African literature | The quiet rise of Damon Galgut

(Cape Town) Amidst works of art and old typewriters, the hand-bound copy of The Promise, by South African author Damon Galgut, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize last month, sits casually on a table in his Cape Town living room.

Each year, the finalists for the award for “best novel written in English” presented in London receive, tucked away in an elegant fabric-lined box, a unique copy of their book.

Already twice finalist, the writer in socks and loose pants who stands in the middle of the jumble of the room bathed in light, already had two other bound copies of previous works, on his shelves packed.

The studious disorder that reigns around him is as much due to an overflowing creative process as it is to the great spring cleaning that the 58-year-old author recently undertook. It is difficult not to see in this tangle of objects, a correspondence with the intertwining of the multiple characters of The Promise, which features a grieving husband, a homeless man, a priest or even a murderer.

The result is a graceful tale that achieves the feat of making deeply unpleasant characters ultimately surprisingly human.

The novel centers around four burials in a white South African family, the Swarts, from four different eras. And relatives who must keep a promise, mentioned in the title.

At first, the matriarch. Dying, she makes her husband promise to give a piece of land to the black woman who took care of her during her long illness.

“The family is gradually reduced to the last survivor,” Damon Galgut told APF. “We follow the evolution of the characters, but also that of the country in the background”.

“Black Amor”

The success and the rave reviews could intimidate the reader in front of a book which has now risen to the rank of essential literary work.

But the satire lightens the pages of an admittedly dark humor. The girl who tries somehow to keep the famous promise is called Amor. The surname, Swart, means “black” in Afrikaans.

The father, owner of a snake stash that sees school buses parading, ends up killed by a cobra bite during a strange fundraiser.

“There are events like weddings, which bring together characters from very different backgrounds” and create situational comedy, explains Damon Galgut. With the tragic face of death, the two elements form “a tragicomedy which corresponds rather well to my vision of the book”.

The South African author’s victory at the Booker Prize ended a year of prizes, ranging from the Nobel to Goncourt in France or the Camoes Prize in Portugal, won by African writers.

This international recognition can turn into a real boost for sales, on a continent where the publishing industry has developed in recent years.

But that goes unnoticed by African governments, according to Damon Galgut.

“There was not a word, not even a mini tweet from the Ministry of Arts and Culture,” he notes. “At best it’s a sign that they didn’t like the book. But it’s probably more the fact that they don’t know about it ”.

“Any sporting success immediately causes uproar. But it seems that in the field of the arts, everything can be passed over in silence ”.

Despite everything, the modest writer who expresses himself peacefully is aware of being part of something great for African literature.

“It would be a shame to miss the opportunity,” he said. An opportunity to realize that, in the world literary landscape, Africa matters. “It is important that these books are read, also by Africans. But none of this is taken for granted… ”

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African literature | The quiet rise of Damon Galgut