Damon Galgut wins Booker Prize for “The Promise”

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When South African writer Damon Galgut learned that his novel “The Promise” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he was filled with anxiety. Galgut had already been shortlisted twice, in 2003 and 2010, and both times the stress of nominations “probably wiped out a few years of my life.”

“For a few weeks you are one of six winners and then all of that attention is diverted and very, very suddenly there is only one winner, the rest are losers,” he said. to the Guardian in an interview in September.

This year was different. Booker’s judges on Wednesday declared Galgut the winner, praising his novel for its “unusual narrative style that balances Faulknerian exuberance with Nabokovian precision, pushes boundaries and testifies to the novel’s flourishing in the 21st century.”

At the awards ceremony in London, when asked what it was like to be named the winner, Galgut, 57, appeared more stunned than happy. “You better ask me that tomorrow, because my nerves are kind of numb,” he said. “I really didn’t expect to be here.”

‘The Promise’, Galgut’s ninth book, had previously won critical acclaim for its menacing and sadly funny portrayal of the Swart family, descendants of Dutch settlers who desperately cling to their farm and status in Africa. of the post-apartheid South. Literary critics have compared his experimental prose to modernist masters like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, while others have pointed to his debt to fellow South African writer JM Coetzee.

A review of “The Promise” in the New York Times Book Review called Galgut a “cheerful satirist, bitingly embracing the recklessness and hypocrisy of his characters.”

Galgut got the idea for the novel, which Europa Editions published in the United States in April, from a conversation with a friend, who described attending a series of funerals for family members. It sounded like the perfect narrative vehicle for a family saga. Galgut began work on a novel centered on a family – “just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans,” he writes – whose matriarch died of cancer in 1986, while South Africa was in the throes of cancer. to political unrest. The title of the novel refers both to the unfulfilled promise of social equality after the end of apartheid, and to the matriarch’s promise to leave a house to a black maid, Salome, which causes a rupture in family.

He put the novel in Pretoria, where he grew up, in part to explore the region’s dark history of apartheid and racial violence and the impact that had on his childhood.

In a phone interview after the ceremony, Galgut said he wanted to explore the post-apartheid era to document what it was like to live through his hopes and disappointments. He did not want to tell a moralizing story of heroes and oppressors, nor to offer some sort of collective catharsis revealing a way forward for the country.

“I’m skeptical of the claim that novels change the world. I really don’t believe it, ”he said. “The novels tell you what it is like to be alive at a particular point in history. I see them more as a record than an agent of change.

“I know that some novelists and some critics might perceive this as a failure in my work,” Galgut continued. “They believe novelists are supposed to lead the moral way, but I feel very uncomfortable in that role, to be honest.”

While much of the tale of “The Promise” takes place in previous decades, its themes – the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, and questions about who owns – still resonate painfully in his country, a- he declared. “The subject of land, who owns it, who owned it, who will own it in the future, this subject is very central in South African political life today. “

“The Promise” was one of six shortlisted novels and stood out for its artistry and scope, the judges said.

“It’s a book about legacy and legacy,” Maya Jasanoff, 2021 judges chair, said at a press conference Wednesday. “It’s a book that invites reflection on the decades.

American writers topped the shortlist again this year, counting for three of the finalists. These were Richard Powers for “Bewilderment”, Maggie Shipstead for “Great Circle” and Patricia Lockwood for “No One Is Talking About This”.

The other authors were Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam for “A Passage North”, on the lingering trauma of civil war in her country, and British and Somali novelist Nadifa Mohamed for “The Fortune Men”, about a falsely Somali. accused of murder. in Wales.

The Booker Prize is awarded annually to the best novel written in English and published in Great Britain or Ireland, and was selected this year from 158 novels submitted. Last year, the award went to Douglas Stuart for “Shuggie Bain”, his first autobiographical novel about growing up in Scotland with an alcoholic mother. In 2019, breaking with tradition, the prize was awarded jointly to Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood.

Since 2014, the prize has been open to any novel written in English and published in Great Britain. Previously it was limited to writers from Great Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth.

Galgut is the third South African writer to win the Booker, after Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee, who won twice. Galgut started writing at a young age and fell in love with books when he was bedridden with lymphoma and family members read to occupy him.

He published his first novel, “A Sinless Season”, in 1982, when he was only 17 years old. His novel “The Good Doctor”, published in England in 2003, was shortlisted for the Booker that year and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He was on Booker’s shortlist again in 2010 for “In A Strange Room,” a novel about an estranged South African traveler named Damon, which straddled the line between fiction and memory and sparked debate over his eligibility. at a fictional price.

After bracing for yet another disappointment, Galgut was amazed that he finally won and confused by the onslaught of attention, he said.

“I don’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I kind of dread my lack of ability to rise to the occasion. My instinct is to shrink and protect myself.


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