In A Strange Room
by Damon Galgut
Described as a novel, this book is actually made up of three stories, all previously published in the Paris Review; one of which, The Lover, has been selected for this year's O. Henry Award. The stories are linked, each narrated by the same voice, Damon, and detail three episodes of travel in his life. Each also shares a narrative tense that switches between past and present, first and third person; this narrator is participant and observer at the same time and the distance of time is sometimes realised and at others collapsed.
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.
The truth is he is not a traveller 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 threatening details, he feels no connection to 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 forwards to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away.
Would you like some, he says, holding out an apple, I found this in my bag. The two of them pass it between them, solemnly biting and chewing, the one lying propped up on an elbow, the other sitting with his knees drawn up, all it will take is a tiny movement from one of them, a hand extended, or the edge of the sleeping bag lifted, would you like to get in, but neither makes the move, one is too scared and the other too proud...
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 don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not.
...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 precisely that reason 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.
It's begun to feel as if a stranger has taken up residence in her, somebody dark and restless that he doesn't trust, who wants to consume Anna completely. This stranger is still cautious, still biding her time. Meanwhile the person that he knows is visible, and sometimes in the ascendant...But the dark stranger always appears again, peering slyly over her shoulder...
Each story probes a different kind of relationship and in each case Damon is not only not in control but both parties also fail to really connect properly. This makes it quite a bleak read in places but Galgut's prose, pared down here to the essentials, manages to find those small moments of promise in human interaction, as rare and precious as a flower in the desert, and made all the more precious by the knowledge that they can be so easily taken away.