Galgut Damon

Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room

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.

Damon Galgut: The Impostor

Damon Galgut is one of those authors who justifies the existence of literary prizes. Without its multiple shortlistings – Booker, Impac, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – few, at least in the UK, would have come across his fine 2003 novel The Good Doctor. Since then his backlist has been drip-fed to us, while he laboured over his next novel. Here it is at last, worth the wait, and perhaps the best new book I’ve read this year.

The Impostor

When reading The Impostor I began to think about the other South African novelists I have read: not a long list, probably beginning and ending with the big ones, Coetzee and Gordimer. I set to wondering why it is that their books – like Galgut’s – seem imbued with a dry, almost monochrome air, as though bleached by the harsh sun. Certainly Galgut is as somber as his Nobel-winning fellows. It might be something to do with South Africa being so freighted with significance in its modern history: the writer can be more spare, allow the reader’s knowledge to provide texture and, um, colour.

This, in fact, seems to be a central theme of The Impostor: how people respond to history. For Adam Napier, through whose eyes the story is told, the upheavals in South African society give rise to change in his own life: they were, after all, the reason for the loss of his job (“It was a deep, cold shock to discover that the young black intern he’d been training for the past six months was, in fact, being groomed to replace him. His boss had been apologetic, talking about racial quotas and telling him it was nothing personal. But how could it not be personal?”). He moves from Johannesburg to a rural area, where he takes over a tumbledown shack owned by his brother.

The air inside was dead and heavy, as if it had been breathed already. The furniture was a depressing mixture of old, clunky pieces interspersed with the tastelessly modern. The four rooms were functional and barren. There was no carpeting on the concrete floor, no picture on the walls, no softness anywhere. All of it was immured in a thick, brown pelt of dust. There was the distinct sense that time had been shut outside and was only now flowing in again behind them, through the open front door.

Here, Adam feels “the absence of history … there was only the land, rolling and vast and elemental.” He takes to writing – or planning – poetry, and solitude makes his mind “a little loose, a little displaced on its foundations.”

It wasn’t a bad feeling, to be sure – and that was the danger. You went a bit further and it felt okay, so you went a bit further still. This was how people lost track, the mental rivets popping out one by one. It crept up on you, the slow dereliction of the senses, till one day you were holed up in a ruin, beard all the way to your knees, defending your territory with a shotgun.

He is surprised one day, then, to be dragged back to reality by hearing himself addressed by an embarrassing schoolboy nickname, and to encounter Canning, an old schoolfriend whom Adam can’t remember. Galgut’s balance is superb in their opening scenes – the starting blocks of the story – where the reader is not always sure whether this is all really happening. (To add to the postmodern self-awareness, the author even appears as a set of initials carved into a school desk in Adam’s memory. “Who was DG and why are his initials haunting him now?”)

Canning lives with his wife Baby in an artificial nature reserve which he inherited from his father, and the palatial home he has built on it “is like an old colonial dream of refinement and exclusion, which should have vanished when the dreamer woke up.” His response to the freshly-minted history of South Africa is to view the point of change as an end rather than a beginning. “What I wouldn’t give to rewind to that time,” he says, ostensibly (and also) about his childhood. “Before we grew up and realised how complicated the world was.” Canning plans to exact a revenge on the past for letting him down, which will drag Adam into a very modern world of corporate greed and political corruption.

There is also a Greeneish thread in the book (the spirit of Greene often seems nearby when reading Galgut) of unsatisfying adultery, as Adam, Baby and Canning form the never simple ABC of a love triangle. Simultaneously, Adam is battling the new officious regulations of the region and struggling to find beauty in his poetry and also his garden, which resists his attempts to remove its own history:

He bends down and tears one of the little plants out. It comes away easily, a translucent filament topped with two bright leaves. It is months away from becoming the tough, thorny adversary he’s been dealing with. But it will: the future is encoded in its cells. Generations of seeds are lying dormant under the surface, waiting for his labours to release them. The very means of clearing the yard is what will fill it again.

If this seems to be hammering the point that ‘the past is not dead; it’s not even past’ then this is, for me, the book’s only weakness. Galgut never omits an opportunity to raise the spectre of history, and while it’s entirely satisfying – exciting, even – to see how he approaches it from many angles, and how everything is in the right place, at times I would have liked fewer authorial nudges. Similarly, if you’re going to write a book called The Impostor, where a key question for the reader is clearly going to be who or what in the novel that word can apply to, then don’t include a line like, “He is not the only one whose connection to Canning is built on lies; he is not the only impostor.”

But this is a minor quibble, and even these over-enthusiastic elements begin to fade as the surprisingly gripping (almost too gripping) plot takes hold, and reaches its terrible, inevitable but appropriate conclusion. Galgut can also pull out a just-so phrase when he feels like it: a line of mountains “stood out like a strip torn from the sky.” The Impostor is a magnificent achievement: feel free to picture me sighing and smiling in pleasure at the mere memory of it as I type this. It should outdo The Good Doctor in prize shortlists and might even win a few. History will be the judge of that.