In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (2010) Atlantic Books (2010) 180 pp
When the Booker longlist was announced last month, I quickly raced online to see what books were available in the United States. A handful were, a few more were almost to be published. One was available only on from the Kindle store as an ebook: Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. I’ve tried the Sony Reader and the Kindle before, and I didn’t like either one No temptation whatsoever (though I’m sure they’re getting better). I have an iPhone, though, with the Kindle app. But the iPhone’s screen is pretty small, and I wondered if I would purchase it only to find it unreadable. But the book was out of stock on The Book Depository when I finally made up my mind that I needed to read it (thanks, in large part, to KevinfromCanada’s review). I had built myself up to buying the book, though, so I went to Amazon and downloaded it to my iPhone. I though I would write some of my thoughts on the e-reading experience, but then I realized that they would be skewed. I loved this book. I was completely entranced. I might hate reading books on the iPhone, but I wouldn’t know yet because this book is so good I would have enjoyed reading it while someone kicked me in the shin.
In a Strange Room is divided into three parts: “The Follower,” “The Lover,” and “The Guardian.” Each part was published independently in The Paris Review. In fact, I almost bought the Summer 2009 issue because it had “The Guardian” in it. I don’t remember why I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t though, because though the parts are independent, the power of In a Strange Room is in the combination of the three. The book is about relationships and memory, most of it comes in the form of a travel tale, and Galgut’s prose is astonishing in its power.
On the Man Booker website there is a brief interview with Galgut where he says this book is about power, love, and guardianship, and how our relationships are defined by one or more of these elements. “The Follower” is the story about power. It begins with a man walking down a road. “He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking and alone.” He soon sees a man dressed all in black coming the other direction. The chat briefly, they are both going different ways, and they part. Suddenly we are thrown for a bit of a loop: “Het gets to the ruins in the middle of the afternoon. I can’t even remember now what they are . . .” Note that shift from third person to first person. The book will continue to shift perspectives, to fabulous effect as we learn that the narrator is “he,” that at times he is looking back on his past as an objective observer while at other times he is there reliving the past. Memory, and how it changes perspectives, has a role in this book on relationships.
He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past. Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.
That night when he arrives at the youth hostel, he is surprised to find the man in black in his room. The man’s name is Reiner, and Reiner has decided delay his journey, which makes Damon (the narrator’s name, like the author’s, is Damon) uneasy, though also excited. In this companionship Damon has some desires. The homoerotic tension is palpable. The tension builds because Reiner is travelling to avoid a girl. He never talks about the potential for a sexual relationship with Damon, but nor does he respond in a way that would allow one to take place.
A few years later Reiner writes to say he’s coming to South Africa, where Damon lives. He wants to go for a journey and would like Damon come along. Damon gladly accepts, not necessarily because he hopes something might develop between him and Reiner but because he cannot stay in one place:
The truth is that he is not a traveler by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstance. He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid. Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details, he feels no connection with anything around him, he’s constantly afraid of dying. As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away.
If Damon, besides moving away, away, is also wishing for some goal, he doesn’t get there. Things end badly after weeks in which Damon follows Reiner on all-night hikes and then cleans up camp while Reiner preens himself in the morning. Besides the tension in the air brought on by Damon’s ambiguous feelings toward Reiner, there is an element of competition and resentment, all combining to form a relationship that has “the shape of a dark passion to it.”
It’s a great story, and it leads nicely into “The Lover.” Not as intense as “The Follower” (or “The Guardian,” for that matter), “The Lover” is more tender. At its beginning, Damon feels the desire to leave again:
Something in him has changed, he can’t seem to connect properly with the world. He feels this is not a failure of the world but a massive failing in himself, he would like to change it but doesn’t know how. 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 that he is. Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.
In this state travel isn’t 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.
So he leaves South Africa again to travel up to Malawi. Another journey, and this time he finds a group of travellers who would like his company, and in this group he might have found someone who reciprocates his attraction, a young man named Jerome. We see as their relationships builds in potential, small moments in time, and we see it recede and become formal again, perhaps with no possibilities:
They have never been more distant, or polite. In the morning his actual departure will be an echo of this one. He has already left, or perhaps he never arrived.
In the third story, “The Guardian,” Damon is travelling in India with Anna, a friend who is suffering from serious depression. He’s offered to watch after her, and there is hope that some travel will do her good. Sadly, his old friend is hardly there anymore but has been replaced by a “thing that’s taken up station inside her, driving along with so much fury and power.” We move fast as time collapses and Damon works all hours to make sure Anna doesn’t kill herself, which makes him hate her, though he still feels responsible for her.
The themes of travel, memory, and companionship (in all of its forms) come together nicely:
A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.
This is certainly one of my favorite books of the year, and I’ve had a pretty good reading year.