08 September 2011

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

Grove Atlantic, 2010
This is a collection of three separate journeys undertaken by a South African traveller, Damon.  The author, Damon Galgut, is South African.  The character, Damon, is a writer.  I'm not sure how much of the work is actually autobiographical, but I imagine that it must be. 

Because what is certain is that the words on the page come from a deeply personal, intimate place.  Damon's travels are isolated and lonely, yet his memories feel familiar.  It is as if a window to a man's soul has been opened, and when you look in, you see yourself standing there.  Author, character and reader form some kind of trinity and there is a sense that it does not matter whether Damon the traveller and Damon Galgut the author are one and the same.

The three segments of the novel are called "The Follower", "The Lover" and "The Guardian"; each of these is the defining role that Damon sees himself in that chapter, and all are united by the theme of travel.  Things happen and thoughts occur when one is travelling.  For instance:

In his clearest moments he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing he is.  Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.

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.  He spends a few days in Harare, then goes down to Bulwayo.  He does the obligatory things required of visitors, he goes to Matopos and sees the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, but he can't produce the necessary awe or ideological disdain, he would rather be somewhere else.  If I was with somebody, he thinks, with somebody I loved, then I could love the place and even the grave too, I would be happy here.

And yet when given the opportunity to cross the invisible barrier from friend to lover, Damon repeatedly does not act.  In "The Follower" - Damon is saddled not only by the weight of his backpack but also that of what remains uncommunicated between him and Reiner.  Perhaps it is Reiner's personality giving him pause, but Galgut recognises in Damon the reluctance to commit himself to a state of love and longing.  This preference for certainty, this comfort in holding back, happens again and again in "The Lover".  The pages are laced with regret.

Damon as Follower and Lover is defined by his Hamlet-like penchant to think rather than do, but Damon as Guardian is forced to act.  It is when looking after Anna that he is stretched to within an inch of his life, and confronts that which is kind and unkind within himself: unflinchingly honest, he sees that his desire to save Anna is motivated by both selfish and noble reasons.

Galgut constantly flits from third to first-person narrative, and sometimes a second-person "you".  Take this little passage, in which the only characters physically present are Damon and Reiner:

He waits in silence for you to speak.  Sometimes you do, but not tonight, I am too tired, they are sitting side by side in a small cave, an overhang in the rock.

This was disconcerting at first, but after a while felt strangely right:  When looking back in time we do see ourselves from the point of view of both actors and observers. And, occasionally we find something in our experience that is shared, warranting the more universal "you".  It is all very accurate of the human experience, the union of these three forms of narrative. 

If Damon Galgut and Damon are the same person, I thank him for the honesty with which he gives himself over to us.  It is mentioned somewhere in the novel that Damon expresses himself much more freely in writing than in speech or in person.  If the outcome of that is a work of beauty like In a Strange Room, then please, Damon, keep writing.

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