Damon Galgut – The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs

So as promised in my announcement, here is a new review.

Galgut, Damon, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, Grove Atlantic
ISBN 1-84354-462-8

DSC_0156 When I read my first novel by Damon Galgut a few years ago, I instantly knew that this writer I had – for some reason – never heard of would become one of my favorite writers. You go and read my review of that book for a sense of my enthusiasm. I have since read multiple other novels of his (and really can’t wait to get my hands on his most recent one, Arctic Summer, waiting for the more affordable paperback…) and have not been disappointed. The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, originally published in 1991 is a particularly exciting discovery among his books. Throughout his work, Galgut would increasingly work in allegories (The Quarry), complex figures of deception (The Impostor, The Good Doctor) and morality debates, but this, his first novel, is tense with a firm, tantalizing sense of place, with an urgency of meaning. As with all his books, it is written in his characteristically terse style, almost Hemingway-esque, much as I hate using that term. It is poetic without being overwritten, it is also emotionally and politically astute. That said, the book I read (and whose ISBN I give above) is not the original novel Galgut wrote. It’s a 2005 revision, prompted by Galgut’s own misgivings which he admits to in a note preceding the main body of the novel. He didn’t like “the rhythms of the language” and revised it enough to feel comfortable. This explains the maturity of the style, as well as the fact that it is, overall, better than, for example, The Quarry, a novel published later, but, so far, unrevised. I have to admit I don’t really care, as long as the novel I get to read is as good as this one.

In The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs we are offered three kinds of journeys: the journey of a nation, the journey of a mother and her son through the South African borderlands, and finally, the journey of a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality and at the same time with the privileged position that having white skin in 1980s South Africa afforded him. The book offers multiple opportunities to link it to other books and texts. It is a very self conscious literary artifact, but as we, like with Hemingway, follow the step by step process unveiled in his paratactic prose, we are frequently breathless with the tension that this novel’s route creates for its readers. Despite all its similarities and borrowings, it is a remarkable, original novel that is impossible not to recommend. Some of his later novels are better, but that’s just because Galgut keeps getting better, despite occasional missteps. He manages to combine a deep awareness of political contexts, literary traditions, and a sense of how family, personal identity, sexuality are connected to the larger currents of political change. The microcosm of sexual identity and the macrocosm of a continent in the process of change are tied up in a single, well written story. This being a debut, there is some simple and accessible symbolism that could have been handled more subtly, and in much of his later work, that’s what he does.

cropped-dsc_0233.jpgThe novel is set on the eve of the first free Namibian elections in 1989. Much as the whole African continent has been ravaged by the indiscriminately brutal hand of imperialist European nations, Namibia has maybe suffered more than most. After all, at the turn of the century, it witnessed what is generally regarded as the first modern genocide, a dubious honor, perpetrated by Germany, who murdered 80% of the Namibian Herero. After WWI, it was occupied by South Africa, which kept a tight, and brutal, grip on “West South Africa” until 1988, instituting a colonialist Apartheid regime in the country. The last two decades of occupation were marked by violent fights between the South African army (and counterinsurgency paramilitary) and the SWAPO, a guerilla movement that went on to sweep the first elections. Namibia’s eventual independence (which came in March 1990) preceded the end of Apartheid and many activists fighting the Apartheid regime were also involved in the fight for Namibian independence. In hindsight, it appears like the death toll that was rung for the oppressive regime across the border. And despite Galgut writing his book before Apartheid shuffled off its mortal coil, we get that same sense from The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.

DSC_0154It’s a book staffed with minor characters that represent all kinds of historical aspects. Among others, it features a German who left Namibia to open a shop in Germany, but came back for the election, in order to vote “for us” (and indeed the two runner up parties in that election were conservative white-dominated parties, one with a German name, one actually white supremacist, keeping the SWAPO from a two-thirds majority). The protagonist himself fought in the South African army, and his heritage is partly Afrikaans, partly a more cosmopolitan British heritage. The plot of the book follows Patrick Winter, a young conscript to the South African army who travels with his mother Ellen and her black boyfriend Godfrey north through South Africa to Windhoek to assist with the elections. Godfrey is an avid activist for the Namibian cause and the protagonist’s mother appears at first to be similarly impassioned. We soon learn, however, that political passions don’t run as deep with her as carnal passions do. She is portrayed as a typical white well off do-gooder who teaches at a university and who has no real connection or understanding of the causes she champions, she is in it for the feeling of being on the right side, and for the status this affords her in society. A clean conscience. Sexual relations with attractive activists are a bonus, but one Patrick’s mother clearly relishes. On their way up north, they pass by a farm, where Ellen’s mother, Patrick’s ouma, lives with her black servants and her animals.

Despite being so thin, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs pursues basically three plots. There’s Patrick’s mother and her quest to support her lover in his activism, and then there are two stories involving Patrick. One is Patrick’s own journey alongside his mother. The other is the time in his life, just a year before, when Patrick completed his military service in the South African army in Namibia. This part of the story is the most elliptical and enigmatic part and yet it’s clearly intended to be the emotional heart of the story, the center that informs and gives meaning to all the other conflicts in the book. It’s difficult not to give away important pieces if a book is this densely woven and yet this short, but I will try. Suffice to say life in the army is confusing and challenging for the young recruit. On the one hand, it confronts him with his sexual desires, on the other it forces him to become a murderer. In Galgut’s hands, those two become inseparable. His sexual awaking, which takes place with a lot of fumbling in a dark corner of the army camp, in complete silence, with grunts, sighs and groans as the only background music, comes on the heels of his first encounter with ‘the enemy’ and his first dead enemy combatants. “We killed four of them” he says, and later he looks at one of the dead opponents and the enormousness of this death being on his conscience overwhelms him. The sexual encounter that follows the next day is thus framed as a way to recover an identity, to locate a self in the middle of an anonymous, unjust, violent situation.

DSC_0152Galgut is very intent on showing us the masculine dynamics at work in the camp, how violence and the military is connected to tropes of masculinity and heterosexuality. Patrick has been found weak long before he discovered his homosexuality. “There was a brotherhood of men, I clearly saw, to which I would never belong” – this definition of brotherhood at the limits of sexuality and male violence is reminiscent of Mario Vargas Llosa’s stupendous debut novel The Time of the Hero, which also charts a complex world of sexuality and violence, of adolescent angst and mature power, of male fears and masculine domination, in the context of a military education. While Vargas Llosa’s novel is set among cadets, i.e. students at a Peruvian military academy, and Patrick is a young man among other men, the perspicaciousness of their observations mirror each other. The similarities between the two books on this topic are interesting given that they belong to different literary contexts: Vargas Llosa’s book more among the many novels of male adolescence in boarding school-like situations like Musil’s Zögling Törless or Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, and the military portions of Galgut’s novel more among the even vaster array of novels about the awfulness of war. But Vargas Llosa’s novel is so interested in the elusive maturity and the broader contexts of the military, as well as the topic of sexuality, and Galgut’s book is so insistent on glossing Patrick’s short lived military career within the context of his own adolescence and his misgivings about being a boy among much ‘manlier’ boys that the two novels end up overlapping.

I won’t tell you how Patrick’s career in the South African army ends, except that he leaves it as a man who has developed a sense of distance between himself and various groups around him that want to enlist him. As he, his mother and her lover enter Namibia, we know him to be a man at odds with other men, and with his family. The divisive atmosphere surrounding the elections also confronts him with the fact that other white people around him assume he is part of their group and shares their prejudices. When the German man I mentioned earlier announces he would be voting “for us”, he does it while looking at Patrick. “For us”, that means for us white people, against the black people whose fault it is that the country is “going down the toilet”. Patrick’s experience in the army shows him two things, however. One is the easy one: he does not share the ideology of the bigoted members of his group., whether they are academic, mild bigots like his mother, or major bigots like the German shopkeeper or the (presumably German) white man who sells Nazi memorabilia right in the middle of Windhoek. His distance to his family and to the other soldiers and finally to the Germans on the Namibian streets ensures this. But this is, as I said easy. This is his mother’s path: the simple proclamation ‘I am not like them’. Galgut is, however, a morally more interesting writer. The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs makes it abundantly clear that while Patrick does not share the ideology of his group, he still belongs to it in terms of the historical and current oppression that is exercised.

DSC_0150One example of that would be the dead SWAPO soldiers that Patrick had a hand in killing. Another example is the difficult political situation in Namibia that Patrick, as a soldier, helped maintain, and finally, in his own family and society he is part of the group that upholds and profits from Apartheid and from the colonialist occupation of Namibia. His family has black servants and his personal history is one of wealth. Galgut finds a metaphor for this complicity very early in the book, it’s where the title of the novel is from. When on his ouma‘s farm a pig is killed, Patrick explains to us

There is no sound on earth like the sound of a pig dying. It is a shriek that tears at the primal, unconscious mind. It is the noise of babies abandoned, of women taken by force, of the hinges of the world tearing loose. The screaming starts from the moment the pig is seized, as if it knows what is about to happen. The pig squeals and cries, it defecates in terror, but nothing will stop its life converging to a zero on the point of that thin metal stick.

This terrifying sound has accompanied him through his childhood, and has always been a source of terror to him. As he and his mother stop by his ouma, however, and another pig is killed, he is soothed by the sound. These sounds, they represent childhood for him, tradition. In the memories that Patrick then dredges up, his time in the military comes up, as well as a particularly shameful memory of a childhood friendship with the daughter of a servant, who he threatened to have fired. That shame “only touched [him] now” that he’s all grown up. The comfort of a childhood of inequality, discrimination and killing makes him complicit. And there’s no clean resolution at the end of the book. Galgut offers us a difficult situation, ties it into a vast variety of contexts, offers us a brutal but clean central metaphor and then leaves us with it. Written in 1991, it’s clearly the work of a South African writer calling for a change. There many smaller and larger ways he does it (one actually involving recent German history), but it’s a line that’s threaded throughout The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs. And while the concerns shift in his other books, they are all good, and all similarly knotted and written.


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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.