Essay: Damon Galgut - cartographer of the South African psyche
South African writer Damon Galgut, 57, who had made it to the Booker Prize shortlist twice in the past, at last won the £50,000 award this year for his ninth novel, The Promise, which charts the story of a family’s decline over four decades, with each decade marking a different point in the country’s chequered history. The fact that this recognition comes days after the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah lends his win an added significance in the wider context of Africa’s seat at the world’s literary table.
Writing from Africa has been enjoying a long moment under the sun. From Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka making history for becoming the first African to win the Nobel Prize in 1987 to Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste making it to the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist for The Shadow King, African writers have quietly claimed what has been long due to them. South Africa marked a literary milestone when Nadine Gordimer became the first woman from Africa to win the Nobel in 1991. It was a significant year for the continent for it also saw Nigerian author Ben Okri win the Booker Prize for The Famished Road — the first in a trilogy that continued with Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches, and a major standout of the New African canon, as integral to it as Gabriel García Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) to the Latin American’s or, closer home, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) to post-colonial Indian English fiction. The beginning of the preceding year had seen then South African President FW de Klerk, who died of cancer on November 11, announce the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years. Racial segregation had defined the contours of South African social and political life since 1948, when apartheid received official sanction.
South Africa, towards the end of the 20th century, was on the cusp of a big political shift. And its literature — sometimes subtly, at other times provocatively — portrayed the social churning that such a change engenders. In 1983, JM Coetzee won the Booker for Life and Times of Michael K., the story of a man traumatised in a country turned by war, where brutal roving armies make it hard for him to cope with confinement or attempt escape from anarchy. Seven years later, Coetzee wrote Age of Iron, which captures the tyrannies of the apartheid period through the story of a dying White academic in a country exploding with violence. In his thriller, An Act of Terror (1991), André Brink told the story of an Afrikaner dissident, who turns “terrorist” and is at the centre of plot to blow up none other than the state President. “South African literature is a literature in bondage. It’s less than fully human literature. It is exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write from prison,” Coetzee had said while accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, a year after the release of his fifth novel, Foe, which recounts the story of Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of a woman castaway named Susan Barton and is woven around the themes of language and power, the hallmarks of his oeuvre. Coetzee was referring to the repression South African writers were subjected to for nearly three decades since the censorship laws kicked in during the 1960s.
In 1963, the South African government, led by Charles Robberts Swart, who served as the first State President of the Republic of South Africa (1961-1967), passed the stringent Publications and Entertainment Act, which made it possible to ban works of literature considered blasphemous or obscene. It also provided for banning those works that brought any section of the inhabitants into “ridicule or contempt”, was harmful to the “relations between any sections of the inhabitants or prejudicial to the safety of the State and the general welfare or the peace and good order.” Gordimer, who took particular delight in cutting through the hypocrisy of society and emerged as a voluble critic of the apartheid regime, wrote that under this act, about 9,000 works were banned, including all those which made any mention of Communism as well as the works of Black South African writers in exile. The censorship laws were further tightened by an amendment in 1974. Till 1979, the year Gordimer published her seventh novel, Burger’s Daughter, the story of a White woman in South Africa committed to the cause of revolution, about 20,000 odd titles were prohibited; this list would be updated weekly. Gordimer’s other works — The Late Bourgeois World and A World of Strangers, about segregated living in 1950s Johannesburg, were banned, too. The rolling apparatus of repression also targeted Coetzee, Mary Benson, Breyten Breytenbach, Richard Rive and Alan Paton. In Cry, The Beloved Country (1948), one of the most notable novels to come out of Africa in the 20th century, Paton wrote about segregation. Poets who met a similar fate included Dennis Brutus, Ingrid Jonker, Mazisi Kunene, Nicolaas Petrus van Wyk Louw and William Ewart Gladstone.
South Africa extricated itself from the entanglements of apartheid in 1994 when the country chose majority rule and held its first democratic election, paving the way for Mandela to become its first Black president. But the change, as it is in the very nature of change, has not been easy, and the country still struggles with the after-effects of that troubled transition, with deep racial fault lines still streaking its social life. Corruption is rampant as is unemployment, poverty and inequality. Galgut, an heir to the great literary tradition championed by White South African writers like Gordimer and Coetzee, maps the country’s psyche with great dexterity, delicately unravelling its journey from a nation wrecked by racial segregation to a multiracial democracy with no official religion but 11 national languages, English being one of them. In his novels, he chronicles this change marked by the moral collapse of a crude, materialistic society, and the greed and debasement of those seeking to aggrandise themselves at any cost. In his 1987 speech, Coetzee had also underlined the limitations of making art in South African society. Its structures, he had said, had resulted in “deformed and stunted relations between human beings” and “a deformed and stunted inner life”. Galgut dwells on this deformity of human relations, teasing out tales of ordinary people caught in the vortex of change, underlining their baleful and insidious impact, their inherent trauma and turmoil.
In simple, lyrical and effortless prose, Galgut explores the fusion of, and the confusion between, races and sexes; their twisted dreams and desires; their disillusionment; their demeanours and misdemeanours. He knits up their rifts and rupture; their drama and discord; their predilections and premonitions (alliterations like these will leap at you if you read The Promise). He depicts the unintended consequences of the dark secrets they keep, and the fortuitous ways their lives intersect. Death, the big mystery of life, is never far off his gaze; his characters are acutely aware of their end. He shines a light on the human condition, and all its attendant suffering, mirth and mournfulness. His characters are often alone or alienated, either casting about for something or the other, or casting away their previous, normal selves. Often, they are adrift, breaking away from home, country or relationships or seized by a blind desire to get away. They are burdened by history, like South Africa itself, and etiolated by grief and misery. Galgut unravels the potentialities of his characters’ fates and also details their fatalism, their sense of resignation in a country where hope is at a premium and where being a defeatist comes easy.
The Promise pivots around a promise made by the White Swart family in Pretoria to its Black maid that Lombard place, the house she has been living in, and the land it occupies, will be given to her. That promise, however, remains unfulfilled for nearly four decades, the period that sees the country undergo far-reaching changes, and the family loses its members, to sickness, shooting and suicide, steadily, with each decade marking a death. In the dysfunctional family, each member — Rachel and Manie, and their three alliteratively named children (Astrid, Anton and Amor) — is complicated in their own particular way, each given to their own set of whims and fancies. And yet there is nothing unusual or remarkable about them: “They resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rainstained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.” Galgut’s narrative gives a voice to almost all the characters in the novel, and, heck, even the inanimate objects, offering us readers a perspective that is shaped by exactly what each of them is thinking in their heart of hearts; what makes them tick, what makes them tack. He even enters their dreams and shows us the reels playing in their subconscious. The family’s slow march towards death and disintegration owes itself as much to the passage of time as to the dramatic changes sweeping across the country, changes that force people to move away from their core — from their principles, and the values they ought to epitomise. It’s a moral failure that makes the Swarts renege on their word and when the time comes to set the wrong right, the resolution is fraught with fresh challenges; Salome, the maid, can have the house, and yet not quite have it. The changes in the land laws mean that the claimants to the land will include not just the Swarts, but many others.
The reparation to Salome is made possible because of the compunction and resolve of Amor, the youngest member of the Swart family, who had heard her dying mother elicit the promise from her father. After Rachel is gone and the years roll by, Manie conveniently denies having made the promise as he finds himself in the clutches of greedy Alwyn Simmers, who later starts calling himself a pastoor — a crook cutting a venerable figure. More interested in matters of earth (land to be more specific) than heaven, he peddles “a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits.” Galgut has a thing for the depraved, damned and damaged souls and you will meet them in this novel, too. He scratches the layers of darkness that hides them: their “deeper tiredness”, the little pains that wear them out, gnaw at them, often making them conscious of “a pull towards some undefined centre”, their physical and spiritual unease, and the ire lodged in their soul. Since South Africa, and indeed the African continent, is a land of contradictions and dualities, the story is woven around them at several levels: truth and fiction, loyalty and betrayal, love and loss. Amor, the heroine who lives to tell, and tail, the tale when all her family has walked onto the other side, ironically, was conceived in the most troubled period of her parents’ failing marriage, when they had started keeping separate bedrooms. Her brother, Anton, seeks refuge in fiction, but his novel — it remains unfinished till his death — draws on his own story.
To ease their pain, Galgut’s characters often turn to the pleasures of the flesh. In The Promise, Anton’s love interest, whom he later marries — it’s a marriage that, like his father’s, ends in colossal failure — is Desirée. When his mother dies, he is seized with the “need to fuck like bonobos.” Lying among Desirée’s “plump undulations,” he finds peace. “You don’t think about sex, you suffer it. A scratchy, hungry thing going on in the basement. Torment of the damned, the fire that never goes out.” Anton, who had deserted the Army in the prime of his youth and lives most of life in the shadow of a crime committed in a fit of misplaced rage, is the last one to go; Amor is the sole survivor of the Swart family. Galgut, ever eager to explore the themes of renewal and regeneration, tells us, in Amor’s voice: “You’re drying slowly in your channels, running out of sap. You’re a branch that’s losing its leaves and one day you’ll break off. Then what? Then nothing. Other branches will fill the space. Other stories will write themselves over yours, scratching out every word. Even these.” Reading Galgut -- who identifies as gay and battled with cancer as a child -- is getting to know the interior lives of people who are constantly failing, continuously flailing about. Attuned to the country’s topography, he takes you through its stoeps, velds and koppies, plains and grasslands. A master of levity and humour, he puts fun in the funereal. A poet of misery and ennui and unhappiness, his entire literary project seems to be predicated upon the making of beauty out of murk, and literature out of listless, loveless, luckless and lustreless lives. The Promise reminds us that somewhere between waging the relentless struggle to live, we are unwittingly walking towards our death.