Damon Galgut: In a strange room

Galgut, Damon (2010), In A Strange Room, Atlantic
ISBN 978-0-85789-157-0

Damon Galgut is one of those writers who, despite being successful and acclaimed novelists, have never really captured my attention and so it wasn’t until this year that I had an opportunity to read this incredibly accomplished writer. Galgut, a South African novelist and ardent traveler has set his earlier successful novels in South Africa, working through historical and moral issues connected to South African history and culture. This is different in his seventh novel In a Strange Room, or at least it’s different in large parts of the book. In A Strange Room is, broadly speaking, a book about love and loneliness, about desirous dependencies and deathly despair. At the same time, it’s quite obviously a book about travel, about the way that Western mythologies of the self are often connected to travels through culturally rich exotic locales, about the way that modern day tourism follows historical routes of imperialism, but refracted through a personal, and individual lens. This is a deeply moving, devastating book that I can’t still think about without getting chills down my spine, written in a lyrical yet sparse language that is often close to trite phrases reminiscent of Coelho, but rises ultimately far above such trivial fare. The closeness in style or language to the terrible Brazilian hack can be chalked up to the fact that Galgut attempts to engage the sentimental, without falling into the morass of weepy trash; the book provides three comparably straightforward narratives of love and loss, written in a way that suggests honesty and unvarnished directness. If Galgut provides the occasional hokey adage, it’s because the plausibility of the voice demands it: the narrator of In A Strange Room is embattled and emotionally abused and consequently triteness surfaces as a way of reasserting authorial power and authority over events and, ultimately, his own life. As for the author: producing as marvelously clean and precise a book as this is a bravura achievement, and judging from this novel alone, Damon Galgut is a master of his craft.

In A Strange Room consists of three parts, called “The Follower”, “The Lover” and “The Guardian”, respectively. They are at best tenuously connected, more or less exclusively through the narrator, in whose life all three episodes take place. There’s also a thematic connection, since, as the book’s subtitle has it, it’s about “three journeys”, and lastly, they refer to one another obliquely, usually in small ways, as when the second part begins with the phrase “A few years later…”. It is not until the end of the book that we can suddenly see how In A Strange Room works as a whole. Thus it’s not surprising to read that the three section have been separately published in the Paris Review, since none of the three sections is really dependent on any of the others. In a way, both through their length and their narrative structure, it would even make sense to read In A Strange Room as a collection of novellas, but read in one piece, it’s clear that the three sections are part of one cohesive text. Each section is about 60 pages long and all three are about one formative journey and one important personal encounter. While the first two sections/parts are about homo-erotically charged (but unconsummated) relationships involving the protagonist, the third section is centrally concerned with friendship rather than love. In each of the sections the protagonist (who is also (arguably) the narrator), is a South African male called Damon, who is very young in the first story and middle-aged in the last. Given the obvious similarities to Galgut himself (including of course the shared first name), it’s safe to assume that the book toys with the idea of autobiographical writing, yet Galgut has not committed, in Philippe Lejeune’s oft-quoted terms, to the autobiographical pact:

Pour qu’il y ait une autobiographie, il faut que l’auteur passe avec ses lecteurs un pacte, un contrat, qu’il leur raconte sa vie en détail, et rien que sa vie.

Instead, the similarities and the shared first name serve to establish a close rapport with historical or biographical truth, a sense of authenticity and, implicitly, plausibility.

This concern is one that keeps coming up in the way the book is written. One other such instance is the book’s prefatory quote “He Has No House”, attributed to Vojislav Jakić, which returns within the book when the protagonist “spends a day in a gallery of outsider art”, “and from this collection of fantastic and febrile images he retains a single line, a book title by a Serbian artist whose name I forget, He Has No House.” Unlike Damon the narrator, Damon the author knows who the Serbian artist was, yet using Jakić’s book title as an introductory quote for the whole book suggests that Galgut himself found the quote (and found it significant). Jakić is significant in still other ways: Jakić, who died in 2003, is known for having made art of his life, and what’s more, he’s explicitly introduced to the reader as a creator of outsider art. Since Galgut’s novel works with the vocabulary of the intensely personal, and alludes to (auto)biographical truth, and since it, additionally, presents a narrator in various states of emotional distress, it’s hard not to think of the whole book as being, as Leo Navratil famously put it, “zustandsgebundene Kunst”, i.e. art which is derived from a very specific emotional or psychological state. Since the book is introduced to us with a quote by a well known outsider artist, these seem to be self-evident connections. Moreover, Galgut is pretty insistent we understand what that psychological state is. To that end, early in his book, he quotes a passage in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which same quote is also the source of the title of Galgut’s book:

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 were filled with sleep, you never were.

This brief quote, one that Galgut’s narrator remembers from a distracted reading on a campsite after an exhausting day of walking, is continued by Faulkner like this: “I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not.” and end, after a short deliberation, affirmatively: “And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room.” By eliding all these thoughts from the quote, Galgut retains the doubt, the vague, insecure atmosphere that pervades the whole book.

The quiet question “what are you” haunts Damon throughout In A Strange Room, and giving the book this title suggests that it describes the process of working through existentialist doubt, not with the goal of arriving at a satisfying philosophical conclusion, but merely with the modest seeming goal of calming down enough to sleep, i.e. to be comfortable in the “strange room” that is the world. Uncomfortable and insecure, Damon falls in love twice, and blows it both times because he fails to grasp the situation completely, to take control of his life and the things and people that are important in it. In the first section, “The Follower”, he tries, at least, by striking up a friendship with Reiner, a raven-haired German whom he meets in Greece and eventually invites to visit in South Africa. Damon and Reiner are both perfectly aware of the sexual tensions and attractions between them although neither speaks of it. In Greece and in the letters, as well as at the beginning of Reiner’s South African stay, the two men circle each other carefully, and although we can see a power imbalance developing, it doesn’t flare up until the two decide to undertake a hiking journey through South Africa. Reiner repeatedly displays his independence, both financially and emotionally. One night he sleeps with a middle aged prostitute, an action clearly designed to antagonize Damon. Reiner (whose name contains the German word ‘rein’, meaning clean, pure) is oddly aristocratic. He can afford to travel the world without thinking about money, yet he withholds from Damon any information as to his professional or financial background. It is inferred that Reiner doesn’t have to work, or if he does, he works little. The same lack of need or professional necessity can be found in his emotional life initially. He is distant, and in fact breaks up with women if they demand too much in the way of closeness of commitment. It is Damon alone who is sullied by desire, by sexual need, by financial difficulties and emotional dependencies. This imbalance leads to Reiner taking emotional advantage of Damon, which dooms their unspoken and unfulfilled love affair. As their relationship deteriorates, Galgut hands us that Faulkner quote in order to demonstrate whence Damon’s discomfort and alienation.

The alienation is also stressed by the seemingly loose way that Galgut has with pronouns. Much of the book is told in a third person perspective, limited to Damon’s point of view and Damon’s knowledge. Frequently, however, the third person is switched to a first person, sometimes within the same sentence. Invariably, when the narrator reflects on the time that has passed between the events and his telling of them, he uses the first person; yet when he recounts events, he does not always use the third person. Unless I am mistaken, the first person turns up whenever the narrator closes in on events, when things come to a head or when emotional states climax. Thus, the unstable self that we are presented with in terms of characterization, can also be found in the way Galgut constructs his book’s language. This instability, this unease is further developed in the second section, set “a few years later”. This time, Damon meets a group of (again) European travelers en route to Malawi. He is immediately attracted to a young Swiss national named Jerome. His name, which etymologically means “sacred name”, is not the only similarity to “pure” Reiner. Their careful, unspoken attraction is another. Jerome is considerably younger than Damon has become, and financially dependent on his parents and friends. Theoretically, this should give Damon an advantage, it should help him take the reins in this particular relationship, but once again, he fails to do so. Between Damon and Jerome, a power vacuum develops, and for weeks and months, the two men keep meeting each other, keep (though occasionally) traveling with one another. As Reiner visited Damon in South Africa, so Damon visits Jerome, yet he does not manage to seize the situation as Reiner has. Loneliness and a tragic sense of impending loss permeates every page of this section; tragic because both want it to be different, yet Damon’s obstinate discomfort stands in the way of true happiness. Damon is too confused, too insecure to transform his and Jerome’s desire into more. To watch Damon abandon his life like that is saddening and deeply frustrating. The third section, then, switches situations again some more.

Although in the third section, Damon is the narrator as well, his is no longer the life that we watch breaking apart, being abandoned and mistreated. Instead, Galgut offers us Anna, the homosexual lover of a friend of Damon’s. Anna suffers from manic-depressive illness, and during her trip to Goa with Damon, she keeps taxing his patience, but at first in a mostly harmless way. In this section, it’s Anna who falls in love, and Anna who hands over the control of her life, heading for a disastrous end. In many ways, Anna’s psychological disintegration is the realization, the bodily mirror of Damon’s own destructive emotional life, and in her fate, Damon finally finds his own, he sees himself in the reflection of other people’s terminal self-destructive acts, and he comes to terms with it. As “[l]ives leak into each other”, Damon suddenly sees his own predicament clearly. The book as a whole, then, serves as a demonstration of his insights. The titles of the three sections, echoing Tarot cards, or rather: archetypes, imply a deep understanding of the roles he’s played in his life so far, and how each of them is connected to the man he has become and the lives he’s led. I’m sure a Jungian reading of the book can be undertaken profitably, yet as I close this review, it seems important to stress yet another point: this book is not all self-absorbed interiority, although I have put a lot of emphasis on this aspect of In A Strange Room. It’s really a testament to Galgut’s craft and intelligence that every chapter, every section, every page of the book is shot through with a thorough awareness of the places he sets his book in and their history, especially their recent history. We are always reminded of the fact of imperialism, both the historical phenomenon and its contemporary counterpart, as we are always reminded of the way that sexuality, gender or color of skin frame situations and encounters. Yes, the book is full of haunting evocations of places, but these evocations are never an end in itself. Galgut’s novel is a marvelous book that succeeds at everything it attempts to do and if it feels a bit ‘minor’, it’s because it’s meant to be. In A Strange Room is a breathless self-examination, a small but potent book, and one that will lodge itself in the reader’s brain for weeks.

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