Love and Peace or Else
I hadn’t heard of South African novelist Damon Galgut until this week. Or maybe I had. Who can say? I had evidently reserved his latest book The Promise at the library without remembering that I had done so or how or why or when [insert self-deprecating “getting older” witticism here]. The book won an important prize, apparently, or so the sticker on the top right corner of the cover told me as I inspected it at the checkout. On the bottom A certain Claire Messud from Harper’s Magazine breathlessly declared “Simply: you must read it.” Well, hard to argue with either the enthusiasm or brevity of that recommendation. So, I did. Simply, I read it.
And for once, the recommendation wasn’t far off. Galgut is a flat-out marvellous writer. I cannot recall a novel where I have admired a writer’s facility with language to the degree that I did in this book. From biting humour and acerbic sarcasm to deep pathos, he covers a lot of emotional terrain in this story about a white South African family and a lingering promise made to their black house maid. It is the story of a family and the story of a nation and a story about the human condition all rolled up into one.
(I suppose this is the part where I should provide the obligatory spoiler alert. If you plan on reading the book, you might want to stop reading this post. I’m sure I’ll ruin something for you at some point in what follows.)
To give just a few examples of the beauty of Galgut’s writing, I submit the following two passages. The first is the hilarious description of the end of a funeral. The funeral was for the son in the family, a middle-aged alcoholic who had few friends, whose wife was spending a good deal more time with an Eastern yogi than her husband (a yogi her husband derisively referred to as “Mowgli the man cub,” due to his unorthodox choice of attire), and who was decidedly irreligious and determined that his funeral should be, too. The service takes place at the funeral home chapel and is attended by only a handful of people. Mowgli presides, trying to speak appropriately irreligiously of karma and reincarnation and energy to a smattering of disaffected Calvinists and Catholics. There is a poem recited that most people are sure the deceased would have hated. The service lurches toward its lacklustre conclusion:
Can we go now? Yes, we can, that’s it, thankfully, the whole ordeal, the gathering washed doorwards on a dirty tide of organ music, interrupted only by a man with buckteeth and an inch of cheesecloth showing under his wig, who comes up to Desirée on the way out to tell her that the ashes will be ready for collection in a couple of weeks.
Having attended (and presided over) funerals that resembled this one, I could only chuckle at that image of a motley crew of religious and irreligious mourners being flushed out the back of a pitiful little funeral chapel by a combination of crappy music and worn out platitudes.
The second is more philosophical, addressing the tiresome tendency of the world to just go and on and on, despite all the misery it contains, nothing new under the sun and all that.
Foolish old earth, returning and repeating itself, over and over. Never misses a show. How can you bear it, you ancient tart, giving the identical performance again and again, evenings and matinées, while the theatre crumbles around you, the lines in the script unchanging, to say nothing of the make-up, the costumes, the extravagant gestures … Tomorrow and tomorrow and the day after that.
It’s a bleak assessment of reality, to be sure, no matter how poetically expressed. And indeed, the book does not offer much by way of the redemptive arc that we might want or have become conditioned to expect. The family members all wither and die in their own sad ways, and the promise that anchors the narrative seemingly along with them. Things fall apart in the family, in South Africa, in the world. As things tend to do. How can you bear it, you ancient tart, giving the identical performance again and again…
But there are two characters. Two characters with suggestive names. Amor, the youngest daughter, and Salome, the black house maid to whom a certain promise was made. Amor, who (mostly) takes her leave of the family and spends her life caring for the most wretched and helpless of society. Salome, who labours in the silences and shadows of a miserable family for grinding decades. Amor, who cares little about land and inheritances and the grim machinations of her siblings trying to acquire and secure and avoid and jostle and position. Salome, whose people have borne the brunt of injustice for long and terrible years, who has received a similarly long and agonizing tutelage in the uselessness of hope.
Amor and Salome. Love and Peace.
Two characters that serve as placeholders for the entirety of human hope on this foolish old earth. Two characters, returning and repeating themselves, over and over and over…
In the end, Amor and Salome come together for a final reckoning with the promise. Love and Peace remain at the end and together conjure up something good and true and beautiful. So maybe there is a redemptive arc, after all. We seem to stubbornly insist upon it, despite ourselves. Amor and Salome washing the chaos and pain and nastiness out the door on the not-so-dirty tide of a better song. Amor and Salome. We must have them. Love and Peace, or else.