Damon Galgut’s The Promise tackles issues surrounding a broken white South African family and institutionalised racism

AIREENA AZNI & MIRIAM CHEW
AIREENA AZNI & MIRIAM CHEW 5/10/2022 11:21 PM GMT+08  • 8 min read
Damon Galgut’s The Promise tackles issues surrounding a broken white South African family and institutionalised racism
Galgut adopts the cinema writing method in The Promise
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Seven years after the release of Arctic Summer, South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut is back with his latest read, The Promise.

Galgut had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Good Doctor (2003) and In a Strange Room (2010). Last year, he bagged that literary prize for The Promise.

The 300-page novel follows the story of a white family of five living in a city in Gauteng province and the administrative capital of the Republic of South Africa, Pretoria. The Promise captures the downfall of the Swarts as they fail to fulfil a promise made to a family helper, Salome. Galgut focuses on shattered family relationships, institutionalised racism, pretentious religious figures and false hope in this book.

Significantly different from the rest, Amor, the youngest daughter of the Swarts is silent (or made to be) during the earlier part of the story as the family believes she is not reliable and mentally disturbed after a distressing incident that occurred when she was six years old: she was struck by lightning. Oddly enough, she stands out as the main character.

The tale opens with Amor being informed of her mother’s death due to cancer by her aunt Tannie Marina. The confusing family dynamics of the Swarts from the beginning set the tone for the rest of the book. It seems like peace does not exist in their vocabulary, even after death befalls them. Tannie Marina is furious that “Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion, going back to her old religion”. Ma’s recent return to her Jewish faith from Christianity exerts more pressure on the existing tensions between her family and in laws who are now arguing about funeral proceedings — one side wants Ma’s wishes to be respected while the other wants the deceased to be buried at the designated family cemetery.

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Amor is haunted by the promise Pa made to Ma two weeks before her death — Amor had overheard their conversation about granting a piece of land to Salome, given her undivided loyalty and service to the family. Pa reluctantly agrees to Ma’s wishes although he is not convinced Salome deserves a house of her own. This thought is reflected by South African law at the time, which prohibits a Black person from owning an asset or property. Naturally, this ridiculous promise is not taken into consideration and it does not help that the only witness is paint- ed as someone “crazy”, so no one in the family takes Amor’s words seriously.

Everyone plods along with their lives until they are linked back over the years by a sequence of deaths. Amor refuses any kind of interaction with family members, so she moves to London for a while before working as a nurse at the HIV ward of a hospital in Durban. She is brought back to the farm upon receiving news of each person’s demise, roughly 10 years apart.

As she attends the funerals, Amor never misses the chance to start a discussion about “the promise” with her siblings, although her request to fulfil their mother’s wishes is denied each time. Amor shoulders the burden and lets the guilt and suffering consume her life. She works some demanding jobs and never gets hold of the allowances left behind by Pa for the children after his death.

Although Salome is belittled and betrayed by the Swarts, she is in fact the glue and pillar of the clan. While everyone else cannot hold a conversation without arguing among themselves, they reckon they ought to speak nicely to Salome, even if only to request that she prepares their meals. Holding her up as the maternal figure, the family members feel obliged to inform her when one of them has died. This appears to be the right thing to do as she had practically raised and looked after the children all her life.

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In one instance, after Anton’s death, the family is not able to reach Amor to inform her of the news. It is Salome who calls Amor, making Anton’s wife, Desiree, question “The girl. Had Amor’s number. Why does she have it, but we don’t?” The connection developed between

Amor and Salome is heart-warming and opposite of that the relationship between Amor and her family members, which is distant and cold.

This coming-of-age novel is divided into four sections: Ma (Rachel), Pa (Manie), Astrid and Anton, which are linked to the historical background of South Africa — the dismantling of the apartheid regime; the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory; the inauguration of President Mbeki; and the resignation of President Jacob Zuma. The reduction of Swart members one by one is a reflection of the withering white colonial rule during apartheid, while the unfulfilled promise to Salome indicates freedom from the oppressive political system, which has never been fully granted to the people.

Galgut adopts the cinema writing method in The Promise, “The voice of the book moves forward continuously, without a break, in the same way a film runs on to its end,” he tells Penguin Books. The narrative flows from one character to another and the main action is intertwined with some arbitrary event happening on the sidelines — all written without quotation marks.

The book requires a bit of work from readers, given the long- stretched chapters and free-form writing. A series of comical occurrences weaved into the narrative cleverly presents real-life difficulties — death, betrayal, hypocrisy — in a lighter way. It also subdues the intensity from having to differentiate which character’s voice is taking centre stage at certain moments. For that reason, we think The Promise was deserving of the Booker.

Unfailing resilience

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Contrary to the gruesome and repressive events that unfold in How I Survived a Chinese “Re-education” Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story, the memoir opens on a pleasant note. It is 2016, the wedding night of Gulhumar, the daughter of Gulbahar Haitiwaji, and friends and family are gathered to celebrate the joyous ceremony in Paris.

However, although it is a period of merriment for the Haitiwajis, thousands of miles away, Chen Quanguo assumes leadership in Xinjiang as Secretary of Tibet.

Known for having instituted harsh surveillance methods during his previous years as secretary, his repression of Uyghurs — a Turkic ethnic group — takes on a tragic scope in the following years. (Since 2017, the Chinese government has reportedly imprisoned more than one million Uyghurs and subjected those not detained to intense surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labour and forced sterilisations. It is said Chinese officials were concerned that Uyghurs held extremist and separatist ideas, and they viewed the camps as a way of eliminating threats to China’s territorial integrity, government and population.)

It has been a decade since Gulbahar and her family arrived in France. During the process of assimilation into their new environment, explanations about the cultural conflict from where they come from are often met with indifference.

“To Westerners, there was something exotic about the repression we were undergoing. It was like a Chinese version of David and Goliath. Except in this version, David still hasn’t won. He’s been fighting the giant for generations, to no avail,” Gulbahar says in the book.

After the wedding, she gets a call from Karamay, the oil company where she had worked at with her husband, Kerim. An accountant from the firm calls to summon her back to China to resolve a pension matter. Gulbahar eventually flies back to her hometown, albeit hesitantly, and oblivious to the horrific years that awaits her.

A few days after her arrival, Gulbahar is hoaxed into confessing to having participated in activities that “conspired to stir up trouble”, all on the basis of a photo of her holding a flag representing Uyghur independence at a Paris protest. This accusation leads to her detainment in the Karamay County Jail.

In her next few years there, Gulbahar is subjected to hundreds of hours of brutal treatment including further police interrogation, physical and mental torture, malnutrition, violence and brainwashing. Later, she is transferred to re-education camps — concealed under the term “schools”.

In the seventh chapter, Gulbahar highlights the difference between the time spent in both places. At the county jail, the women are often bored, other than having their schedules interrupted with police interrogation. They are also forced to remember mind-numbing rules and are addressed in numerical order, a few of the countless tactics used to strip them of their sense of identity.

At the re-education camps, the detainees endure 11 hours of “education” daily, which include reciting the glories of the Communist Party and “physical education” — the equivalent of military training. “Here, the military rules were designed to break us. Sheer physical fatigue robbed us of the desire to speak. Our days were punctuated by the screech of whistles: on waking, at mealtime, at bedtime.”

While this eye-opening and candid memoir — structured like a diary — uncovers the horrific reality of genocide, which is still prevalent in our world today, it is also about the unfailing resilience of an Uyghur woman — the first to escape from these camps and dare to speak out about them. — By Miriam Chew

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