If death is not an event in life, as Wittgenstein observed, it’s a curious way to structure a novel. But since death is certainly an event in other people’s lives, Damon Galgut’s family saga, shrunk to the moments of passing, is ingenious. That the narrative takes great leaps over time yet also gives a firm sense of continuity is impressive.
The various deaths in the Swart family take place over decades of political change in South Africa, which they barely register on their remote farm. Theirs is a mostly unexamined life, with white rule a given, practically ordained by God. The first death, that of Rachel, or ‘Ma’, is not unexpected. Twenty years after marrying Manie Swart, with her youngest daughter, Amor, only 13 years old, she has finally passed after a long illness. Lonely Amor had been sent away to school to relieve the burden on her parents, an exile that is to leave a permanent mark.
Summoned to the funeral, the girl experiences a sense of dislocation and unreality, while her older brother Anton is on leave from the army where, just before returning home, he shot dead an unarmed female protestor as casually as one would swat a fly. He conflates the act with his mother’s death, at some level believing that he killed her too. The middle child, Astrid, has just yielded her virginity, an act which consumes her more than any bereavement.
How much we are inclined to honour the wishes of the dead forms the core of the novel and the clue to the title. The most pressing of these promises is Rachel’s wish that the devoted family servant, Salome, be given the modest hut on the Swart property where she lives. But at the time of Rachel’s death, it isn’t legal for black people to own property, so the stipulation is conveniently forgotten. But not by Amor, who in many ways functions as the family conscience.
The next death, entirely in the order of things, is that of Manie Swart, ‘Pa’, but after that they grow more random, tied in with the recent history of South Africa. Mandela is released; Mbeki becomes president; Jacob Zuma resigns — all events briefly noted by the Swarts. Closer to home, black workers grow ever more resentful, and the boundaries of the farm are nibbled away by un-authorised shacks and plots.
An undercurrent of the numinous runs through the story, though religion is always associated with the needs of the living rather than the dead. Rachel’s dying wish was also to return to her Jewish faith, to the consternation of her Dutch Protestant relatives. Representing them is the self-satisfied, worldly pastoor; later, a New Age guru adds a modish flavour. The most distinctive element of the novel, and its greatest pleasure, is the effortless way Galgut flows from mind to mind and body to body, whether male, female, pubertal, menopausal, maturing, ageing or dying. It’s almost uncanny.