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South African writer Damon Galgut received one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards for his cutting depiction of a white family in post-apartheid South Africa.

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.”

“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: “It’s a book that invites reflection over the decades.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Source: The New York Times