Promises Unkept: Damon Galgut and Andrew van der Vlies

“A lot of people have been pushed a little closer to the margins.”

This season, we’re partnering with Novel Dialogue, a podcast where a novelist and a literary critic talk about novels from every angle: how we read them, write them, publish them, and remember them.

On the latest episode, guest host Chris Holmes sits down with Booker Prize-winning novelist Damon Galgut and Andrew van der Vlies, distinguished scholar of South African literature and global modernisms at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Andrew and Damon tunnel down into the structures of Damon’s newest novel, The Promise, to locate the ways in which a generational family story reflects broadly on South Africa’s present moment. The two discuss how lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic invoke, for some, the limitations on movement during the Apartheid era in South Africa.

The Promise is a departure from Damon’s previous two novels, which were peripatetic in their global movement and range. Damon describes the ways in which this novel operates cinematically, as four flashes of a family’s long history, with the disembodied narrator being the one on the move.

Damon provocatively divides novels into two traditions: those that provide consolation, and those that can provide true insight on the world but must do so with a cold distance. While he does not call The Promise an allegory, Damon admits to the fun that he has with inside jokes that play with allegorical connections, as long as the reader is in on the joke. Damon directly takes on his choice to leave a pregnant absence in the narrative’s insight into his Black characters “sitting at the very heart of the book.”



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View a transcript of the episode here.


Mentioned in this Episode

Damon Galgut photograph by Marthinus Basson.