Booker Prize won by South African author Damon Galgut for The Promise

South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut has won the Booker Prize for his novel The Promise, a multi-generation, multi-voice saga set in Pretoria, starting in 1986 with a promise made by a white South African family to their black housekeeper – and follows the fallout of this moment through 40 years.

The 57-year-old, who has been shortlisted twice before, won the £ 50,000 ($ 91,783) award against a shortlist that included Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Powers (Bewilderment; The Overstory) and was extremely young – with four of the six authors 40 years or younger.

Judge Panel Judge Maya Jasanoff described The Promise as “a book that is a true master of form and pushes the form in new ways, with incredible originality and fluid voice – and a book that is really close with historical and metaphorical significance”.

The book cover for The Promise by Damon Galgut with a black and white picture of a young girl leaning on her arm
Galgut is a South African playwright and novelist who wrote his first novel at the age of 17.(Delivered: Penguin)

Galgut, who was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003 for The Good Doctor and again in 2010 for In a Strange Room, has previously talked about the feeling that the spotlight falls from you abruptly when you do not win.

When the author received the award in a livestreamed ceremony from London, the author said: “It has taken a long time to get here and now that I have, I feel a little like I should not be here. It could just as easily have gone to anyone of the other amazing, talented people on this list – and a few others who are not.

“But since luck has fallen to me, let me say: it has been a fantastic year for African writing. And I would like to accept this on behalf of all the stories that have been told and untold, the writers heard and heard, from it remarkable continent of which I am a part. Please keep listening to us. “

Interior photo of a 57-year-old bald man sitting in a theater with red chairs holding a copy of his book The Promise.
Author Damon Galgut.(Delivered: David Parry / PA Wire)

Four funerals and a vow

The promise of Galgut’s novel is extracted by Rachel Swart from her Afrikaner husband, while she is dying, to give the dilapidated house on their property to their housekeeper, Salome – who has cared for her in her last illness.

Or at least that’s how Rachel’s daughter, Cupid, remembers it – because the book never makes it clear whether her father gives the promise.

The book is built around four funerals over four decades, as the Swart family shrinks and the effect of the ‘promise’ – and the lack of its fulfillment – is felt.

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Galgut spoke to Claire Nichols from RN’s The Book Show, saying the novel’s structure came from “a kind of semi-drunk afternoon” with a friend, “who happens to be the last surviving member of his family and is a very funny narrator”.

“He told me some of the stories of what had happened at the four family funerals he had attended by his parents and his brother and his sister.

“He made many of those stories very funny, because funerals are, of course, occasions where families gather to honor someone who’s dead, but what you see and what you meet are the living – and you know, living people. “Especially families who want things but can’t say it are often a lot of fun.”

But inevitably, the book’s terrain is political and social, as it traces changes in South Africa through 40 years – the 40 years of Galgut’s adult life, and which he describes as “the most vivid and memorable for me”.

“The characters who have lived through these years embody different aspects of me and how I reacted to politics and change in South Africa.”

Many voices populate the book, and Galgut told The Book Show: “This is a very fragmented and divided country that I live in and there is no, there is no voice that can speak for South Africa.

“So it was satisfying in a certain way to be able to evoke a chorus of voices, each of which presented its point of view, sometimes overlapping each other, contradicting each other – even during a single sentence.”

Particularly absent, however, is Salome’s voice and perspective, the housekeeper to whom the promise is given.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Galgut said this was deliberate.

“The point that really needs to be made is that a woman like Salome – a rural, uneducated black woman – is one, even in the new South Africa, who still has no voice. And I wanted it to be registered as almost a physical fact. “

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