Damon Galgut – The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs

So as promised in my announcement, here is a new review.

Galgut, Damon, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, Grove Atlantic
ISBN 1-84354-462-8

DSC_0156 When I read my first novel by Damon Galgut a few years ago, I instantly knew that this writer I had – for some reason – never heard of would become one of my favorite writers. You go and read my review of that book for a sense of my enthusiasm. I have since read multiple other novels of his (and really can’t wait to get my hands on his most recent one, Arctic Summer, waiting for the more affordable paperback…) and have not been disappointed. The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, originally published in 1991 is a particularly exciting discovery among his books. Throughout his work, Galgut would increasingly work in allegories (The Quarry), complex figures of deception (The Impostor, The Good Doctor) and morality debates, but this, his first novel, is tense with a firm, tantalizing sense of place, with an urgency of meaning. As with all his books, it is written in his characteristically terse style, almost Hemingway-esque, much as I hate using that term. It is poetic without being overwritten, it is also emotionally and politically astute. That said, the book I read (and whose ISBN I give above) is not the original novel Galgut wrote. It’s a 2005 revision, prompted by Galgut’s own misgivings which he admits to in a note preceding the main body of the novel. He didn’t like “the rhythms of the language” and revised it enough to feel comfortable. This explains the maturity of the style, as well as the fact that it is, overall, better than, for example, The Quarry, a novel published later, but, so far, unrevised. I have to admit I don’t really care, as long as the novel I get to read is as good as this one.

In The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs we are offered three kinds of journeys: the journey of a nation, the journey of a mother and her son through the South African borderlands, and finally, the journey of a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality and at the same time with the privileged position that having white skin in 1980s South Africa afforded him. The book offers multiple opportunities to link it to other books and texts. It is a very self conscious literary artifact, but as we, like with Hemingway, follow the step by step process unveiled in his paratactic prose, we are frequently breathless with the tension that this novel’s route creates for its readers. Despite all its similarities and borrowings, it is a remarkable, original novel that is impossible not to recommend. Some of his later novels are better, but that’s just because Galgut keeps getting better, despite occasional missteps. He manages to combine a deep awareness of political contexts, literary traditions, and a sense of how family, personal identity, sexuality are connected to the larger currents of political change. The microcosm of sexual identity and the macrocosm of a continent in the process of change are tied up in a single, well written story. This being a debut, there is some simple and accessible symbolism that could have been handled more subtly, and in much of his later work, that’s what he does.

cropped-dsc_0233.jpgThe novel is set on the eve of the first free Namibian elections in 1989. Much as the whole African continent has been ravaged by the indiscriminately brutal hand of imperialist European nations, Namibia has maybe suffered more than most. After all, at the turn of the century, it witnessed what is generally regarded as the first modern genocide, a dubious honor, perpetrated by Germany, who murdered 80% of the Namibian Herero. After WWI, it was occupied by South Africa, which kept a tight, and brutal, grip on “West South Africa” until 1988, instituting a colonialist Apartheid regime in the country. The last two decades of occupation were marked by violent fights between the South African army (and counterinsurgency paramilitary) and the SWAPO, a guerilla movement that went on to sweep the first elections. Namibia’s eventual independence (which came in March 1990) preceded the end of Apartheid and many activists fighting the Apartheid regime were also involved in the fight for Namibian independence. In hindsight, it appears like the death toll that was rung for the oppressive regime across the border. And despite Galgut writing his book before Apartheid shuffled off its mortal coil, we get that same sense from The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.

DSC_0154It’s a book staffed with minor characters that represent all kinds of historical aspects. Among others, it features a German who left Namibia to open a shop in Germany, but came back for the election, in order to vote “for us” (and indeed the two runner up parties in that election were conservative white-dominated parties, one with a German name, one actually white supremacist, keeping the SWAPO from a two-thirds majority). The protagonist himself fought in the South African army, and his heritage is partly Afrikaans, partly a more cosmopolitan British heritage. The plot of the book follows Patrick Winter, a young conscript to the South African army who travels with his mother Ellen and her black boyfriend Godfrey north through South Africa to Windhoek to assist with the elections. Godfrey is an avid activist for the Namibian cause and the protagonist’s mother appears at first to be similarly impassioned. We soon learn, however, that political passions don’t run as deep with her as carnal passions do. She is portrayed as a typical white well off do-gooder who teaches at a university and who has no real connection or understanding of the causes she champions, she is in it for the feeling of being on the right side, and for the status this affords her in society. A clean conscience. Sexual relations with attractive activists are a bonus, but one Patrick’s mother clearly relishes. On their way up north, they pass by a farm, where Ellen’s mother, Patrick’s ouma, lives with her black servants and her animals.

Despite being so thin, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs pursues basically three plots. There’s Patrick’s mother and her quest to support her lover in his activism, and then there are two stories involving Patrick. One is Patrick’s own journey alongside his mother. The other is the time in his life, just a year before, when Patrick completed his military service in the South African army in Namibia. This part of the story is the most elliptical and enigmatic part and yet it’s clearly intended to be the emotional heart of the story, the center that informs and gives meaning to all the other conflicts in the book. It’s difficult not to give away important pieces if a book is this densely woven and yet this short, but I will try. Suffice to say life in the army is confusing and challenging for the young recruit. On the one hand, it confronts him with his sexual desires, on the other it forces him to become a murderer. In Galgut’s hands, those two become inseparable. His sexual awaking, which takes place with a lot of fumbling in a dark corner of the army camp, in complete silence, with grunts, sighs and groans as the only background music, comes on the heels of his first encounter with ‘the enemy’ and his first dead enemy combatants. “We killed four of them” he says, and later he looks at one of the dead opponents and the enormousness of this death being on his conscience overwhelms him. The sexual encounter that follows the next day is thus framed as a way to recover an identity, to locate a self in the middle of an anonymous, unjust, violent situation.

DSC_0152Galgut is very intent on showing us the masculine dynamics at work in the camp, how violence and the military is connected to tropes of masculinity and heterosexuality. Patrick has been found weak long before he discovered his homosexuality. “There was a brotherhood of men, I clearly saw, to which I would never belong” – this definition of brotherhood at the limits of sexuality and male violence is reminiscent of Mario Vargas Llosa’s stupendous debut novel The Time of the Hero, which also charts a complex world of sexuality and violence, of adolescent angst and mature power, of male fears and masculine domination, in the context of a military education. While Vargas Llosa’s novel is set among cadets, i.e. students at a Peruvian military academy, and Patrick is a young man among other men, the perspicaciousness of their observations mirror each other. The similarities between the two books on this topic are interesting given that they belong to different literary contexts: Vargas Llosa’s book more among the many novels of male adolescence in boarding school-like situations like Musil’s Zögling Törless or Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, and the military portions of Galgut’s novel more among the even vaster array of novels about the awfulness of war. But Vargas Llosa’s novel is so interested in the elusive maturity and the broader contexts of the military, as well as the topic of sexuality, and Galgut’s book is so insistent on glossing Patrick’s short lived military career within the context of his own adolescence and his misgivings about being a boy among much ‘manlier’ boys that the two novels end up overlapping.

I won’t tell you how Patrick’s career in the South African army ends, except that he leaves it as a man who has developed a sense of distance between himself and various groups around him that want to enlist him. As he, his mother and her lover enter Namibia, we know him to be a man at odds with other men, and with his family. The divisive atmosphere surrounding the elections also confronts him with the fact that other white people around him assume he is part of their group and shares their prejudices. When the German man I mentioned earlier announces he would be voting “for us”, he does it while looking at Patrick. “For us”, that means for us white people, against the black people whose fault it is that the country is “going down the toilet”. Patrick’s experience in the army shows him two things, however. One is the easy one: he does not share the ideology of the bigoted members of his group., whether they are academic, mild bigots like his mother, or major bigots like the German shopkeeper or the (presumably German) white man who sells Nazi memorabilia right in the middle of Windhoek. His distance to his family and to the other soldiers and finally to the Germans on the Namibian streets ensures this. But this is, as I said easy. This is his mother’s path: the simple proclamation ‘I am not like them’. Galgut is, however, a morally more interesting writer. The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs makes it abundantly clear that while Patrick does not share the ideology of his group, he still belongs to it in terms of the historical and current oppression that is exercised.

DSC_0150One example of that would be the dead SWAPO soldiers that Patrick had a hand in killing. Another example is the difficult political situation in Namibia that Patrick, as a soldier, helped maintain, and finally, in his own family and society he is part of the group that upholds and profits from Apartheid and from the colonialist occupation of Namibia. His family has black servants and his personal history is one of wealth. Galgut finds a metaphor for this complicity very early in the book, it’s where the title of the novel is from. When on his ouma‘s farm a pig is killed, Patrick explains to us

There is no sound on earth like the sound of a pig dying. It is a shriek that tears at the primal, unconscious mind. It is the noise of babies abandoned, of women taken by force, of the hinges of the world tearing loose. The screaming starts from the moment the pig is seized, as if it knows what is about to happen. The pig squeals and cries, it defecates in terror, but nothing will stop its life converging to a zero on the point of that thin metal stick.

This terrifying sound has accompanied him through his childhood, and has always been a source of terror to him. As he and his mother stop by his ouma, however, and another pig is killed, he is soothed by the sound. These sounds, they represent childhood for him, tradition. In the memories that Patrick then dredges up, his time in the military comes up, as well as a particularly shameful memory of a childhood friendship with the daughter of a servant, who he threatened to have fired. That shame “only touched [him] now” that he’s all grown up. The comfort of a childhood of inequality, discrimination and killing makes him complicit. And there’s no clean resolution at the end of the book. Galgut offers us a difficult situation, ties it into a vast variety of contexts, offers us a brutal but clean central metaphor and then leaves us with it. Written in 1991, it’s clearly the work of a South African writer calling for a change. There many smaller and larger ways he does it (one actually involving recent German history), but it’s a line that’s threaded throughout The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs. And while the concerns shift in his other books, they are all good, and all similarly knotted and written.


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4 thoughts on “Damon Galgut – The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs

  1. I’m afraid I liked it, much as I’m sure like me you’d love feedback from someone who didn’t like what you’d written.

    Nicely drawn out on the use of metaphor here. Clearly it’s metaphor-dense, but the drawing out of the issues of complicity despite later conscience. It sounds a fascinating read.

    I have two unread Galguts (I’m yet to read him at all), so this one will have to wait a bit. It sounds though like even if he hadn’t later written better novels this would still be one to pay attention to.

    Regarding the revision, I have mixed views. In a sense the original work is gone from the world now, save in decaying second hand copies, which seems a shame. There is part of me wonders if the writer is better to leave alone, or to write something new on the same themes. The risk of a Lucas situation seems so great otherwise, though here at least that seems avoided.

  2. Hi. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

    I have mixed views as well. And considering the praise in the blurbs, the original version was pretty good already. And while this book is really good, it does remind me of late career Galgut in many places, and as readers we are robbed a bit of getting different kinds of Galgut. I will publish a review on the last Norfolk novel sometime next week (it’s already written) and having a career trajectory is really half the fun, isn’t it? But Galgut does appear to have made a significant move with his most recent book, moving away from his usual locales and historical framework. I just hope it’s better than Zadie Smith’s engagement with EM Foster.

  3. Writers engaging with writers rarely grabs me. I’m sure it’s interesting for the writers and I don’t begrudge them that, but nor does it mean I should buy it.

    I’d be happier with revised versions if the original still existed somewhere, but generally of course they don’t. Had it not been for Star Wars I doubt I’d have been that bothered, but that for me illustrated how much a creator can lose sight of what was interesting about their original creation.

  4. Yes. As a writer myself, maybe that’s where my interest in these books comes from. As for the revisions, you’re right. Then again, what about cases like Tobias Wolff’s debut, which languishes in obscure out of print limbus because Wolff hates it. Wouldn’t a Wolff revision be better than no book at all? I feel that’s the choice we had with the Galgut here.

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