In a Strange Room is a strange, unsettling trio of novellas about a young man, Damon, who makes a series of unresolved journeys. The author, Damon Galgut acknowledges that this book is autobiographical, and indeed it’s rather like a memoir written sometimes in the first person and at other times as if his older self is observing his younger self. The tone is melancholy, and the act of reading it feels somehow intrusive, as if snooping in a diary.
The young Damon is born in South Africa but does not feel as if he belongs there, though that is where he aimlessly returns when his wanderings fail to resolve his loneliness. He aches to connect with others, but does not know how. Conversations begin, falter and drift away. This is the pattern of his relationships.
His first inconclusive journey is with a German hiker called Reiner. They fall into travelling together by accident, and together they wander through Greece to see the ruins at Mycenae. Reiner seems to be a controlling personality, who uses silences to exert power. Back in South Africa Damon is unsettled and resolves to try to develop the relationship. He invites Reiner to travel with him to Lesotho, but the same awkwardness is the result.
On his second trip Damon remains in Africa, travelling through Nigeria, Tanzania and Malawi. In contrast to the claustrophobic non-relationship with Reiner, he interacts with more people, most significantly the siblings Jerome and Alice. In an almost comic-opera sequence that isn’t funny at all, he vacillates over continuing the journey with them, decides not to, changes his mind, gets lost and runs into visa problems while pursuing them, and finally joins the group again only to find that he had gone through all these dramas and they were not really bothered about whether he was there or not. But they are kind to him in a desultory way and eventually he takes up their offer to visit them at home in Switzerland, only to feel uncomfortable and out-of-place once he gets there…
His third journey is the most harrowing because he undertakes to look after Anna, whose mental health is on the brink and he over-estimates his ability to help her and his capacity to be there for her as much as she needs. She is actually beyond the help of any well-meaning friend; she is in urgent need of professional care, which is impossible to organise properly in Goa (India). This story is called The Guardian, but it’s another example of dashed hopes because he isn’t able to protect Anna from herself.
Each of these failures to connect arise from his inability to understand himself or others. Nothing turns out as he hopes because he fears intimacy and interdependence. He is tormented by conscience, anxiety and guilt, and these moments of introspection are marked by a curious interweaving of first and third person narration.
He sees Reiner a little way off, on a boulder at the edge of the cliff, leaning against the abyss. What passes across his mind then, fleetingly, wordless, is the urge to push, one tiny movement of my hands and he is gone. Where does it come from, this thought of murder surfacing so casually amongst the everyday debris of my brain and then sinking away again. (p46, underlining mine)
The title comes from William Faulkner:
Then he sits in the sun, listening to the water, reading. In a strange room, you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. The words come to him from a long way off. (p46)
These ambiguities make In a Strange Room challenging to read. It inverts the travel/adventure genre completely: there is no revelling in the interest, excitement or beauty of the places they visited so that the reader wonders why they are there. Nothing much happens: like Damon we are hoping that something will make these wanderings satisfying or conclusive, but it doesn’t. It’s more of a quiet examination of emotion, and memory. It’s quite haunting…the plot details, such as they are, fade, but Damon’s perceptions of futility and emptiness remain long after the book is closed.
In a Strange Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize. I also enjoyed The Impostor, a gripping story of crime, obsession and secrecy in the new South Africa (see my review) and The Good Doctor which quietly explored the impact of deep-rooted post-apartheid social and political tensions on an idealistic young doctor. It was shortlisted for the 2003 Booker and also the Commonwealth Writers Prize. All three books are very different to one another, showing that Galgut is a writer not afraid to experiment with style and form. I like his work very much.
PS I had bought this book last year, but was happy to read it to support the 2012 Africa Reading Challenge at Kinna Reads.
© Lisa Hill
Author: Damon Galgut
Title: In a Strange Room
Publisher: Atlantic Books (Grove Atlantic) eBook edition 2010
Source: Personal library, purchased for the Kindle from Amazon