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Damon Galgut: The Promise

The Swart family is clearly dysfunctional. There is Manie (Herman) who was a dashing man when young and had no problem not just in wooing Rachel but impregnating her, so that they had to get married. The result was a son, Anton. They would later have two daughters, Astrid and Amor. Manie, however, went off the rails – women and alcohol. However, he later repented, turned to God and, perhaps foolishly, confessed all to Rachel. She did not forgive him. Rachel was born Jewish but then had converted to the Dutch Reformed Church. After Manie’s confession and her taking ill she returned to her family and Judaism.

When she took ill, Amor was sent off to a hostel, while Anton was away doing his military service. We are in the dying throes of apartheid, when the whites are trying to prevent the native population from demanding their rights and freedom. At the beginning of the book, Rachel dies.

Manie’s sister, Marina, adds to the dysfunctionality. She never liked her sister-in-law and liked her even less when she reverted to Judaism. She was not too fond of her nephew and nieces. Nor is she too fond of her husband Ockie. They sleep in separate beds and Ockie drinks. They have a son, Wessel, who, since he has finished his military service, spends his time in his room with his stamp collection. He does not look for employment. Ockie has strong views on his in-laws: He doesn’t understand why Manie had to marry Rachel. Oil and water don’t mix. You can see it in their children, fuckups, the lot of them.

Because she has reverted to Judaism, Rachel will be buried under Jewish law and in a Jewish cemetery. Manie will not be able to be buried next to her. The family do attend the Jewish funeral ceremony, which Galgut mildly mocks and which is marred by Amor having her first period and not being prepared. She receives no help from either her sister or her aunt.

Shortly before her mother’s death Astrid had had sex with a boy she met at an ice rink. Her main concern is not be found out. Anton, on compassionate leave from military service, is far more interested in fucking like bonobos with his girlfriend, Desirée. Amor does cry but she is particularly concerned about being able to stay at home and not return to the hostel that she hated. In short Rachel is not much mourned.

While she was still ill, Rachel got Manie to promise that the maid, Salome, would be given ownership of the house where she currently lives. Neither of them knew but Amor overhead the conversation. This is a run-down cottage on their farm where Salome lives with her thirteen year old son,Lukas. Her husband was killed in a mining accident. Salome works very hard and puts up with much abuse. Amor is on good terms with Lukas and tells him about the promise. He does not understand. Surely it is already their house. He tells his mother, who is naturally excited. Amor tells Anton who raises the issue in the family. Marina is adamant that Salome will not have the house and Manie concurs, half-heartedly denying that he ever made such a promise. This leads to a row with Anton who walks out. The next time he sees his father will be ten years later when Manie is unconscious and about to die.

Anton goes AWOL from the army and drifts around. Ten years later, Astrid is married and Anton is still drifting. Manie is bitten by a snake (he runs a reptile park) and will die. The Promise has not been kept but not forgotten either. Amor has also drifted but has a job nursing (in an HIV ward) and a lesbian relationship with Susan.

We continue to follow the family over the years. South Africa, of course changes, as apartheid goes and Mandela arrives. We also follow Mandela’s successors, who do not live up to the promise of Mandela. Our family is often, like many other white South Africans, critical of the new regime. They see an increase in crime – one of them is physically attacked – squatters on their land and threats that their land was stolen from the native population and must be returned. Some of them are openly critical of what is happening.

Meanwhile, things are not going well for the family. Manie comes more and more under the spell of the local pastor, Alwyn Simmers, who is doing very nicely from all the donations he receives, including from Manie. Astrid divorces and remarries. Anton continues to drift but finally tries to settle down with his old girlfriend, Desirée, to write his great novel, while Amor remains a lost soul, determined to get justice for Salome but unable to find her way in life. The various relatives and spouses do not do too well either.

This is clearly an indictment against the white South Africans and their treatment of the black population. Of the major characters there are only essentially two decent ones – the ill-treated and hard-working Salome and Amor, who though a lost soul, remains very concerned about the broken promise to Salome and is determined to right what she sees as a grievous wrong. As for the rest, Galgut mocks them. None of them have a happy life and a few die before their time, doubtless their punishment by the God-narrator for their sins against the black population and in particular, their treatment of Salome and her son.

Publishing history

First published 2021 by Umuzi