Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut tells the story of South Africa through the fate of a family

11:00 am, March 30, 2022

In the Swart family, white farmers in South Africa, little girls who have just lost their mother are not comforted: they “skillfully spills gentle phrases over the stormy depths that threaten to overflow”. “Can I pour you another cup of tea?” Do you want to try my cakes? » Funeral directors don’t just recite the words of burial rituals: they imagine them occurring “a small group in the form of a psalm, cutting the air towards the farm, in search of the woman for whom the song is intended”.

This late woman, Rachel, had a husband, Mania, who does not sleep but depends on him “a raft tossed about by the current of restless dreams”. According to Aunt Marina (the one with tea and cake), this marriage was the result of a mistake anyway: “The bug is doing his military service somewhere right now. »

A different homeland and nation

Welcome to the Swarts, whose tormented lives are brilliantly told The promise South African Damon Galgut, 58, won the Booker Prize – the equivalent of our Goncourt for English-language authors.

Damon Galgut tells us about a family to tell the story of his country. He’s not the first. But he’s not the type to enlist flag-bearers with big symbols: with him everything is a metaphor, but the meaning never freezes. So the swart farm, “strange little building” increased by over the years “Rooms and outbuildings in a supposedly local style that looks like nothing else. And look at the result. an informal collection, twenty-four doors to the outside that are closed every evening, one architecture placed on top of the other. In the middle of the steppe, like a drunk in mismatched clothes.”. Should we see the reflection of South Africa, a disparate nation, in this crooked house? Of the Swart family, who does Aunt Marina say has lost her purity? Of certain family members caught in the conflicting currents of their personality and history? Probably all at once…

So the swarts. First this mother, Rachel, who we’ll never know since the novel begins with her funeral in 1986. a reformist cult and lost in remorse: “He told everything, right down to the gambling and the prostitutes, he exposed himself unreservedly and instead of forgiving him she found him pathetic. The voices of the Lord are impenetrable forever! » Then the widower, that mania whose faith hasn’t brought him the peace he hoped for, who owns a reptile park where he likes to challenge snakes for biblical demonstrations that end up costing him dear.

And finally her three children Anton, “the mistake”, a brilliant young man, but consumed by rage (which led him to kill a black woman while serving in the military) and lost in his search for meaning (he believes his mother’s death, so long heralded by oncologists, was a consequence from him is crime). Astrid, the precocious sister – doomed to commit the same“Error” than his parents. Cupid, the youngest, who we think is retarded because she thinks before she speaks and because she was struck by lightning once.

Behind them stands silent Salome, the black servant, whose face reflects nothing but that“She wears her life like a mask”. In the past she was promised to give her the little shack she lives in on the Swart lands. That promises the title and is the common thread of the book. Seeing itself adjourned from funeral to funeral also gives it its structure.

time in spurts

As in the novels of our international Nicolas Mathieu, time does not flow here: it advances in spurts and we jump from one funeral to the next – there will be four in all – over the decades. . Like Nicolas Mathieu, it’s about showing what changeable creatures we are! Astrid becomes rich, Cupid becomes beautiful, Anton becomes a farmer and aspiring novelist – unfortunately for her. While post-apartheid South Africa will prove fraternal before becoming dangerous and corrupt. The white elite will sleep with the black elite and find they like it; Racism, anger and resentment will not go away.

To study individuals, Damon Galgut has developed a post-Faulknerian writing technique, a gentle way of navigating from consciousness to consciousness within the same chapter. So we jump from the terror of a wealthy white woman being taken hostage to the pragmatic thoughts of her captor. From the torments of a widower obsessed by his wife’s infidelity to the visions of a hallucinated tramp who sees this obsession in the form of a tentacled monster clinging to the widower’s back. It’s not free: it’s about showing that every human community, even a family, amounts to an accumulation of solitudes or solipsisms, each stuck in its own way of interpreting the present under the prism of its own history. Connections are still possible: “To lie down against your companion in the warm darkness, an arm around her, to feel a heart beating under her hand, brings her comfort, a deep peace. »

But don’t be under any illusions here either: “It doesn’t really matter anymore if you’re hugging Susan.” All it takes is a body, a presence. don’t be alone »“A rare style, sir; a style, there’s one, two, three per generation”, explained the great Céline, thinking very much of herself. Of course he was exaggerating, but he also pointed out an obvious fact known to all readers: discovering an authentically new form of writing is like discovering a treasure. Damon Galgut’s prose, with its casual flashes, creates that kind of shock.

The promiseDamon Galgut, translated from English (South Africa) by Hélène Papot, 302 pages, 23 euros.

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