was very positive and exciting. But obviously, that wouldn't work for a president like Zuma, where the mood is a lot gloomier. So the challenge was to try and find the background event or a background ethos that suggested the country, because you're not seeing the whole country, you're really just seeing it through this one family.
EFM: I read a couple of reviews that I didn't agree with, that said they found the end of The Promise to be hopeless, which I don't think it was. I think South Africans have this very bleak, grim, hope that they cling onto, that I felt throughout the novel. But I was wondering if you saw it that way.
DG: To be honest, I hadn't really thought in those terms while I was writing it. I was sort of just carrying out the steps of the project, as I've outlined them to you. So it comes as a slight surprise to me when people are obviously picking up on something I've put there, but that I wasn't intending to put it there. And people did pick up on what seems to be a downward trajectory; that the book is going from happiness and coherence to incoherence and hopelessness. That wasn't what I intended. But I also have to recognize that the picture, which emerges at the end of the book, is not a great one. It does leave off where we're so eaten up by corruption that the electricity supplies are failing. It also just happened to be the time when Cape Town was under severe drought, and so on. So it's almost as if the natural world as well as the political world is drying up on us. And while that was certainly true at that time, and we're still suffering electricity outages – probably will be for a long time to come – you know, the country does continue. We are all here and we get up every day and we do our thing. And you're right, South Africans somehow muddle through most of the time, for better or for worse. Things are grim right now, with COVID. The economic damage on top of everything else has been huge. So if anything, the mood is a lot gloomier than it is in the book. But where do we go from here? I don't know. I'm not a prophet, and I feel uncomfortable with the role of a writer being to supposedly point the way forward. That's not how I see my part. But while things could be better, they can always be worse.
EFM: That's the refrain of my grandmother, who has sat many nights in her armchair in front of the TV, clucking and then shaking her head. And then she'll turn to me and say something like, "You know, I really think things are on the up."
DG: Well, I hope your Granny's right.
EFM: You said you didn't see your part as a writer to point a way forward, which I know some writers do. What do you see your part as?
DG: For me, writing has much smaller ambitions. I know it was the traditional way to see a writer, for quite a long time, as people who had some insight into the human condition that other people didn't have. I've never felt that way. I'm kind of confounded by humans a lot of the time. No, I think books, if they are well-done, help you to see the world a little bit more clearly. To maybe look a little bit more lucidly at what realities are. Of course, lots of books don't even try to do that, they try to divert you from reality to entertain you. And I'm perfectly capable of reading for entertainment, but it's not why I write. So my aspirations are not really to change the world but to show the world as clearly as I possibly can, with my limited powers. That's maybe a more modest claim than some writers would make; to articulate things. People are very capable of not seeing reality, I think, including myself. If things are very bad, it's better not to see quite how bad they are, to just consider yourself, and to get through the day with somewhat of a deflection. And I think serious writing should be trying to strip away the deflection, if I can put it like that, and just show things as they are. And that might not sound like very much, but actually, it may be more than most of us are capable of, for a lot of the time. So I suppose It's to bring the world into slightly sharper focus, and show it in its outlines and its shadows.
EFM: South Africa's pandemic experience has been so different to Europe and North America, in its isolation and infrastructure and incidents of death, but I was wondering how it's been for you as a writer. There are a fair few interviews and reviews that paint you as a bit of a wanderer, so it must be a change.
DG: My wandering days might be in the past now. Not because of the pandemic, I'm just older than I was. Lockdown is not that different from normal routine for me, and for people who work from home. Writers spend a lot of their time alone, so it doesn't feel that unnatural. On the other hand, the mood out there is not so not so great. I've seen a lot of people's lives come quietly undone over the past year, and some people have lost their lives over the past year. So it's been a strange, unsettling, untethered kind of time. But it's not just here. Speaking purely for myself, my life is much the same as it usually is, but that's because I lead an odd, mostly solitary kind of life anyway. For people who are not used to that, I think it's been a hard adjustment.
EFM: And the experience of sort of publishing a book from, in many regards, afar?
DG: I'm still finding out about that. But it's been different. Everything's online, obviously, like this conversation, which is very pleasant in one way, because I don't have to leave my home and travel to the other side of the world. But in other ways, it's just peculiar, because you have no idea who you're reaching and who may be paying attention, even at a moment like this. There's a strange sense that I'm having a one-on-one conversation, but of course, the conversation is intended to travel further than that. So I don't know, we're all finding out how this works, and whether it's still possible to launch books under these circumstances.
EFM: Just to change tack, thinking about what you said earlier, about your friend using humour when they were telling you about the funerals – I found The Promise to be very funny. I was laughing to myself from start to finish.
DG: I'm glad to hear it. It's meant to be! Though some people seem to have taken it very seriously.
EFM: When Amor goes through Anton's unfinished novel at the end, there are these questions scribbled in the margins: "Is this a farm story or a family saga? Is this a comedy or a tragedy?" Were those questions that you were asking yourself?
DG: Yeah, pretty much. I sort of built them into the book. They're the sort of doubts that would creep up at the edges of your mind, you know: "Why you're writing? Is it this kind of book or is that kind of book? Is this a comedy? Or is it a tragedy? There's a lot of death in it." These are the sorts of questions that most writers would probably prefer to keep invisible, but I thought I'd put them into the book, just for fun and good measure.
EFM: What do you think that humour can do, for the reader?
DG: Of course, as the writer, what it did for me was actually liberate my writing voice. I mean, if it was just going to be a book about funerals and death, that's very heavy subject matter, and very dark. Not the kind of book I'd want to read, let alone spend three or four years writing. But with a voice that's kind of separate from that – where you can play and crack dark jokes and comment on the people that you're writing about, and so on – it provides a sort of free space that's separate to the subject matter. And I hope that the spirit of the book lies there, rather than in the funerals themselves. I had a lot of fun writing this book, which is not always the case, I have to say, and it's probably on the face of it, the least likely book to be offering fun to its author, but it did. I enjoyed myself, and I hope people reading it will enjoy themselves, too.
EFM: I did, thoroughly. It really did remind me of life in South Africa. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and they asked me, "How can people go to brunch in Cape Town? Isn't it too dangerous?" And I went on my whole righteous rant, saying "No, no, how could you even think that?" And then of course I got a text from a friend in Cape Town that evening, saying that he'd just been chased around the city by a guy waving a gun who wanted the engine out of his car. It's that blackly funny duality that your book captured for me; this very familiar way of living. It felt real.
DG: South Africa is a very strange society. And it's true, we have very high levels of violence. We live in an unnatural way; behind high walls with electric fences, and alarms, and so on. I mean, for those who can afford it, and those who have something to protect, I guess that's become normal. South Africans have developed a kind of very black humor that they use to get through the day and a lot of that sort of went into the book. I mean, both points of view are correct. Cape Town, for example, is a dangerous city. But of course you can go on to brunch and people do it all the time. So there it goes. It's this weird atmosphere where most of the time things are fine, but when they're not fine, it tends to arrive out of nowhere with very little warning.
EFM: I won't give too much away, but there is a fair amount of that random violence in The Promise.
DG: Well, that's how it works, right? People get carjacked, or attacked or mugged, and you don't expect it or see it coming. It just happens. That's part of the way South Africa works. But you know, I thought, "All right, I'm going to be dealing with four deaths. Let me try and do something comprehensive." So I thought, if you don't die of old age, you're either going to die of illness, an accident, somebody is going to kill you, or you're going to kill yourself. So I thought I just covered the experience. But of course, it made sense to put the one murder at that particular point, because it was more or less the time when I think personal security was becoming an issue for white South Africans. It was a big one for Black South Africans for a very long time. But it's a very recent arrival in the consciousness of the whities.
EFM: I think it's still a shock. People will build the houses and the barbed wire fences and have guard dogs and these structures designed to isolate them so much from the land and the country around them that when it intrudes, the violence, I think it's taken personally, in a way.
DG: It seems to be that way. But the black townships in this country have been hotbeds of crime and murder for a very long time. And white people didn't really give much of a damn; it was only when it spilled over, after 1994, and started to affect everybody that I think white people suddenly realized, "Oh, it's kind of terrible to be living like this." And it is, of course, a strange, unnatural, horrible way for all of us to be living. And I hope we find a way to live differently. Not yet, apparently.
EFM: But you'd never leave.
DG: Never say never. It's a bit late to be making these plans and I don't want to leave; I I feel rooted here. It's where I belong, insofar as I feel like I belong anywhere. So it's not my plan, but life plays strange tricks. Who knows how things will unfold?
EFM: The Australian poet John Kinsella has a term called "unbelonging," which is this idea of belonging to a place, but not really belonging, at the same time. You feel a connection – not an ownership, because that's impossible, but a deep connection with a place – despite all the reasons you shouldn't. And I've always felt like that towards South Africa.
DG: I obviously can't speak to your experience, but it's one of those places, like perhaps Israel or Northern Ireland, where the history is so fraught that, in a way, it's got a gravity that other places don't have, and it holds you to it. The people I know who have left, haven't really left. They're all checking in all the time to see what's happening and where things are going. And that half-move seems like a dismal prospect to me. I'd rather be where I am, even if it is difficult, than move and be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life. But anyway, I'm here for now, that's as much I can say.
EFM: I don't know if you know this, but someone at the University of Vienna wrote a thesis about you. It was actually very interesting – I came across it in my research. The author was situating you as one of the important contemporary South African novelists, but they kept coming back to an argument that South Africa has very little, or almost no literary collective identity or characteristics. I wondered if you'd have anything to say to that.
DG: That's a difficult question to answer, because first you'd have to say, is that true for other countries? What are the characteristics or national personality traits that define American literature, for example? It's a range of experiences. Obviously we're a fractured, fragmented society, and our writing reflects that. But that's true for other societies, as well. I mean, there is no society that speaks to the unified, coherent voice or that has a unified identity, I would have thought, there's no doubt we're more divided against ourselves than a lot of other places. And that probably reflects in the literature. But I'm not sure I care to stake out a position on this. I can hear a lot of academics sharpening their knives, and I would have to give a talk more thought to it before I planted my flag.
EFM: I'm sure. I just thought it was an interesting tack to take, in comparison to other places, which are perhaps more homogenous. Australia's literary scene, for example, is incredibly insular and domestic-looking, and I think has more in the way of shared characteristics. But I do think it's great that somebody's written their thesis on you.
DG: It does seem to happen! But I have very little academic background, and I'm always slightly startled to discover that I have any kind of presence in the academic world, but some people have written theses about me anyway. I tend not to look at them, because it just makes me feel like I'm reading about someone I don't quite recognize.
EFM: You studied Drama, right?
DG: Yes, but Drama is not a famously academic subject. I did a performance diploma in Speech and Drama, which was very practical, you know; bounding about the stage and about as far from academic work as you can possibly get. I'm very glad I did it. Although it seems strange to me now, the thought of ever having been on a stage, but there it is, it's part of the past.
EFM: And you teach now?
DG: Not really, no. I mean, I write full-time these days, which is a privilege and certainly wasn't always the case. I used to teach at the drama school, and I've done some supervision of creative writing students and an occasional seminar. But it's not a full-time job now – far from it. And I'm not even sure it has any effect, to be honest. But I do try.
EFM: I won't linger on this too much, because I realize this must be annoying, but I think it's probably good to set it out for our audience, the majority of which is, I think, unfamiliar with South African literature: You've said that you're very wary of being compared with J. M. Coetzee. And I think every review that I've read of The Promise has found a way to sneak him in. There's been a quotation, there's been a little mention. He just seems to be hovering around the edge of people's understanding, like a spectre, almost.
DG: It's not just for this book, it's previous books as well. Partly it's a lazy comparison, I think. We're both white males. We both emerged from Cape Town, apparently. So there's an obvious sort of connection. But stylistically we have stuff in common, or at least it's been pointed out that we have a similar sort of severe and stringent approach to using language, so there are presumably similarities, but I've certainly never modeled myself on J. M. Coetzee. I've never tried to write the way he writes, I've always just tried to write the way I write. So I'm slightly bemused at the continual comparisons. I mean, I did expect it a bit in the case of The Promise, just because at the end of Disgrace leaves a solitary female character with having made a very hard choice. In those superficial respects, the end of my book is similar. So I thought there might be comparisons. But I don't see myself as a Coetzee-like figure and I don't see myself writing Coetzee-like novels. I'm slightly bemused by it.
EFM: I am too, but I do chalk it up to people not having a very comprehensive knowledge of South African literature. I think Coetzee is a sort of well-known framing device. I was reading an article – which was about Japanese literature, but it feels very apt – that talked about how an entire country's literary output can be defined by one or two very well-known authors that managed to crossover into the cultural imagination of Europe and North America. And I feel that way about South African literature. A lot of people don't bother to delve very deeply into it, which is frustrating.
DG: Sure, but you know, you get limited time available to chase up the books you want to chase up and for most people, Coetzee is a very recognizable name. So maybe it's inevitable, I sort of tried to stay out of that side of it with comparisons and similarities, you know, and just do my thing. But it's an easy reference point; if the only South African book you've ever read is by Coetzee, then he's going to be the person that comes to mind.
EFM: I know I'm biased, but I do think it's such an interesting and varied world and history.
DG: There's quite a lot of stuff being written and published, and a lot of local publishers continually looking for new stuff. And most of that stuff doesn't make it out of the country and never gets printed overseas. I think publishers in the UK and elsewhere either regard South African literature in the sense that South Africans wrote about apartheid, and that's over, so we don't want to hear anymore from you guys. Or else, the only subject they recognize is apartheid, and it's "Why aren't you writing about that?" So a lot of South African writers get caught between those expectations of what they should or shouldn't be writing about particular subjects. There's a lot of work and of course not all of it's great, but there's a lot of writing that comes out of South Africa that's quite exciting. And it's a pity it doesn't reach a wider audience.
EFM: Is there anyone or anything you're thinking of particularly, when you talk about these exciting things coming out of South African?
DG: I think I'll get myself into trouble if I start singling out particular names. But it's my stance that South Africa has got a lot of creative talent, not only literary. Musically, obviously, we're quite famous. But we have a lot of creative work – painters and writers, theater, and now in recent years, more and more cinema emerging from South Africa. It's a great pity. And it's not only the audience overseas that's lacking, it's actually support from the government here. The arts and culture department has always been the kind of joke ministry of the South African government, and with a little more help and support, I think local artists could be making far more of an impact. But it's unfortunately one zone of social life that our current government doesn't place much stock in. But I dare say we're not alone in that, either. Lots of countries would make a similar complaint.
EFM: Obviously COVID won't have helped anything in that regard.
DG: No, certainly not. We like to think of it as a temporary situation, and you might be emerging over there, but there's no sense that we're about to come up from under this.
EFM: I think people like to think that we're emerging over here. I think that's very dangerous – you can sort of see the beginnings of a third wave where we are. But I think, at least for us, life will be irrevocably changed, but the current constraints that we find ourselves in will also change.
DG: The way I see it, as long as wealthy countries are vaccinating themselves and leaving the poorer countries to fend for themselves, those unvaccinated countries are just going to be hotbeds for new variants that are going to place everybody in danger. We're all going to be back at square one if we can't all do this collectively. And the world never seems to do anything collectively. So I don't know. I'm a little gloomy about where we're at. I think people are being optimistic when they think we're about to turn the corner, but I'd be very happy to be proved wrong. But, you know, the vaccination program has really been quite meagre so far, and, in many respects, the government's response to the situation left much to be desired. I would be delighted to say that I agree with everyone that we've turned the corner, that we're coming out of it, but I don't think we're quite there.