In Damon Galgut’s 2008 book The Impostor, a man named Adam loses his job and moves to a shack in the Karoo to try to write poetry. Like Galgut himself, who wrote his debut novel, A Sinless Season, when he was 17, Adam’s first collection – “poems about the natural world, ardent and intense and romantic” – was published when he was a young man. But Adam has become aware of the weight of history since then, and wonders whether such poetry is acceptable in contemporary South Africa:
When his first collection had come out he’d been astounded by one especially vitriolic review, which had charged him with deliberately avoiding the moral crisis at the heart of South Africa. He’d had no ideological project in mind with his pursuit of Beauty, and he’d been stung at the suggestion that he was indifferent to suffering. But in his weakest moments he reflected privately that maybe it was true; maybe he didn’t care enough for people.
The fall of apartheid promised to give South African novelists licence to write, as Galgut said in an interview in 2003, about “things like love … which would have been considered slightly immoral as a theme until apartheid crashed”, but his own novels have only become more politically engaged over the course of his career. His early works were sometimes criticised – like Adam’s poetry – for abnegating their moral responsibilities. Both A Sinless Season (1982), a novel of boyhood cruelty set in a young offenders’ prison (Galgut has since disavowed it), and the novella which formed the backbone of his collection Small Circle of Beings (1988) – a stark domestic miniature about a mother caring for her ill child – were precocious and emotionally perceptive, but neither seemed particularly interested in the world outside themselves.
Since the mid 1990s, he has been more willing directly to tackle the legacies of apartheid in his fiction. In The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2003, a cynical South African doctor is challenged by a naively ideological new colleague. In a Strange Room – which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2010, and is by far Galgut’s best novel – is an autofiction in which a man named Damon goes on three journeys in Europe, Africa and India, bearing his nationality like a stain on his back. His most recent book, Arctic Summer, was a historical novel about a decade in the life of EM Forster, but even here the tension between individual innocence – or ignorance, or indifference – and the sweep of history is evident.
The Promise is one of Galgut’s most directly political novels. It is also one of his most formally inventive, borrowing many of the narrative techniques he developed so effectively in In a Strange Room. If the results are mixed, this might be because the novel sometimes strives too hard to present a balanced collective perspective, or because it fails to reconcile aesthetic with moral questions. It’s not that it’s at all crude, or simplistic; more that the injustices it wants to examine are rendered slightly inert by the intrusion of something like a conscience – a narrator – in moments which might have been more effective if left unresolved.
The novel is divided into four sections, beginning in the mid-1980s, during the state of emergency that marked the height of apartheid, and ending in 2018. The Swarts are a white family who own a ramshackle farm deep in the veldt. The head of the family is Herman “Manie” Swart, an unreconstructed racist who runs a reptile park called Scaly City and has recently found religion. His wife, Rachel, has converted (or reverted) to Judaism on her deathbed, and her death marks the beginning of the book. She leaves behind three children: Anton, Astrid and Amor.
The “promise” of the title is a literal one, made by Rachel before she dies: to give a house on the farm to their black servant, Salome. It’s also a metaphorical one. Over the years, as members of the family find reasons to deny or defer Salome’s inheritance, the moral promise – the potential, or expectation – of the next generation of South Africans, and of the nation itself, is shown to be just as compromised as that of their parents.
In its themes The Promise aspires to a Joycean universalism, and stylistically too, this is a neo-modernist novel. The narrator occupies an indistinct space, halfway between first and third person, drifting from tight focus on a single character to a more piercing, detached view, often within a single paragraph. There’s plenty of free indirect discourse, and sections written in something approaching Joycean stream of consciousness.
Galgut is too good a writer to really mess any of this up, but the gears do grind occasionally when the focus shifts between characters. “Astrid on the line”, thinks Anton, rather too helpfully, when his sister calls him. “He can hear it’s her, though only bits of words are coming through. Probably on that new mobile phone of hers, so proud of it, useless heavy brick with buttons. Not an invention that’s going to last.” The irony isn’t subtle in these moments, and consequently the characterisation can feel slightly crude. But then, Anton is a crude man. Occasionally the effect is more jarring. When an old aunt’s disappointment is described as “almost palpable, like a secret fart”, or when Amor is described as feeling “ugly when she cries, like a tomato breaking open”, it’s not clear whether the similes belong to the characters themselves, to the characters observing them, or to an external narrator.
At other times it’s clear who’s doing the talking. After Rachel’s death, Salome offers a prayer. “Oh God. I hope You can hear me. It is me, Salome. Please welcome the madam where You are and look after her carefully, because I wish to see her again one day in heaven.” A bit later the narrator intervenes: “Perhaps she doesn’t pray in these words, or in any words at all, many prayers are uttered without language and they rise like all the rest. Or perhaps she prays for other things, because prayers are secret in the end, and not all to the same God.” The moment is telling for the way the novel wants to be able to speak on Salome’s behalf while simultaneously disavowing any hope of doing so. Perhaps this is just one more example of Salome’s disenfranchisement – no home, no voice, no narrated inner life. But novels are made of words, and it does seem doubly cruel – or, at least, too easy – to deny Salome even this degree of self-expression.
For Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, history was a “nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, and in Galgut’s novels too, history exists independently of the individuals who are inevitably shaped by it. In The Impostor, Adam recalls that when black students were first accepted into his school, he became “aware of history impinging on his existence”, which is an odd way of putting it, and might reveal more about his views than he – with his uninterrogated liberal values – can admit to himself. In The Promise, the 13-year-old Amor can’t understand that her mother’s promise to Salome will not be kept because, the narrator says, “history has not yet trod on her”. That’s one way of looking at history – as an external force that comes for you when you least expect it, and against which it’s impossible to take a stand. But it’s not the only way.
Galgut is a terrifically agile and consistently interesting novelist, certainly up there with Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee as a chronicler of his nation’s anguished complexity. And in trying to navigate the demands of being a South African writer and being a writer who just happens to be South African, The Promise is a fascinating, if inevitably partial, achievement. But while reading it I sometimes wished Galgut would return to the smaller frame of In a Strange Room, and remember that it’s not an abnegation of one’s artistic responsibilities to paint with a small brush, and attend to personal rather than historic dramas.
• The Promise is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.