I was an admirer of Damon Galgut’s last novel The Impostor, and was disappointed when it wasn’t longlisted for the Booker Prize two years ago (particularly when you look at some of the books that were). So why didn’t I snap up his new book as soon as it was published? Why didn’t I read it, in fact, until it was longlisted for the Booker?
In a Strange Room first appeared as three stories published individually in the Paris Review; and that was the reason why I initially avoided it. Not really a novel at all, right? Added to that, the stories are autobiographical: “the project was to recall, as honestly and truthfully as I could, three journeys that I’ve taken at different points in my life.” So, not really fiction at all, right? Wrong, says Galgut: “memory is fiction.” (Here, I think of James Salter, and his novel Light Years, “a book of pure recall,” inspired by Jean Renoir’s assertion that the only important things in life are those we remember. Galgut agrees: “What you don’t remember never happened.”)
Galgut was right and I was wrong. In a Strange Room may not, in my view, stand up to The Impostor for complexity – it didn’t send me off into spirals of thought on every page – but it is nonetheless superb, an original and inspiring work of art. Even the simplicity is artful: the reader is undistracted, the experiences unmediated. Galgut achieves this with an unusual narrative technique (“I am a spectator of my own behaviour”): he exists on the page both as character (in third person) and narrator (in first), so we have sentences like, “Happy and unhappy, he falls asleep in the end, and dreams about, no, I don’t remember his dreams.” The first story is set in 1993, the last one just a few years ago, and the “I” appears more and more frequently as the book progresses: the memories are becoming clearer, the person described experiencing the events is closer to the person recalling them. It is a lovely technique, eloquent and economical.
I knew, anyway, that Galgut was a fine writer, and from the beginning of the narrative I felt myself to be in safe hands. In the first story – sorry, first part of the novel – ‘The Follower’, the character Damon finds himself in an unequal and undeclared power struggle with a German man he meets while travelling in Greece, who then comes to Damon’s home to explore South Africa. Travel is the ostensible theme of In a Strange Room, which takes its title from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying:
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.
(I owe to Will Rycroft’s review of this book the knowledge that the next line of Faulkner’s, not quoted here, is, significantly for Damon, “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not.”) The German, Reiner, is bold, proud, one moment intimate and the next standoffish: “He will not speak either, but in him silence is power. Unlike me, unlike me.” There appears to Damon to be a charge of eroticism between them. Reiner is travelling, however, to spend some time deciding whether or not to stay with a woman. Damon, “not a traveller by nature,” has more existential reasons. “He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety … Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details.”
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. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition.
Damon both despises and envies Reiner for his self-involvement (he “has no interest in what is happening around him”) and the impression he gives of knowing love: “I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.”
In the second story, ‘The Lover’, it seems that Damon will have reciprocation for his love of a fellow traveller, a young man named Jerome. For me this was the weakest section of the book, and most interesting not when it was describing the journeys they take together, but when Damon is reflecting on the permeable border between memory and portrayal, and the limits of his fiction:
Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words … it’s not because I don’t remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it’s for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. 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.
The third part, ‘The Guardian’, shows Damon looking after an old friend Anna, who had “a future full of impressive possibilities” but labours under some form of depression or personality disorder which has her “losing the plot, living in fast motion, speeding along.” Damon struggles to cope with “this thing that’s taken up station inside her, driving along with so much fury and power.” The depiction of Anna is gripping, urgent and real as she heads for “her toxic, terminal rapture.”
I have surprised myself in writing this review by having nothing negative to say about In a Strange Room. At the time I felt lightly disappointed by it, largely because of its apparent straightforwardness, and the concern that with a tweak of expectations, some of Galgut’s observations might not seem out of place in a Paulo Coelho book (“There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it’s a long way from home”). Yet in writing about it, revisiting it, I have only praise. This is a wonderful book. It is an odd experience, to see how the processing of your responses can shift your thoughts – or what you thought were your thoughts.