When the South African writer Damon Galgut learned that his novel, “The Promise,” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he was filled with anxiety. Galgut had been shortlisted twice before, in 2003 and 2010, and both times, the stress of the nominations “probably shaved a few years off my life.”
“For a few weeks, you’re one of six winners, then all that attention gets sucked away and very, very suddenly, there’s only one winner, the rest of you are losers,” he told the Guardian in an interview in September.
This year was different. On Wednesday, the Booker judges pronounced Galgut the winner, praising his novel for its “unusual narrative style that balances Faulknerian exuberance with Nabokovian precision, pushes boundaries, and is a testament to the flourishing of the novel in the 21st century.”
At the awards ceremony in London, when he was asked how it felt to be named the winner, Galgut, 57, appeared more stunned than happy. “You’d better ask me that tomorrow, because my nerves have kind of gone numb,” he said. “I truly didn’t expect to be standing here.”
“The Promise,” Galgut’s ninth book, had already won acclaim among critics for its menacing and bleakly funny portrait of the Swart family, descendants of Dutch settlers who are desperately holding onto their farm and status in post-apartheid South Africa. Literary critics likened his experimental prose to modernist masters like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and William Faulkner, while others noted his debt to fellow South African writer J.M. Coetzee.
A review of “The Promise” in The New York Times Book Review called Galgut “a gleeful satirist, mordantly skewering his characters’ fecklessness and hypocrisy.”
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 going to a series of funerals for family members. It sounded like the perfect narrative vehicle for a family saga. Galgut began working on a novel centered on a family — “just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans,” he writes — whose matriarch dies of cancer in 1986, when South Africa was convulsing with political unrest. The novel’s title refers both to the unrealized promise of social equality after the end of apartheid, and to the matriarch’s promise to leave a house to a Black servant, Salome, which causes a rift in the family.
He set 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 period to document what it felt like to live through its hopes and disappointments. He did not want to tell a moralistic tale of heroes and oppressors, or to offer some kind of collective catharsis that revealed a path forward for the country.
“I’m skeptical of the claim that novels change the world. I really don’t believe that,” he said. “Novels tell you how it feels to be alive at a particular moment in history. I see them more as a record than as an agent of change.”
“I know some novelists and some critics might perceive that as a failing in my work,” Galgut continued. “They believe novelists are meant to point the moral way forward, but I feel very uncomfortable in that role, to be honest.”
While much of the narrative in “The Promise” unfolds in earlier decades, its themes — the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, and questions about who belongs — are still painfully resonant in his country, he said. “The topic of land, who owns it, who used to own it, who is going to own it in the future, that topic is very central to South African political life now.”
“The Promise” was one of six shortlisted novels and stood out for its artistry and scope, judges said.
“This is a book about inheritance and legacy,” Maya Jasanoff, the chair of the 2021 judges, said in a news conference on Wednesday. “It’s a book that invites reflection over the decades.”
American authors once again dominated the shortlist this year, accounting for three of the finalists. They were Richard Powers for “Bewilderment,” Maggie Shipstead for “Great Circle,” and Patricia Lockwood for “No One Is Talking About This.”
The Booker Prize is awarded annually to the best novel written in English and published in Britain or Ireland, and was selected this year from 158 submitted novels. Last year, the award went to Douglas Stuart for “Shuggie Bain,” his autobiographical debut 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.
Explore the 2021 Booker Prize Shortlist
Since 2014, the prize has been open to any novel written in English and published in Britain. Previously, it was limited to writers from Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth.
Galgut is the third writer from South Africa to win the Booker, following Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee, who has won twice. Galgut began writing at a young age, and fell in love with books as a child, when he was bedridden with lymphoma and family members read to him to keep him occupied.
He published his debut novel, “A Sinless Season,” in 1982, when he was just 17. His novel “The Good Doctor,” published in England in 2003, was shortlisted for the Booker that year and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He made the Booker shortlist again in 2010 for “In A Strange Room,” a novel about an alienated South African traveler named Damon, which straddled the line between fiction and memoir and prompted a debate over whether it should be eligible for a fiction prize.
After bracing himself for another disappointment, Galgut was astonished to have finally won and unsettled about the onslaught of attention, he said.
“I don’t really know what lies ahead,” he said. “I kind of dread my lack of ability to rise to the occasion. My instincts are to shrink and protect myself.”