Damon Galgut, the power of nostalgia and ‘dark love’ for South Africa

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian newspaper in December 2021, Damon Galgut, South Africa’s latest literary star, winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, a novel about the disintegration of a white family amid the collapse of apartheid, said he had originally intended to call the book “Dark Love”.

Galgut said it was an “abstract allusion” to the family’s youngest daughter Amor Swart, whose affection for their long-suffering black domestic servant Salome is a central theme of the book.

“But,” says Galgut, “I wanted to tie it in with a parallel sense that if one loves South Africa it has to be a dark kind of love”.

This “dark love” is apparent in the two Galgut novels I read back-to-back, The Good Doctor and The Promise, and is something I can relate too deeply, even though I left South Africa 22 years ago.

Dr Waters: trying to “make a difference”

A beautiful, but troubled land, South Africa gets under your skin and in your bones: if you’ve grown up there, you never really leave – even if you do physically.

Galgut’s gift is to draw from that dark well of South African history, culture and experience, and build an engrossing story with deeply South African characters, and to unsettle and enthrall the reader.

“Galgut has mined his novel with small but powerful explosive charges, wrote the writer Christopher Hope in his review of The Good Doctor in 2003 (written for the Guardian).

“Damon Galgut has written a lovely, lethal, disturbing novel,”

The story of The Good Doctor takes place in a crumbling, ill-equipped rural hospital next to a backwater town in what was once a Black “homeland” – one of a series of puppet states created by the white nationalist apartheid regime to separate blacks from whites – but is now forgotten, left to decay in the new South Africa.

The title of the book refers to Dr. Laurence Waters, an idealistic medical school graduate who comes to the dysfunctional hospital hoping to “make a difference” as part of his year of compulsory, post-graduate community work.

His arrival and subsequent stay at the hospital is narrated by Dr. Frank Eloff a disillusioned and bitter veteran physician, one of just a handful of staff that keep the medical facility barely functioning under the management of its administrator and head surgeon Dr Ngema.

So ill-equipped is the hospital, that patients with more serious injuries have to be transported to the big city hospital, a long drive through the veld.

The hospital’s small band of staff include the Satanders – a doctor couple from Cuba who quarrel a lot about staying in South Africa – and a troubled black orderly called Tehogo, who is symbolic of that “lost generation” of unskilled Black South Africans, left on the margins of society after the fall of apartheid.

In some kind of precarious and delicate balancing act, the hospital has maintained it place in the natural order of things, keeping its distance from the chaos beyond its boundaries, until idealistic Dr Waters arrives and shatters its island status.

“It’s like something terrible happened here,” Laurence said. “That’s how it feels.

“Ja, but the opposite is true. Nothing has ever happened here. Nothing ever will, that’s the problem.”

The Good Doctor

Written in 2003 (and shortlisted for the Booker Prize) The Good Doctor reads like a parable of the collapse of the idea of the Rainbow Nation that briefly flourished after the 1994 democratic elections that installed Nelson Mandela as president, followed by the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph.

Race relations, the juxtaposition of wealth and extreme poverty, the battle for power in the new South Africa and the naivety of those who think they can change things are all meshed together in Galgut’s novel with devastating and mesmerising effect.

Galgut also has a way of conjuring up a strange kind of nostalgia (though that may be the wrong word) among those readers who lived through those historical times.

Reading of a decaying hospital in a half-forgotten Homeland town, took me back to family holidays at the Mmbatho Sun (now called the Mmbatho Palms), an oasis of palm trees, sparkling blue swimming pools and gambling, set amid the dry and dusty veldt of the impoverished homeland of Bophuthatswana.

Hanging on the wall in the hotel foyer (I remember this so well) was a portrait of stern-faced Lucas Mangope in all his official puppet-state pomp and regalia, staring down on us wealthy whites, as we arrived for our luxury holidays and a roll of the dice at the roulette table.

It was of course absurd that we (well-off white South Africans) should enjoy our luxurious buffet breakfasts, sip cola-tonics and lemonades poolside and pull the handles of slot machines, all whilst being waited on hand and foot by an army of underpaid black servants.

Equally, it is absurd that young white graduate doctor – Galgut’s Dr Laurence Waters – working in a backwater hospital should think that he can “make a difference”; that he should be so naïve, reflects perhaps that unrealistic feeling we all had, standing to vote in the first elections in 1994, that the past could simply be swept under the rug.

While The Good Doctor confines itself to a relatively short period of narrative time, as well as a specific era in South Africa – the birth of the new democratic country – Galgut’s The Promise starts in 1986, during the State of Emergency, and spans 30 years. Over that time, and set against the backdrop of famous historical events in the evolution of the country towards democratic rule, it tells the tragic story of the Swart family and their haunting farm set amongst the stony koppies and veldt outside Pretoria.

The story is told through eyes and deaths of four members of the Swart family: Rachel Swart or “Ma”, her husband Herman “Manie” Swart (whose post-funeral gathering occurs during the momentous 1995 Rugby World Cup Final), Anton, their first child and only son, and Astrid, the middle daughter.

Connecting them all together is Amor, the youngest child, who carries the family’s guilt – a white person’s guilt for the things done to black South Africans under the apartheid system – and who is determined to fulfil her mother’s dying wishes that their faithful and long-suffering black servant Salome, be granted the deed to the crumbling house, that has been her home all the years she has served the family.

Galgut has a real gift for capturing the feeling of a place and time: for example that deep-seated resentment old Afrikaaners felt about the ending of apartheid and having to share the country with black people, but also their supreme and undying love of rugby.

At the farmhouse, following Manie’s funeral (he died from a poisonous snakebite at the reptile park he ran) the television is switched on in the build up to the World Cup Final.

While some family members are unhappy that the television is playing during what is meant to be a solemn gathering, Ockie, the unloved husband of Manie’s sister Marina has a “warm glow only partly due to Klipdrift” (a famous South African brandy enjoyed with Coke).

“…and God knows he took the new South Africa hard. But he has to admit, it’s nice to be able to play international sport again. Gives us a chance to donner people from faraway lands, and man we really fucked up those Samoan floppies a couple of weeks ago”.

The Promise

In another episode, Galgut writes how Anton, a white child, suckled on the nipple of Salome, such was the motherly bond despite the rules of apartheid forbidding such behaviour. While this may sound extreme to some readers, it was common, even when I was growing up, for black domestic workers (who we called “maids” or “nannies”) to care for white children as if they were their own, to bathe, clothe, feed and nurture them.

In an interview with the podcast 5X15, Galgut says Salome was was “mentally modelled on a Nanny I had”.

“My first nanny was a kind of substitute mother for me when I was really little…I’m talking the age of 2,3,4. Her name was Salome and I named the character after her, partly in tribute to her.”

“As you can imagine,” Galgut says later, “quite meaningful and intimate bonds can spring up in an artificial relationship like that”.

Drawing on the greats that have come before him – Athol Fugard, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and others – Galgut is the latest gifted writer to explore the complexities of South Africa’s dark history, its often paradoxical race relations, and its troubled democratic rebirth.

He does so, in my opinion, with less literary pretention than those who have come before him. His writing style is more direct and accessible (you could say “modern”) but still poetic. That’s even the case when he’s writing about Joel Stransky kicking that magical drop goal, while an Afrikaaner family cheers him on, but refuses to embrace the New South Africa that allowed that moment to happen.

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