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Book Review: Damon Galgut's The Promise

Building up a story on the theme of funerals is not an innovation in the history of literature but I always wonder how could one exploit death and mourning to convey their true creative intentions. Perhaps by setting this macabre atmosphere it's easier for the writer to reach human souls when their vulnerability is at the highest and denude them in front of the world as they are. Or probably death always marks an end to an era or at least something that won't be undone, so it's very convenient when you're plotting a time-bound story-telling.

There's definitely a mixture of these reasons (or maybe quite the different ones) why The Promise by Damon Galgut relies on four funerals that are actually four pillars of the novel. This year's Booker Prize winner for fiction spills a story of one white South African family in one breath, simultaneously reflecting the developments and changes in the Republic of South Africa for almost four decades.

The writer centres his story around a Dutch-origin Swart family and their gradual loss of the family members. The first to go is the mother Rachel who dies at her forties after a long and torturous illness, leaving her grieving but not beloved husband and three children Anton, Astrid and Amor.

Before her death Rachel makes her husband promise that he will legalize a crooked little house called the Lombard place in a name of Salome, her black peer and house assistant, where she and her son were living from the day Salome started working on the farm. This promise is overheard by the youngest daughter Amor who, due to her childish maximalism and naivety, is determined to push her family to deliver the promise. Only this idealistic vision of a child is soon destined to shatter against a pragmatic world of the adults.

Galgut's portrayed Swart family is like a mini image of the whole country. There's no harmony, love and understanding between them, as there wasn't any tolerance and amiability between the black and white in the South Africa of the 80s. Therefore, the verdict by one of the family members that "Oil and water don't mix" applies not only to different religions in the family - Rachel being a Jew and determined to her Jewish burial rites outside the farm - but also to the entire mindset of the country.

The farm clearly represents the country and each death on it is paralleled to the change of South Africa's political system, economic development and race attitude. Despite each blow of fate, the farm is a survivor, maybe with the principle owners gone, maybe completely stripped of dignity and prosperity as it once used to be, but it's still there and still has a future. "Holding on, holding out, an old South African solution."

A terminal illness, a reckless accident, a resentful murder and a senseless suicide - these are four causes for the novel's funerals. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that family members don't die from natural causes. It's an accurate allegory of a certain political period in the country and the way it ends. The binding material for all four funerals is the given promise that continues to be unfulfilled. It also entails the hope and vision of the country that its people were promised once but each time when it seems it is going to become true, it evaporates through the keyhole and escapes till the next favorable time. Until it actually happens but does it really?

Galgut has a special style of writing his novel. I've already mentioned that it sounds like spilled out in one breath. Each chapter that corresponds to one funeral has no divisions, no direct speech punctuation, it just smoothly flows from the thoughts of one character to the mind of another, interconnecting things actually said or just echoed in the head. It's like you are learning to suppress your breath under the water the longest you can. Thus a slow at the first glance pace of the story-telling builds up an unbearable pressure towards the end of the chapter wishing you could finally breath out. And then you breath in another version of a funeral.

The Promise is a beautiful allusion to the happenings in South Africa throughout decades. Placed on a micro family level this story becomes much more powerful and closer to each of us, as we perceive it as a private human life narrative with all its flaws, ambitions, and personal relations or their absence. "They're close, but not close. Joined but not joined. One of the strange, simple fusions that hold this country together. Sometimes only barely." Voilà, this quote at the end of the novel puts all cards on the table. But haven't we already knew them in advance?


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