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Damon Galgut at ILB 2022: “I’m not sure if life is a comedy or a tragedy”

We spoke with Damon Galgut at the ILB 2022 – touching both on his experience of his home country and his latest novel The Promise, which was awarded the 2021 Booker Prize.

Damon Galgut, with his book The Promise. Photo: IMAGO/Matt Crossick/Empics

Damon Galgut is the author of nine novels, many of which deal with the experience of living in South Africa – both through the era of Apartheid and afterwards, with all the promises and disappointments of the post-Apartheid era.

You are from South Africa, your books are set there and they explore the complicated history of the country. But your novel The Promise addresses those questions in an unusual way, through one family and the sorrow, regret and death they experience. Where did the idea come from?

Apartheid may be finished, and we have a new government, but this is still a historical process that’s playing out every day. 

Actually, it came in stages and, in honesty, the political aspect was the last to arrive. The very first idea for the book came from a conversation with a friend, who was telling me about funerals that he has attended for his mother, father, brother, and sister. And he was being very funny. Maybe that sounds a bit peculiar, but his focus was not on the person who died, it was on the kind of tensions that arise when the family arrives together. 

I had read a lot of stories about families, but I had never heard a story about a family that is told through this device. It only came to me afterwards that if I made a big gap between these funerals, I could say something about the life of my country. It was meant to be almost a side detail. But books evolve…

About that political element, do you think it’s possible for a South African author to write beyond the experience of Apartheid, to break away from it?

There’s a phrase from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. That feeling is very strong in South Africa. Apartheid may be finished, and we have a new government, but this is still a historical process that’s playing out every day. 

Unfortunately, every South African story is accounting to or for history in some way, maybe more so than other national works of literature have to. I’ve tried to leave South Africa behind with certain books. My last book was about E. M. Forster and A Passage to India, and part of the pleasure of writing it was that it didn’t deal with South Africa at all. Still, it’s an unusual challenge to find ways to not carry that historical weight.

Does living in South Africa make it hard for you to gain critical distance?

No, not in that sense. I grew up in Pretoria, during the worst time of Apartheid, when things were very dark in South Africa. Some of the characters are based on my own family, some on the families of friends and people I observed. It was a very strange system, Apartheid, and it deformed people in peculiar ways. There were characters that were part of everyday life there, and when I look at them now I think: “You belong in a circus or something.” But back then they had power and presence. 

Really, in a way, The Promise was a kind of revenge for all the bad times in my childhood. Also, it’s not a book that analyses the South African situation. The project for me was to find the right events or details to give a taste of the moment, just a few days, that little window in each decade and into what was happening in the society, in the country. But I don’t see books and writing as agents of historical change and I don’t think that writers should be the moral beacons who are pointing the way to the future. If you knew the writers I know, you wouldn’t want moral advice from any of them, and you definitely don’t want it from me.

How did the idea for telling a story from multiple perspectives come to you? 

I didn’t initially use the narrative voice that I did for this book. I tried to approach it in a much more conventional, conservative kind of way, writing from a third-person perspective. But when I started writing the book, I grew very frustrated with it not speaking to me in the kind of way I wanted it to speak.

It was part of my motivation to try to make it a problem for a reader, that this character is so unknown, that her inner life is not perceived. 

I got offered a job doing a film script, and I needed money at that point, so I took it. When I came back to my book, I still had in my mind the way a film script works, when you jump from one viewpoint to another. With a book, you know, that is not supposed to work, but it was such a strong influence in my mind that I thought: “Let me experiment.” And it certainly allowed the book to speak in many voices, to feel like the South African chorus was singing. 

I was excited, but also afraid. If you jump like that very fast – one character to another, sometimes looking from far away with a cold external voice, and sometimes so close to a character that they speak in the first person – you make the reader aware that this is artificial. And with a book, you’re meant to conceal that. But I decided not to disguise it.

The novel is actually very funny, full of dark humour. How do drama and laughter coexist in the novel? Does that mirror the way you experience life?

I guess so. There’s this character, Anton, who writes his own (failed) novel. One of the notes he makes inside his book is: “Is this a comedy or a tragedy?” And, you know, that was a note I made to myself. I’m not sure if life is a comedy or a tragedy. I think it’s something of a mixture, and I try to capture that tone in my writing.

From the macabre details like the case of snakes or Amor getting struck by lightning as a child, to the fateful promise, which, unfulfilled, leaves the Swart family suffering and deteriorating – there is a subtle mysticism to the novel. Where did those details come from?

You know, some of the elements that might seem improbable to you are possibly realistic details. For example, take the aunt who was reading the magazine about bodies at the Funeral Home being moved, and who wants the coffin opened so she can check that it’s actually her brother inside. This was one of the stories my friend told me. You know, Gabriel García Márquez, supposedly the father of magical realism, said that in South America it’s not considered magic, those are real events…

“The Promise” has gained great critical acclaim and received tremendous feedback. Were there people who found the book too controversial, too problematic?

If you knew the writers I know, you wouldn’t want moral advice from any of them, and you definitely don’t want it from me.

What has been quite commented on is the decision I made about not portraying the inner lives of the black characters past the point that the white characters would see them. Not by black South Africans – they all seem to get exactly what the reason is. But people outside South Africa feel I didn’t do my literary duty by giving Salome a voice. 

But Salome is a real person in South Africa now, and she still has no voice: we’re nearly 30 years into democracy there, and her life should be different, but it isn’t. It was part of my motivation to try to make it a problem for a reader, that this character is so unknown, that her inner life is not perceived. It’s challenging if you make people feel that Salome’s silence is something they are complicit in. 

That’s not true for everyone, of course, but for a lot of South Africans, it is.

Amor, the youngest sibling of the Swart family, is eventually the one to break the cycle and fulfil the promise. Why her? Did you plan it that way?

You know, the central antagonists or protagonists (however you see them), the older brother Anton and the younger sister Amor in some way represent for me the two opposite extremes of my own South African psyche. On the one hand, Anton, more or less my age, during Apartheid without any effort or talent would be in a position of power just because he was a white man. And he loses that power through the course of the book. Amor, on the other hand, represents a side of South Africa and a side of me that doesn’t want privilege and power, but also doesn’t know how to give that up, and she finds a solution by renouncing her inheritance and trying to distance herself from her family. Is she successful? I hope that question is not quite answered by the book.

It’s been around two years since The Promise came out. Are you planning to work on something new? What’s your next direction?

I was planning on releasing a collection of short stories. Over the years I’ve written a number of them and they all have a common theme – people being away from home, travelling in some way. The things you do when travelling are often what you will never do at home. 

So that’s theoretically what I’m busy with, but from the time the Booker prize came down on my life last November, there’s not been one second to sit and work. I still have to see if this book is waiting for me…