Book review, Literary criticism, South African Literature

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

 

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The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It is about a South African man called Damon; it may be Damon Galgut, or it may not.

He is only passing through … he doesn’t carry any abstract moral burdens, but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room.”

 He is a walker, a little lost, a little directionless, a little uncertain of his own motives; a sojourner. He is walking in Greece where he meets, on the road, an enigmatic, and attractive German, Reiner – “He knows that he is beautiful and somehow this makes him ugly”. They travel together but the relationship never grows beyond the casual, despite the sexual tension in the air. Galgut is good at sexual tension. Yet even the casual becomes a disaster.

His second journey, Lover, involves meeting a mixed bunch of people, Jerome, Alice, Charles, and Rodrigo and following them over half the African continent. He doesn’t know why. He sometimes is surprised at what his legs are doing, at what direction they are taking him. Jerome seems interested in him but Damon does nothing. He leaves them, regrets leaving them, plans to follow, but doesn’t then eventually does. This ‘action’ is by no means boring; it is the most intimate of prose, deeply interesting, deeply personal, almost uncomfortably so at times. “It is a story of what never happened, the story of traveling a long way while standing still.”

 The third part, Guardian, is concerned about his traveling companion, Anna, on a trip to India. She is teetering on the edge and threatens to drag him over with her. She relies on a trove of pills which, if taken as directed, will reboot her life but if taken all at once will take it away, and what’s he to do in India with a corpse?

There is something about this book that I must tell you; it is the most unusual fiction, although thrilling too, I have ever read. I was in two minds about telling you about it; it may put you off, I can think of two people that it would put off, but it is so essential to the tone of it, the flavour of it that I could not not tell you. It is told in the third person, and begins, “He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown him….” and very soon he sees a figure in the distance walking towards him. Eventually they approach each other; both watching each other. The figure is described, all dressed in black; “Even his rucksack is black”, and then at the bottom of the first page, there is this, “What the first man is wearing I don’t know, I forget.” I felt a jolt. What? There is the walker, and the man dressed in black, and now another man? “I”? I read the first page again; maybe I had missed something. No I had not missed something. I read on and peppered sparingly are these first person references, and I realised that the third person narrator is referring to himself: the ‘he’ and the “I” are the same person, Damon; so, yes, maybe Damon is Damon Galgut. The writer is his own character. This is a little alarming only if you aren’t prepared for it; hence my telling you. Galgut is also free with punctuation especially of conversation:

Where are you from. He has an improbable English accent, very overdone. South Africa, goodness me, how did you get up here. Through Malawi, my word, I’m off to Malawi in a few days. Look around, yes please, be my guest. What did you say your name was.”

My same two friends would be equally put off by this, but it is surprisingly clear; or maybe it is only a thought of conversation, an expectation; a fictive chat.

Despite the title of the book what action there is takes place as far away from a room as you can get: the open road. Whether it be Greece, Malawi, Switzerland, India, or Kenya he is a traveler and his life is about the people he meets and journeys with, but the drama of this book is in the man himself, the ‘he’, the ‘I’ and in a sense this is a stronger form of autobiography: Galgut (I) is standing apart from himself, watching himself (he), describing his actions, trying to work out what it is about himself. “I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life. He sits in the empty room, crying.”

Lines like “I don’t remember what they do for the rest of that day” meaning ‘what I did for the rest of the day’ give the feeling of truth; ironically the admission of no action makes it all the more believable.

“In the morning his actual departure will be an echo of this one. He has already left, or perhaps he never arrived.”

Yes, in the first two parts of the book the action is languid, undefined, unimpressive; where the drama is all internal: a personal journey to try and work out why Damon is like he is; fascinating it its novelistic skill. Part three begins as expected but suddenly a life hangs in the balance and Damon is forced to act. The pace is frenetic, the action white-hot, and Galgut doesn’t pull any punches. It hits you in the guts just like it did him, and I read and read ’til the end, redefining the term ‘page-turner’. His skill at internal drama is eclipsed with his mastery of fast-paced action. It’s head-spinning stuff!

I wait with heightened expectation for Galgut’s next work.

 

 

 

 

 

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