CAPe TOWN - Damon Galgut has won this year’s prestigious Booker prize for his book The Promise.
The announcement was made at a televised event held in London, and broadcast live to a global audience of millions by the BBC.
This is third time lucky for the talented Cape Town-based writer, after he was shortlisted in 2003 and 2010 for The Good Doctor and In a Strange Room.
Maya Jasanoff, chairperson of the 2021 Booker judges, made the announcement.
Previous South Africans to win the prize are Nadine Gordimer in 1974 for The Conservationist, and JM Coetzee, who won it twice, for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983, and Disgrace in 1999.
The Promise is Galgut’s ninth novel and his first in seven years. It’s the story of a family, but also of a country, over 40 years. It’s related in four parts, each one centred on a family funeral in a different decade, as the family fights over a piece of land outside Pretoria.
In the background, a different president is in power, and a different spirit hangs over the country. At the core of this mesmerising and at times darkly humorous novel is a deathbed promise by a mother that was never kept – a promise overheard by her young daughter, Amor.
Speaking immediately after winning the prize, Galgut paid homage to his home continent.
“This has been a great year for African writing and I'd like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard, from the remarkable continent that I'm part of," he said.
“Please keep listening to us. There's a lot more to come.” Galgut also reminded journalists later that this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is another African writer, Zanzibar-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. “That would suggest that perhaps the volume is going up in Africa,” he said.
Galgut’s win also came hot on the heels of the news that another African writer, 31-year-old Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, had won the Goncourt, France’s top literary prize.
Jasanoff lauded all the final contenders but singled out The Promise for its “incredible originality and fluidity of voice” and as a book “really dense with historical and metaphorical significance”.
In the run-up to the award announcement it had been whispered by many in the press and by reviewers that Galgut’s book was the top contender.
Steve Connolly, chief executive of Penguin Random House SA, commented: “Damon Galgut, after several shortlist nominations, has finally received the global acknowledgement he richly deserves.
“Damon’s work, whether shining a light on the lies and travails of South Africa or interpreting the path of the great EM Forster as he wrote A Passage to India, is full of richness and nuance and it is a joy to know he is being read throughout the world."
Adding to the praise, Fourie Botha, Galgut's local publisher said: “In an unassuming, tentative way, Damon Galgut has dedicated his life to writing.
Seeing how the world takes notice of this masterful writer is almost as pleasurable as reading his sentences and realising you’re dealing with words that are charmed.”
Hailed in the press as one of the world’s finest writers, Galgut published his first novel at 17, and since then his work has been translated into 16 languages.
Two films were made of his book The Quarry. Locally, his previous novel Arctic Summer was awarded the Sunday Times Fiction Prize.
The other Booker finalists included US writer Richard Powers, 64, whose novel Bewilderment is about an astrobiologist struggling to cope with his young son's behavioural problems. Powers landed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction two years ago for his tree-themed book The Overstory.
Following last year's video appearances by the shortlisted authors due to Covid restrictions, this year's ceremony at the BBC’s Broadcasting House was attended in person by all the shortlisted authors.
Last year saw the most diverse shortlist in the prize’s five-decade history, with Scottish author Douglas Stuart scooping the prize for Shuggie Bain, his saga on the ruthlessness of poverty in an intimate exploration of a mother/son relationship.
And in 2019, the Booker judges tore up the rule book by awarding the prize jointly to Canada's Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Anglo- Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.
Check out thebookerprizes.com for more.