Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room is difficult to categorise. Melding fiction, travel-writing, linked short stories and memoir, it is structurally fascinating and quietly powerful.
The book is written in three sections of around 60 pages, which feature a self-contained story about a journey undertaken by the narrator, who, like the author, just happens to be a South African called Damon. They are set in Greece, central Africa and India and in each tale, the narrator finds himself thrown together with fellow travellers on a journey, which, on each occasion, ends badly.
Yet what can you do with a story like this. There is no theme, no moral to be learned, except for the knowledge that lightening can strike from a clear sky one morning and take away everything you have built, everything you’ve counted on, leaving wreckage and no meaning behind. It can happen to anyone, it can happen to you.
In ‘The Follower’, Damon is hiking alone in Greece when he has a random encounter with a German called Reiner. The pair spend a few days together and become friendly before deciding to undertake a more challenging trek together in Lesotho in Central Africa. For a variety of reasons that have to do with Reiner’s intransigence and single-mindedness and Damon’s inability to stand up to him, the trip descends into chaos after they are caught in a terrifying storm.
The middle section, ‘The Lover’, takes place a few years later. Damon is again travelling by himself in Zimbabwe when he meets three Europeans – a French man and Swiss twins, Alice and Jerome. Damon finds himself attracted to Jerome and follows the three on their different itineraries across Africa, even when it involves a complicated change of plans for himself. He eventually visits Jerome in his family home in Switzerland, but, despite an obvious attraction, the pair are kept apart, first by their own inertia and then by a devastating twist of fate.
In the final and most impressive section, entitled ‘The Guardian’, Damon accompanies his friend Anna to India. She has manic depression and hopes that a month relaxing by the beach in Goa will do her good. The trip does the opposite as Anna drinks, loses her medication, starts an affair with a fellow traveller and eventually takes an overdose that leaves her critically ill in intensive care. Damon then finds himself in the hellish world of an Indian hospital as he battles bureaucracy, squalor and inertia. Galgut depicts this situation through a subtle blending of humour and horror, which packs a powerful emotional punch. Damon eventually gets Anna safely back home, but finds that he only postponed, rather than avoided her fate.
Several themes tie these separate sections together. In each story, the narrator is forced to be physically close to people who are, in effect, strangers, with the logistics of travel leading to a lack of privacy and a bodily proximity that would not be possible within the normal strictures of society. As such, Galgut explores those intimate moments between people that bridge a gap while, at the same time, keeping one another at a slight remove.
There is also a feeling that throughout each story the narrator is in a liminal space, travelling for the sake of it – not necessarily to reach a destination but to avoid returning to anywhere that might be called home. We learn little about Damon’s life outside of each of these trips and there is a marked ambiguity to the ending of each section. What we are reading is what Frank O’Connor called the ‘arrow in flight’ – the landing point being less important that the journey.
There is a homoerotic undercurrent to the first two stories, but they are steeped in a reluctance to commit to a formal relationship, the anticipation is as important as the fulfilment both between people and between places. Nothing is fully resolved here and there is a feeling that no matter what happens, the narrator will keep travelling, remaining in motion as a way to make sense of a rootless life that he believes to be senseless.
In this state travel isn’t a celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by the bored anguish of staying still.
The most striking aspect of In a Strange Room is the narrative voice itself. The reader assumes the narrator is the author himself thanks to the similar biographical details yet the novel is, for the most part, written in the third person singular. However, occasionally the narrative voice changes to the first person, sometimes even in the one sentence: ‘Happy and unhappy, he falls asleep in the end and dreams about, no. I don’t remember his dreams…’
Although disconcerting at first, this device soon begins to make sense, alluding to ideas of distance, reliability and authenticity and adding to the depth of the allusion that everything in this novel is in a state of being in-between.
For a novel so steeped in inertia and unhappy endings, it is an oddly moving read. In terms of travel writing, Galgut is up there with the best and he has created an emotive, atmospheric world where momentary kindness and connection is just as possible as unexpected disaster.
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