Born: 1963 in Pretoria
Lives: Cape Town
Family: “I’m professionally single”
Current: With the novel “Löftet”, which was awarded the international Booker prize, and participating in the Gothenburg Book Fair, which has a South African theme this year.
Plans: “I had written half of a collection of short stories when this happened so I haven’t been able to work on it for the past year but I hope to continue that.”
Inspired by: “I don’t know, I was at the Mantova Festival in Italy and they were discussing the sacred fire of writing – and I don’t know anything about it. It’s work. It might not be about inspiration but I’m trying to express what I’m thinking about. But I like to go up Table Mountain once a week and let the wind blow through my mind, I look forward to it. And reading, it gives me a primitive pleasure, the same as when I was a child. There are not many pleasures that I can say that about, which has lasted so long. To read and walk.”
Background: Wrote his first book as a seventeen-year-old, “Time without sin” (published in Swedish in 1985). Had his breakthrough with the novel “Pigs’ beautiful cry”, in 1993, and has also written books such as “Bedragaren”, “The Good Doctor” and “In a strange room” – the latter two were both nominated for the Booker Prize
Has also been nominated for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Dublin Impac Award twice and has received South Africa’s most famous literary award, the CAN award.
Damon Galgut has also taught drama at the University of Cape Town.
When Cupid loses his mother in the book “The Promise” there is no warm embrace to comfort. Damon Galgut is aware that the people in his family chronicle are not very lovable. But the loveless environment reflects his own upbringing, in a South Africa characterized by apartheid.
— It is difficult to describe how harsh and unnatural the society I grew up in was. If you were a sensitive child, it was a very brutal environment and I didn’t feel at home even in my own home, he says and tells us that it took a long time to free himself from what he was told: That it was him who was at fault and not the system.
His mother remarried a man who was Afrikaan (the white inhabitants of South Africa), a “jealous, insecure and violent person”, and now Damon Galgut sees a parallel between his stepfather’s personality and South Africa.
— I associate his mentality with that of the government, the military and apartheid thinking: that if you don’t get what you want, you hit until you get it. There was no kindness, no love, he notes.
The white perspective
Damon Galgut is used to having to translate his country for Europeans — as a child he read European literature and was aware that he himself was considered to live on the periphery. But out of spite, he wrote the latest novel with South Africa as the center of the world. To his surprise, it was successful, and he captured a literary lesson: “if you want to be universal, it’s okay to be very specific and local.”
He has been praised for his unique narration in “The Promise”: the perspective switches between different people, and between third and first person. The idea came when he was writing a film script.
— I realized that you could use the narrator as a kind of camera, and cut from one perspective to another. You could zoom in on a detail and back out and make the human details small, in a larger perspective.
It is the perspective of white South Africans that he adopts. One person in the book we never get close to: Salome, the black servant. Damon Galgut says that he, like most other white families, had a nanny as a child. He was raised by a black woman named Salome, whom he “adored”.
— It took a long time before I realized that she had her own children, who were somewhere else.
For many whites, the black South Africans existed only to serve, Galgut observes, they were never human beings with a rich inner life of their own.
— I wanted to show it, as an absence and a blind spot. Making it a void that becomes troublesome for the reader.
Critics outside South Africa argued that the duty of literature is to give equal weight to all characters in the book. But that is questioned by Damon Galgut, who points out that there are millions like Salome in today’s South Africa.
— They have no voice, no power, no presence in society – just like under apartheid. What do you achieve by giving it to them in a book? Then I have done my duty and then we can close the book and forget about it. But if you make it a problem for people, they will carry it with them, and think about it.
Galgut wants literature to be an arena for political conversations. He himself “woke up from his coma” in his 20s when he started studying at university and became involved in the student protests.
Sensitive land issue
With “The Promise” Damon Galgut wanted to write about the passing of time. In some way, writing has been connected with psychological mechanisms – if he doesn’t write, the fear of death increases. To offset all the death in the book, it is written with dark humor. The sharp cynicism also increases as the country’s situation worsens.
At the center of the novel pulses the politically controversial issue of land ownership. When the mother in the family passes away, she promises that Salome will be allowed to take over her little house. Damon Galgut got the idea from a friend, whose family made just such a promise.
— Just like in the book, there was no valuable land and the house was broken, but his family still kept it. It’s a hard truth about white South Africans, they don’t give up anything they have, even when it has no value.
But “The Promise” also alludes to the broken promise that liberation entailed in 1994, when the apartheid regime fell. He believes some disappointment was inevitable.
— But the level of disappointment is so great, it is difficult to exaggerate how much hope there was for the ANC, how much credibility they had and how much they could have done — in relation to where we ended up.
He describes today’s situation as desperate: the country is close to bankruptcy, the infrastructure and the railway system have collapsed and there are power outages of up to six hours per day.
— If people have high hopes that are not met, there will be anger and bitterness. And now the country feels bitter and angry. It’s not a good atmosphere to solve problems and we have a lot of problems to solve. I can’t remember the last time I felt so hopeless, ironically probably during the white government.