“I’m used to not winning – that’s kind of what I’m programmed for, and what I’m braced for,” says the quietly spoken South African novelist Damon Galgut, the morning after he was awarded the Booker prize for his ninth novel, The Promise. He has been shortlisted twice before: in 2003 for The Good Doctor, and in 2010 for In a Strange Room. He finds the whole thing “deeply disquieting” (his mother has helpfully given his contact details to journalists back in South Africa). The ceremony last night felt totally unreal, he says, “as if I’d been hit over the head. Obviously it was a great night for the book, so it is hard to be displeased with that.”
Slight in person (he’s a committed yogi), the 57-year-old author is serious and courteous in conversation, but the sardonic voice of the novel’s shapeshifting, puckish narrator clearly belongs to him. Written in an innovative style, The Promise tells the story of a white South African family through the device of four funerals over 40 years, chronicling the decline of post-apartheid South Africa. It might be more JM Coetzee than Richard Curtis, but Galgut’s Four Funerals is surprisingly funny. (The family are called Swarts, which means “black” in Afrikaans, “a sort of in-joke”, as he puts it). With the exception of a recent “beating” in the London Review of Books, the novel has been rapturously received. “A surprising number of novelists are very good; few are extraordinary,” began one critic, just warming up.
The conceit of telling the story through a series of funerals came to him after a boozy lunch in which a friend “entertained” him with anecdotes about a succession of family funerals: “Oblique angles appeal to me.” The conflict of “the promise” on which the novel rests – the dying wish of the mother that her black servant, Salome, be given the rights to the tiny dilapidated house in which she has lived on the family farm for years – was also inspired by a friend whose family, like the fictional Swarts, “in time-honoured white South African style”, found ways to not follow through on a similar pledge.
The idea of broken promises runs neatly throughout the novel, which opens in 1986 and ends in 2018. Four funerals, roughly four decades apart, in recent South African history also means four presidents. “Like everyone else, I was incredibly excited at the movement from the dark days of PW Botha to the excitement of the golden Mandela era, although there was always something a bit unreal about that,” he says. “Then into the much more ambiguous terrain of Mbeki’s time and into the catastrophe of Zuma’s reign.”
He didn’t set out to make any sort of political statement, intending the national mood to work as “a sort of background wallpaper”, taking in the 1994 Rugby World Cup, HIV, a rise in violent crime and the impact of climate change. But there’s no denying the novel’s downward trajectory. “The sense of promise that we had in 1994 was palpable. And that promise has pretty much dissipated,” he says. “We are not in a great place right now.”
Nearly all the characters fail to live up to their promise, in particular Anton, a writer, who, like the author, grew up in Pretoria around the same time. “Apartheid was set up to serve somebody like Anton,” Galgut says. “Without any effort he could have stepped into the shoes of privilege and power. I think that promise has probably faded for white males in South Africa, which is not a terrible thing.”
His otherworldly sister, Amor, is determined to make sure their mother’s legacy is honoured. Their disagreement reflects the predicament facing white South Africans: “Her solution is to renounce her inheritance, which I guess is a way, but is that a solution for South Africa?” he asks. “How do you give up your privilege? There’s no way you can hand it in, like at a cloakroom.” Brother and sister represent the two sides of his own conflicted psyche, torn between “being self-interested and not averse to the trappings of power and more saintly impulses to renounce it”.
Despite being haunted by death, decay and disappointment, the novel was “great fun” to write. While the spirits of Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner loom large, so, too, does Fellini, who provides the book’s epigraph. Stymied during earlier drafts, Galgut took a break to write a film script, a tip he’d recommend for anyone suffering writer’s block. “Language is the least important element in the film,” he says. “No one cares, which is strangely helpful, because you have to take language terribly seriously if you are a novelist.” Instead he discovered “the free-ranging eye of the camera which can go anywhere inside a scene”.
The only place we don’t go is into the mind of Salome, “invisible” to those around her. This silence is deliberate. “Somebody like Salome still has no voice in modern South Africa,” he says. “And that, in many ways, is at the heart of South Africa’s problems right now.”
In his New Yorker review, James Wood argued that The Promise is more pessimistic than Coetzee’s Disgrace, which won the Booker prize in 1999 and takes some beating as a bleak portrait of post-apartheid South Africa. Without wanting to engage in any “pessimism competition”, it is true that Galgut can’t remember ever feeling so despairing of the future. Government corruption during the pandemic has pushed the nation “over the edge into some unknown terrain”, he believes. “We are used to the idea of politicians stealing, but politicians stealing in a situation like this seemed absolutely morally bankrupt and I think it has left the country financially bankrupt.”
The eldest of four children, Galgut and his family led “an ordinary suburban existence” in Pretoria, which he describes as a “sort of nerve centre of the whole apartheid machine – not a great place to grow up”. But when he was six he nearly died of a kind of lymphoma that typically affects black children, which meant it wasn’t diagnosed until he was in a comatose state.
His recovery turned him into something of a “medical miracle, always being wheeled out for doctors conferences and so on”, which he blames for his anxiety in public spaces. “I felt a little bit like that last night on stage, as if I was a medical specimen again,” he confesses. But he credits the long months of being read to – “there were no phones or videos” – during his convalescence with making him a writer. “I developed a passionate love for stories and from there it was just a short step to wanting to create them myself.” By high school he had written two “terribly bad novels”, which became his first novel A Sinless Season, published when he was just 17. “It kind of embarrasses me now.”
Today Galgut lives on his own in Cape Town, a “quiet life” which he enjoys and hopes will continue largely unchanged. “I guess, in some way, we think that our life holds some promise which may or may not come to fulfilment. It usually doesn’t,” he reflects of his characters. Winning the Booker, half a century after his first novel was published, and on his third nomination, the author has surely fulfilled his own promise.