Don’t worry if you are woefully unread in South African literature, so is the South African writer Damon Galgut.
“Local writers are trying to escape a rigid set of moral gestures, if I can put it like that, which have imposed repetition upon us. Perhaps cliché is nothing more than the weight of the past pinning down your mind. In this sense, imaginative freedom is a way of finding the future, though it isn’t so easy to do.”
In other words, Galgut is looking out from South Africa not looking at it. However, there is a tone to his work that can easily be linked to his country, his continent: a tone that is built on the black and the white, the long distances, the heat, the poverty, the seemingly political ineptitude and the sense of people struggling to live a life they want but never seem to get. Most, but not all, of his male protagonists are slight in stature, indecisive, confused, loners with an ambiguous sexuality. Patrick Winter, the first-person narrator in Galgut’s 1991 novel, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs is one such protagonist. He is also mentally fragile since his compulsory two-year stint in the military where he became not only horrified by death and boredom but he attained a sense of hatred and terror at things like the insistent regularity of bathroom tiles and the rigid diagonals of sunlight. He takes Valium twice a day.
He travels to Namibia by car with his mother to see her black boyfriend who is politically activated in the first free elections in Namibia, formally South West Africa, where Patrick did his mandatory South African national service one year earlier and, now on this trip, he constantly wonders if the locals he meets may have been the same people that he shot at; that shot at him. It’s a story about a child and his mother; she, extroverted, thrives to belong “but her glamorous strivings were hollow’’; he, introverted, convoluted, his “patterns ran inward, spiralling endlessly towards a centre that didn’t exist.” They, tragically for both of them, belong together.
This book fell out of print but it was Galgut’s shortlisting for the 2008 Man-Booker prize with his novel The Good Doctor (2003), and subsequent fame, that gave him the opportunity to refine the text for the inevitable re-print. He was never quite satisfied with the original text: ‘discordant’ he called it.
“I woke to the sound of a pig being killed. I sat up rigidly in bed, not moving till the noise suddenly stopped. Then I got up and dressed and went outside. I had forgotten this about the farm. Its calendar runs on slaughter.”
This is typical of Galgut’s prose: stark statement of fact, short clear sentences without any mention of what the narrator feels; but the arrangement of such words, sentences, creates its own feeling, supplied significantly by the reader. Galgut draws the scene, we colour it in.
I once heard an ordinary female tourist talk about the end of her wonderful and surprising holiday on a foreign isle and her inevitable return: “Home I go,” she said, “to crawl back under my rock.” For all Patrick and his mother’s yearnings and plans this is what will happen.
“I sat down on a swing and rocked myself to and fro. In a little while, I knew, I would walk back up the road to the hotel, and we would pack our bags and go, and our usual lives would resume.”
The promise of travel and the lure of a foreign place is rarely fulfilled, it takes courage to stay out from under that rock; and Galgut by writing about this makes us aware just how rare and courageous it is.
You can find this book here.