Writers & Company

Damon Galgut probes South Africa's troubled history in his Booker Prize winner, The Promise

The South African novelist and playwright spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing The Promise, a novel that follows a white Pretoria family through the dismantling of apartheid.
South African author Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction with his novel The Promise. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

When Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise, the judges praised it as a tour de force — an extraordinary story charting the turbulent recent history of South Africa. Structured around four very different funerals over a span of four decades, the book follows a white Pretoria family through the dismantling of apartheid. The jury went on to describe it as "a spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh," comparing it to the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

Galgut was born in Pretoria in 1963 into a family of mixed Afrikaans and Jewish heritage. He was among the last generation to be conscripted into South Africa's military. He published his first novel while still in his teens; The Promise, his ninth novel, displays the moral complexity that's been a hallmark of his work. 

Two previous titles, The Good Doctor and In a Strange Room, were shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Galgut spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Cape Town.

A state of emergency

"We were all summoned to a radio broadcast — radio being the major medium in the country at that time — where the then South African prime minister P.W. Botha announced that a state of emergency was in progress.

"I was quite young. I didn't really have a sharp recollection or understanding of what that entailed. But what it entailed was a set of draconian emergency laws coming into being — police given all kinds of powers they wouldn't normally have and the country going under a kind of lockdown. The townships were under military occupation and the police were a very strong presence in those days. There was a strong feeling of suppression and airlessness — and a lot of people being arrested, detained without trial. I remember someone I was at drama school with being arrested for painting graffiti on a wall and sort of disappearing into the system. 

There was a strong feeling of suppression and airlessness — and a lot of people being arrested, detained without trial.

"I remember going with that person's mother to a detainees' parents support committee meeting out in one of the outlying townships. It was the first time in my life I'd been jostled into a situation like that.

"These are strange, disparate memories from a time when my political consciousness was not fully developed."

Life in Pretoria during apartheid

"On a personal front, my mother divorced my father when I was about nine or 10. She remarried an Afrikaans man who came from a very different background and expected a different domestic situation. He was quite a severe and ultimately violent man — and full of a lot of the very unpleasant aspects of the state.

"What was happening in the home I could see reflected in the larger society; it felt like the whole world was a little mad. But of course, if you feel out-of-kilter with the world, you generally tend to question yourself. You begin to wonder if the world isn't the right way up and your own thinking is the wrong way round. All of that was built into growing up in apartheid South Africa in Pretoria.

"There was not a huge amount of political discussion at home. But what there was went along the lines of, 'Well, it's a very unfortunate situation we're in, but it's sort of necessary and the rest of the world doesn't get our problems the way we do,' which was a common South African line back then.

For most white South Africans, there was no sense that you could challenge the political system.

"I remember a couple of clashes at the table with my grandfather, who was also an appeal court judge, which was the highest court in the land then. He was a very conservative thinker.

"He was most unhappy with me — not about my politics per se, but the fact that I would even want to have a political opinion. His attitude was that young people should live life and not get involved in politics, which I guess is often the approach of people to the right of the spectrum or who don't want the status quo to be challenged, and certainly not in a personal way. 

"For most white South Africans, there was no sense that you could challenge the political system. I'm talking about middle-class white South Africa. And there was also fear because the security police at that time had enormous power. The state had enormous power and there were lots of people in prison, not all of them Black people. There were, of course, white people who had quite a strong conscience about what was going on. They got involved and paid quite a high price.

"But, certainly in my background, it was seen as shameful to be too outspoken."

A group of South Africans demonstrates in 1961 Pretoria. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Confronting the reader

"The narrator of The Promise is a presence in the book, almost like a character, except an undefined one that doesn't play a direct part in the action. But the narrator is present, observing, listening and commenting on various people. I've built in various moments into the book where the narrator, as it were, leans out of the page and jabs a finger at the reader and addresses the reader directly in a way that's quite confrontational.

"When I made a decision that I would not travel into the psyches of Black characters any further than the white characters in this family perceived them, I knew that I was registering them as an absence or a blank area — but that is the way white South Africa has often, if not most of the time, perceived Black people close by. More than anything, at the centre of the book there is Salome, who is the Black woman to whom this piece of land and the house have been promised. And she — more than anyone, I think — is a silent presence, a question without an answer.

I made a decision that I would not travel into the psyches of Black characters any further than the white characters in this family perceived them.​​​​

"I did think about letting the silence register and build, and then basically, right at the end of the book, breaking it and letting Salome spill out, let her flood out in a purgative way into the text.

"But in the end, I decided rather to pivot it — whereby the narrator turns on the reader and implicates, I hope, the reader by accusing them directly of not having been interested enough to know about Salome, not having been interested enough to ask.

"I hope it's an uncomfortable moment for the reader, and I hope it's one that the reader would carry around with them as an unsolved problem or a knot that they need to unpick after the book's been closed."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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