In the final years of South African apartheid, twelve-year-old Amor overhears her dying mother extract from her husband Manie Swarts a promise to give their faithful black servant Salome the decrepit house she has occupied for years.
Over more than three decades, from the mid-1980s to 2018, the failure to honour this promise, even when the excuse that it would be against the law for Salome to inherit the house no longer applies, is a symbol of the blight that contributes to the family’s decline.
“The Promise” of the title can be construed in different ways. Amor’s handsome, intelligent older brother Anton does not fulfil his youthful promise. Has he never recovered from the “wonder and despair” of the day in his national service, when he shot dead a black female demonstrator as she stooped to pick up a stone, and learned of his own mother’s death? Does the tension between the ingrained prejudice of his Afrikaner upbringing and his awareness of the family’s untenable position seal his fate? There is a parallel in the failure of Salome’s son Lukas to realise his potential, because his anger over the injustice of their situation drives him to violent resistance.
The title could also refer to the betrayal of the hope sparked by the end of apartheid, by Mandela’s elevation from “a cell to a throne”, the vision of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the growing international acceptance of South Africa to the point of hosting and winning the 1995 World Cup. All too soon, corruption at the highest level destroys respect for a black president and and the growth of violent crime, forcing wealthy white families behind ever higher security fences, undermines the progress to a better society.
Despite a plot focussed on the Swarts meeting up for four funerals over some three decades, the novel is less depressing and more entertaining than might be expected. Damon Galgut’s narration is for the most part a quirky black farce. For instance, having saved his daughter from a lightning strike, Manie repents of his former gambling and womanising, only to fall under the spell of a manipulative local pastor. Manie not only gives him land for the “big, ugly…The First Assembly of the Revelation Church” but agrees to fundraise for it. He rashly trusts that his faith will save him from a lethal bite when he climbs into a glass case with a cobra from his own “Scaly City” reptile park, a business venture to boost the income from his family farm on the dry veldt.
I can forgive the occasional flirting with magic realism or tendency to address the reader directly, because of the author’s skill in sustaining a quicksilver slide from the situation and inner thoughts of one character to the next, requiring the reader to pay attention, for this is a novel that “shows” rather than “tells”. No doubt it won the Booker Prize not only for its original style – a kind of C21 William Faulkner, with a wry humour – but also for the insights into human nature and the state of South Africa which continually break through the irony.
Take Amor’s return to the farm after a decade’s absence, most recently in England:
“Return feels more like a condition than an act, one for which she’s in no way prepared. The suddenness of it…like a great white concussion, a sort of impact. Inevitable but also unbearable. She can’t sleep on the flight..How ordinary and how strange human life is. And how delicately poised. Your own end might lie just in front of you, under your feet…………”
Later, “the view from the taxi window is a bit amazing….South Africa is playing France later, and the pavements throb and throng with bodies. Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!” Which, of course, it is.