Wednesday, January 19, 2022

South African writer Damon Galgut on winning the Booker Prize

On the shelf


Damon Gulgut
Europe: 256 pages, $ 25.

If you buy books that are linked to on our site, The Times may receive a commission from, which is supported by independent bookstores.

On November 3, when the Booker Prize jury decided to present Britain’s most prestigious fiction award to 58-year-old South African writer Damon Galgut, they surprised no one but the author himself. “I’m used to not winning – that’s what I’m programmed to do,” he joked. Indeed, he has been shortlisted twice before: The Good Doctor in 2003 and In the Strange’s Room in 2010. But this year things turned out differently. The Promise, his formally inventive kaleidoscopic novel about a splitting – and dying – white South African family, has been hailed as a masterpiece of “historical and metaphysical significance.” Gulgut recently spoke to The Times about Booker’s roller coaster, as well as the failed hopes of his fictional Swart family and South Africa, in a conversation edited for clarity and length.

Once again, congratulations on your Booker. What was your overall experience?

It was amazing in both a good and a bad way. Writers struggle in vain for any attention or recognition, so it’s certainly nice to have both in such abundance. On the other hand, by temperament I am not adapted to this onslaught. I am a rather quiet and private person and do not really like to talk about myself.

What was the reaction in South Africa? You have joined a very elite group of winners from South Africa including Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.

The answer here was gratifyingly positive. Unfortunately, this is somewhat undermined by the near total lack of attention from the local English press prior to Booker’s shortlisting. In general, writers [and other artists] must be validated by achievements abroad before they are taken seriously here at home. I would also like to note that our Department of Art and Culture, which has long been a joke in the creative environment, failed to record the slightest response to the news. Personally, I don’t care, but it underscores how little they value the people they are supposed to represent. I don’t think they do it on purpose; they’re just in a coma, which is even worse.

The Nobel Prizes, the Booker and Goncourt Prizes this year – among other top honors – have been awarded to African authors. As you said in your acceptance speech, this has been a great year for African writing. Do you think this literature is more appreciated in the West?

I cannot talk about how the West perceives African writing. I hope this will increase the volume on our side and be heard more clearly on the other. With regard to publishing and reading in Africa, perhaps this is a big part of the problem. It is not the responsibility of the West to provide a single publishing platform for Africa; we have to do it for ourselves.

The Promise is in many ways your most ambitious work, especially in the use of movable panoramic perspective. What prompted this new approach?

It is always nice to feel that you are working within a tradition to subvert or expand it. I felt that, to a certain extent, I succeeded thanks to the discovery of a narrative voice that breaks the usual rules. As I said, ad nausea (at least my own), I discovered this voice by accident, transferring the logic of the film to prose. This opened up the opportunity for me to use other disciplines to shake up my own. Let’s see what happens.

You write that the Swarts are “just a bunch of white South Africans.” … Something rusty, stained with rain and dents in the shower. ” Yet they are by no means homogeneous.

Well, because white South Africans are not homogeneous. My own family, to take just one example, is composed of Jewish, Scandinavian, English and Afrikaan elements with all their creeds. All colonies were such melting pots. Many of the postcolonial conflicts that plague societies such as ours stem from a nostalgic desire to separate “pure” roots from confusion — clearly a futile exercise. In fact, I consider the mixing of cultures and communities to be a reliable indicator of the future. It would be much better for South Africa if we all considered ourselves a mixture of races and stopped fighting for the rights of particular groups.

One of the most intriguing relationships in the book is that of Amor, Swart’s youngest daughter, and Salome, a longtime black maid in the family. “They are close, but not close. He joined, but did not join, ”you write. “One of the weird and simple mergers that unite this country. Sometimes just barely. ” What were the difficulties in writing Salome?

Salome is absolutely tangible, a figure that I know from everyday life. But actually I chose No to give her character more meaning or materiality in the book, but rather to delineate her through the perception of the white characters around her. Why? Because this is how such a person continues to be seen (or not seen) in South Africa now. In other words, she is someone mute, almost not “present” in our society. In my opinion, this is a shame and a stain on the so-called “new” South Africa. It turned out to be a rather controversial choice, with several [British] critics accuse me of not giving her an inner life of her own. But, in my opinion, it would rather diminish it than strengthen it. I wanted her to be an annoying blank spot on the map, an unanswered question. In several recent conversations with other African writers, I was satisfied that my approach was not in the least problematic. As one of them said, “They don’t understand because they don’t come where we are.” Quite right.

Each section revolves around the Swart family funeral in a different decade under a different regime, from the apartheid era of the 1980s to the reign of Jacob Zuma. What do you think of the direction of the country under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, the successful businessman who many hoped would stabilize the country after Zuma’s turbulent years?

I am not pleased to say that I think President Ramaphosa will be remembered as a well-meaning and in most cases ineffective leader. His heart seems to be in the right place, but he believes he can negotiate and charm his path to cultural change, riven by corruption and vested interests. You cannot fight gangsters with silk gloves and walking sticks. He needs to put on chain mail and brass knuckles and go down to the arena like Rambo.

Tepper has written articles for the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair and Air Mail, as well as other publications.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News is the fastest emerging news website covering all the latest news, world’s top stories, science news entertainment sports cricket’s latest discoveries, new technology gadgets, politics news, and more.
Latest news
Related news
- Advertisement -