A promise is a promise is a promise — the idea of it so childlike in its ebullience, its peculiar insistence like a cuckoo-clock chime. And when finally a promise —”my mother on her deathbed wanted Salome (the black maid) to have the house where she lives. My father promised to do it but never did” — is kept decades after it is made, despite the almost insurmountable hurdles or, worse, when the promise itself means little, it attains a halo of sacrifice, of reparation, truly and justly done.

But a ‘promise’ can also mean what one fails to honour to oneself, like when we say ‘the promise he showed’ —that is, promise as potential.

Damon Galgut’s “The Promise”, which won the prestigious Booker Prize on Wednesday, alternates between these poles of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves. In normal circumstances, for normal people, it is possible to do both in parallel but in South Africa, especially so in the Apartheid aftermath, one’s debt to others can often be repaid only at the cost one’s own obliteration. Of course, here we are talking of debts and reparations between one race and another — whites and blacks — and between one community and another, Afrikaner and African.

In the fine tradition of great South African writers like Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink and J M Coetzee, Galgut too unambiguously treads the historically and politically correct path of evoking white guilt and remorse and, when both these are pursued seriously enough, possible redemption. However, doubts linger, shadows lengthen when not just the white protagonists in the novel but the narrative itself seems to imply the human costs of repaying debts, real or imagined. Amor Swart is the beating heart of the novel, a girl always seen by her family as aloof and brittle — that ‘brain damaged’ look, as her own aunt puts it — but a girl who grows up into a stunning woman, and, as someone who always trusted her deepest instincts, is perhaps the sanest voice of all. She not only voluntarily forgoes her not inconsiderable family inheritance but, as a professional nurse, punishes herself by gravitating towards the most afflicted, patients with HIV and others who are terminally ill. All this to absolve herself of her Afrikaner past, of centuries of racist guilt. “Her work, it sometimes seems, is using her up, though she burns the fuel willingly. No need to keep reserves”, the narrator says of her.

What about Anton though, her doting elder brother and who seems to have been the only person who really understood her, sheltered her emotionally? His trajectory is the opposite of hers — as a young conscript in the Apartheid-era Army, he is forced to shoot and kill a stone-throwing black woman. Unable to come to terms with what he has done, he deserts the army, takes to the jungle, to the darkest heart of the dark continent “where both metals and morals corrode equally”, debasing himself in the worst ways possible to survive and to wash away his sins. Nine years after leaving home he comes back when his estranged father dies, planning to leave after the funeral. In the event, he stays back and discovers that he always meant to return. Yet, if Anton thinks, with his Ma and Pa gone, he can salvage his own life and that of his ancestral estate, he’s wrong.

This novel is, in the final analysis, a story of death and dissolution, of not just individuals but also a way of (white) life. Whereas his Ma dies due to cancer, his Pa from snakebite and his other sister Astrid from a car-jacking gone horribly wrong, Aston’s tragedy is that his death, finally, is self-inflicted from the business end of a sawn-off Mossberg. Talk of ‘promise’ and where it ends up. The even worse tragedy is one that should be read between the lines –how Amor, who could empathise so much with the family’s longtime black maid Salome, hardly took the trouble to know her own brother. “All the force and fury of him, turned in and poured white-hot down that metal tube, aimed at the very centre of his life. Here / not here / nowhere. Anton, whom she never really knew. Too high, too far, too other. And now no trace is left”, she laments when it’s too late.

In a book like this, because of the place it talks about, it’s tempting to reduce everything to allegory — to race, to black empowerment and white atonement or, alternatively, black resentment and white recalcitrance. There is the Reptile Park, for instance, the passion of Pa (Manie Swart and the family’s main source of income) and, maybe, a thinly-veiled allegory for Apartheid-era South Africa and, worryingly, how it continues to surreptitiously survive. The novel also veers to quasi reportage — Mbeki and Zuma in power, Johannesburg as crime capital of the world, burglar alarms and electric fences to keep out the township desperadoes etc. There is the interesting reference to the world rugby final that South Africa (the new-fangled Rainbow Nation) goes on to win and after the victory Mandela in the team’s green jersey meeting up with the Springbok’s captain Francois Pienaar, memorably riffed as “beefy Boer and the old terrorist shaking hands”.

Occasionally, there are digressions too — a homeless man, who sees ghosts and reads others’ minds; the narrator himself tires of him after a while — “no need to accompany him anymore….there never was a reason…pay him no mind”. Indians have been stereotyped through the character of Moti (replace the ‘t’ with a different letter and it insinuates something else!), a white South African who is deep into yoga, karma and eastern spirituality after a long visit to India and, yes, goes to bed with Anton’s wife, one final push that forces the latter to pull the trigger on himself.

In the end, this novel can be seen “as a family saga or a farm story”, as Anton himself wonders at one point, but the more accurate description would be the silences and distances and darkness that inhabit homes and the heart of families — parents, spouses, siblings, anyone — and the unbearable tragedy that ensues. How, sometimes we are strangers not just to others but to ourselves too.

It might be useful to go back to the very beginning of this novel, to Federico Fellini’s quote, worth citing here in full: “This morning I met a woman with a golden nose. She was riding in a Cadillac with a monkey in her arms. Her driver stopped and she asked me: ‘Are you Fellini?’ She continued, ‘Why is that in your movies, there is not even one normal person?’ “. This epigram epitomises the novel — your disbelief about someone else when you yourself are an object of such incredulity. In other words, the pot calling the kettle black? (no pun intended).



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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