Damon Galgut is to my mind one of South Africa’s most interesting current writers because of his close attention to detail, a simple and lyrical style and the sense of emotional alienation that pervades his work. In a Strange Room is his seventh book and the most intensely autobiographical one. It details three journeys that he made about ten years before, all three of which were emotionally powerful and life-changing.
This has been one of my most thought-provoking reads of the year, not least because I was impressed with Galgut’s serious, honest engagement with what appears to be a central theme of his, that of being an outsider, as well as his sharp observations of physical, social and emotional landscapes.
From the blurb:
A young man makes three journeys that take him through Greece, India and Africa. He travels lightly, simply. To those who travel with him and those whom he meets on the way — including a handsome, enigmatic stranger, a group of careless backpackers and a woman on the edge — he is the Follower, the Lover and the Guardian. Yet, despite the man’s best intentions, each journey ends in disaster. Together, these journeys will change his whole life.
A novel of longing and thwarted desire, rage and compassion, In a Strange Room is the hauntingly beautiful evocation of one man’s search for love, and a place to call home.
At the book launch I attended, it was interesting to hear Damon’s comment that his goal in writing these accounts was to try and remain as close as he could to the events that happened (and how he experienced them) while appreciating that memory is always flawed and incomplete. The very act of storytelling is one of creating convenient meanings with which to structure our experiences.
As he was signing my copy, I asked him if he would make any comparison with Eat, Pray, Love. After all, both books have at their core three stories set in (at least) three countries. Damon hadn’t read Eat, Pray, Love and neither have I so it’s not a helpful point of reference but this neat comparison of three stories provided the initial hook for me in stimulating my interest.
‘The Follower’ is about a younger Damon following a German man called Reiner through Lesotho. He and Reiner met while walking in Greece and together they hatch a plan to go hiking in the mountains of Lesotho. There are early signs that Reiner is a little too concerned with his image when Damon tells us that he is “dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his rucksack is black”. Although Reiner is handsome, he is also somehow ugly since he “knows that he is beautiful”.
It’s an interesting relationship, if you could call it a relationship, that develops between the two men as Damon follows Reiner’s lead through Lesotho. There’s a sense of mirroring that happens but over the course of their journey the differences and tensions between the two men become intolerable. Damon finds Reiner’s self-absorption too difficult to contend with and is broken down by Reiner’s pushing them to the limits of their endurance, making them walk all night and conquering the most inhospitable territory. Reiner’s narcissistic self-involvement is illustrated in his putting plugs in his ears as he hikes to block out all surrounding noise. His insensitivity and Damon’s intolerance sets up an interesting climax high up in the mountains.
In the second story, The Lover, Damon also ends up following a man, this time a handsome Swiss called Jerome who he meets in Zimbabwe. This is a story of thwarted desire, lazy summer days and bored anguish. Damon the drifter starts out in Zimbabwe and ends up tagging along with a group of backpackers first to Lake Malawi, where they swim in the warm water and laze on the beaches, before he clicks with a trio of Swiss travellers whom he then follows through Tanzania to Kenya. He and Jerome are clearly attracted to each other and this is what drives him to accompany them as far as he does. But this infatuation on both sides never develops into a relationship and even when Damon visits Jerome in Switzerland the feeling is one of two awkward adolescents checking each other out.
The lack of a meaningful relationship in the first two stories mirrors Damon’s more general emotional alienation, which causes him to drift from destination to destination and never feel at home in any one place. I started to wonder if there was a conscious decision on Damon’s part to avoid discussing the issue of being gay. Nowhere in the first two stories do the characters have a conversation about what it might mean to be attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex. In the third story Damon comments that labels (in this case a psychiatric diagnosis for his friend Anna) get in the way of people’s humanity and I’m guessing that this doing without labels is a way of travelling light. There are labels we can’t avoid, such as those of nationality, but the unspoken label of sexual orientation seems to add an extra level of fraught-ness to the young Damon’s encounters.
If ‘The Lover’ centres around thwarted desire and bored, pleasure-inspired drifting then ‘The Guardian’ is like setting foot into a frenetic Indian psychiatric ward. Here Damon is on holiday in India with his friend Anna, who has become manic and suicidal, and the atmosphere of things gradually spinning out of control is present from the start:
“… even before he left Cape Town, Anna was already losing the plot, living in fast motion, speeding along, saying and doing inappropriate things, and the knowledge that she was out of control showed in her face like a concealed pain.”
One day Damon returns to the hotel to find Anna passed out from taking an overdose of her tranquilisers and he must then rush her to a primitive hospital where the nightmare of trying to save her life in appalling conditions makes for a harrowing story.
A mark of how successful this novel / autobiography was for me is that it has me interested to read more ‘outsider’ novels such as The Stranger by Albert Camus. I’m also wondering about the healing aspect of writing these three stories and whether the novel served as a kind of narrative therapy for Damon. One of the themes of narrative therapy is about the amount of energy that gets invested in a ‘problem narrative’ as opposed to other, perhaps more positive and life-affirming strands of the narrative. When do you focus on the alienation and when do you focus on the relationship?
From a psychological point of view, that would also be the richest area of meaning for me. I’ll be interested to see how Galgut develops this theme in books to come.