Wednesday 7 April 2010

'A journey is a gesture inscribed in space'

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.

All very Sebaldian as writer and critic Stuart Evers pointed out on Twitter (I told him I'd nick that). The notion of travel as a literal and metaphysical journey is an obvious theme in literature and Galgut subverts it somewhat by making his own wanderer a man ill at ease with his role, travel is really flight; flight from oneself.

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.

The title of each section is a description of the role that Damon will play, so in the first part, The Follower, Damon meets Reiner, a German traveller intent on climbing and hiking through Greece, the two men initially heading in opposite directions until Damon follows him and the two eventually set out together to climb in Lesotho. The distinctive prose style employed here is excellent for hiding emotion and underneath the solemn exchanges of the two men there runs a current of homo-eroticism that threatens to break through at some point.

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...

The two men circle and weave around each other like a pair of butterflies attempting to mate and their uneasy relationship, playing out like a power struggle with no malicious intent, is the same bob and feint of any attempt to be intimate with someone, including the need to protect oneself from danger or rejection, all of this felt all the more keenly by our inexperienced narrator. Reiner is always in control, exploiting his strength and independence almost to goad Damon towards action. Something like money, which appears to be no problem for Reiner and a big worry for Damon, is a good example of something that acts symbolically, here as the currency of affection, for 'on this trip how much you have is a sign of how loved you are, Reiner hoards the love, he dispenses it as a favour, I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.'

It is in this section that Damon remembers the lines from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying that give the novel its title.

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.

The very next line, that he tellingly doesn't recall, sums up perfectly what these journeys are really all about for Damon with his different titled roles and switching narrative viewpoints.

I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not.

In the central story Damon questions his ability to love 'people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is.' knowing full well that 'Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.' During his travels through Africa (which allow Galgut to explore themes like the remorse and hypocrisy of the Westernised traveller, with their 'luck and money' as they pass through and exploit the third world) he hooks up with a disparate group of travellers as they stutter and stumble through the corrupt checkpoints of border controls. One of them, Jerome, holds a fascination for him, the two separated by language, communicating instead with significant looks. There is something of that restriction and frustration about the remembrance in this story, I found it the one I struggled to connect with most (perhaps because it is the subtlest - a second reading may well reveal more), and despite being titled The Lover, it is more about the distance that separates the two men and their connection through it, rather than any physical union. One suspects that there is something autobiographical about all of these stories but this one in particular has a ring of truth and honesty about it.

...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 is all about physicality in the final story, The Guardian, in which Damon travels to Goa with his friend Anna, someone whom he regards as a sister and who is attempting to find a place that will provide the solace required to recover from a long history of mental illness, suicidal thoughts and alcoholism. As with the other two stories Damon is not in control of the situation from the outset, Anna orders herself drinks when she has vowed to avoid alcohol, she talks about betraying her lesbian lover, Damon's best friend, and she continually tests the strength of the bond between them and Damon's vow to look after her.

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.


Anonymous,  7 April 2010 at 21:36  

An intriguing review, Will. Did you read The Imposter and, if you did, do you have any thoughts comparing the two? I liked it a lot but I am of mixed minds about this one.

William Rycroft 8 April 2010 at 00:49  

I did read The Impostor, Kevin, and loved it (my review here). I hadn't thought of comparing them as they're two very different books, seeming to come from different wellsprings, if you like. The Impostor is a great piece of fiction with lots of resonances about the new South Africa. In A Strange Room is a more personal book I think but written in an impersonal style, which might be the thing putting you off. I think they're both worth reading but if you made me pick a favourite then it would be The Impostor easily.

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