September 3, 2021

The Promise: Book Review

I came to this book with preconceived ideas of reading something written in sparse and controlled emotional intensity, the usual things I adore about Damon Galgut writing style I first discovered in books like: In A Strange Room and Arctic Summer. Galgut has relinquished that control in this more exuberant and linguistically loose book that caricatures the gestalt of an Afrikaner family through the years and generations. Its structure reminded me of Virginia Woolf's novel, The Years, which, like The Promise, is also a her brilliant commentary on sociopolitical mores of the given age.

Woolf is noted as the first english writer to abandon the pretence of factitious coherence of the stream of consciousness, followed by William Faulkner and then mastered by Toni Morrison. A similar thing is happening on The Promise whose four chapters are based on four funerals of the members of the boorish white South African family in different eras. The first two chapters of the book are typical Galgut masterly writing craftsmanship: profound psychological observations that are beautifully narrated in unique phrases. For instance, this is the Pretoria most will immediately recognize:

A city of moustaches and uniforms, Boer statues and big cement plazas. [p.33] There’s a snory sound of bees, jacaranda blossoms pop absurdly underfoot. [p.57]

Many people have complained about the abrupt changing voice from first to second personal to distant third impersonal on the novel. I didn't really have too much problems with this, in fact I found it mostly enchanting, although sometimes it felt vertiginous, as if you were watching a movie captured on a fast shifting lense. I did feel the trick a little exaggerated when done mid sentence sometimes, because it became too demanding to me as the reader. I found myself having to often read and reread the sentences and passages, even the whole page sometimes because I had lost my reading moorings, getting confused and wondering if I had missed something. Somewhere it took me three rereads  before I discovered a ghost had entered the narrative. I first blamed this on my concentration lapses until I realised the forcing of a reread is part of the author's intentions. I found plenty rewards in some of the rereads, when suddenly sentences took on a more deeper meaning now that I knew where things were going. In fact the first two chapters of the book read like an epic prose poem. There, for me, lies one of the strengths and the beauty of this novel.

For those interested in such things the known history, to me, of varying voices in the english novel goes back as far as Dickens masterpiece, Bleak House. Recently, Tsitsi Dangarembga, in This Mounable Body, employs the trick of unpopular (in academic circles) second voice personal, which was mastered by the Scottish Poet, Ron Butlin, marvelous novel of degeneration, The Sound of My Voice. The idea goes beyond mere stylistics as a way of exposing dissonance between the societal mores and the character's inner lifer, especially when contrasted with their external failings. What these books, including The Promise, have in common also is the unremitting critique of the political/cultural/spiritual vacuousness of the Zeitgeist of the respective eras they interrogate. The style, especially the tone of second voice personal, involves, even implicates, the reader in what is being interrogated or critiqued. The reader is made to feel uncomfortable, taken out of their comfort zone.

In The Promise the target is mostly the white reader. Sometimes, as a black reader, you find yourself yawning because you've heard the story before, from J.M. Coetzee to Antjie Krog to Marlene Van Niekerk. These have, for decades now, been studying in a literary form forms of national sicknesses that grow out of the psyche of the white South African generalized mistrust, profound social/personal alienation, and a gnawing sense of shame and fear for racial retribution. The Promise is the post ninety-four upgrade of this genre that effectively uses racial/gender/sexual orientation scalpels of our age to excise and exorcise our zeitgeist tumours with penetrating psychological insights. Even the intertexuality is deliberately made to echo those that came before as someone who has read Krog's Jerusalem Gangers will recognise this all the way to W.B. Yeats:

Slumber, little soldiers, while the minotaur stamps by. Slouching towards Bethlehem in the Free State. [p.32]

I'm not a fan of the current fetish of not using apostrophes: punctuation, diacritical marks and all. But when done properly, like in The Promise, it works just fine. Another writer I first encountered it on was Sally Rooney. Somehow it gives the book intimacy of a diary form. The Asian American writer, Charles Yu, in his recent book, Interior China, takes it into another level by writing the novel in a script form, font and all. I felt similarities to it with The Promise.

The second serious issue I had with the book is the erasure of black people's interior lives, especially Salome's family for whom The Promise of the house/land was made to be the centre of the story. I would accept this if it was done only by the caricatured  family, but by the author also does it by describing without explaining black people. For me the driver, Lexington, is the epitome of this erasure. Though I dare not presume to impose themes on a writer's work I feel the opportunity to engage and critique the situation from the black point of view was lost in these instances. In some interviews Galgut has explained this by saying his intent was to depict the black characters only in a way they appear from South African white Weltanschauung he was trying to caricature. I wouldn't have a problem with this had he at the same time somehow succeeded in giving us a less stereotypical inner lives of the black characters also. Or to at least show us how things appear from their own interior point of view. Instead we only see them through cowered dialogue at best, and interior prejudice monologue of white others at worst. Even the last born family daughter (Amor) who is mostly depicted as having divergent views to the racialised boorishness of her family seems only to sympathise with Salome only as form of rebellion and protest against her family prejudices. As the results she treats Salome as some kind of a personal project to settle scores through with her family. In short, she's also OTHERING her even if from a point of no malice.

I can almost understand white writers for fearing being accused of cultural appropriation in this sometimes overly sensitive social media age with its accompanying Cancel Culture. But writers, especially fiction ones, must refuse to self centre by cowering to unjustifiable fads. Writers must not limit themselves from writing freely about issues they've no personal experience of if they've invested enough research and empathic imagination to it. Otherwise they castrate the magical wonder of the imagination most of us go to fiction for. The important thing, when writing about characters you've no natural experience or affiliation of, is doing so with a sense of empathy, even deeper sympathy if they belong to the historically abused class/race/gender and other minority groups the white male hegemonic prejudices have relegated to the literary peripheries in the past. What is irritating is when you stereotype characters, or write to reinforce the presumed insignificance of their lives or point view. I've talked at length about this on my review of Marguerite Poland's A Sin of Omission that can be read down below on this site. I am always baffled by white South African author's failure to write authentically about black South African lives; from Brink to Coetzee to Poland and now Galgut. Gordimer is probably the only white South African major writer who was able to write authentically about black lives by somehow portraying their lives in manner that goes beyond just serving the story plot or white literary gaze.  You may say this door swings both ways, that black South African writers also are not know for delineating fully bodied and rounded white characters. I accept that critique. It is indeed a sin of omission of our non integrated lives, which is why it is glaring in our literature. But there's hope when you read Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu's two books, The Theory of Flight and The Theory of Man.

My favourite character in The Promise is Anton, the conscripted soldier who killed a black woman in the township. I found him more honest and believable in his anguish than his holier than thou younger sister Amor. In fact I even found the naively confused and opportunistically adept character of Astrid more endearing. I felt something for her because I recognised her greedy to get by at all costs character. But I like Anton more because I welcome the emerging writing topics by white South African writers who are begining to wrestle honestly with their apartheid demons. It is also interrogated at length in Mark Winkler's Due South of Copenhagen. It's high-time we set aside the fictitious Rainbow narrative by dealing brutally honest about our respective active and silent contribution into the psyche that makes for the mess that has become our wonderful nation in the Southern tip of Africa.

You can read The Promise, especially the story of Salome (the black maid), on a metaphorical national level as deferred hope for the majority black South Africans whose frustration are starting to implode. This is rendered not only in the endemic violence of our society, but in the insurrection that led to commodity looting we had a taste of last July as our fire next time moment or Mzantsi Spring. The new generation in particular is loosing patience with the gross lack of economic justice in our country. To his credit Galgut doesn't push the metaphor too far but only subliminal hints it.

I loved The Promise though I felt something snapped on it from chapter three when the characterization began to falter and the plot took a strange contrived angle; the whole story onwards becomes silly and strains belief. The story towards the end had a touch too much of overtly parody, like a failed tragic comedy. They're a little disingenous those who try to excuse this falt on sweeping assumption that it is just a satire. It seems as though Galgut doesn't consider it as being just that, if anything he sees it as a caricatured social commentary of our past and present. Hence I felt it such a pity that this wonderful book deflated and felt rushed towards the end where it lacks, well, the quintessential Galgut masterly narrative refinement. Be that as it may, it is still a wonderful book of genuine literary stylistic innovation.