Since starting on my personal determination to read all winning and shortlisted books of both the Man Booker and Miles Franklin awards, new names (to me) are constantly popping up. South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut is just such a writer.
In a Strange Room is Galgut’s seventh book and was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize – yet he is no stranger to awards. His earlier The Good Doctor (2003) also found itself on the Booker shortlist and picked up the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa).
A relatively short novel (around 180 pages), In a Strange Room is a startlingly beautiful yet melancholic book, a haunting evocation of place and time. Divided into three journeys, there is a restlessness and sense of placelessness that pervades as the protagonist, Damon, leaves South Africa to journey through Greece, Lesotho, India. He seemingly belongs nowhere, living temporarily in Cape Town or Pretoria when ‘home’ yet constantly on the move when away from his country of birth – “never going towards something, but always away, away.”
Homoerotic undertones underscore the first two of Damon’s journeys – firstly with the beautiful German, Rainer, and later with the Swiss youth, Jerome. But the relationships are never consummated in spite of reciprocal intimations, as “one is too scared and the other too proud.” Yet the attraction remains, driving Damon, in the case of Jerome, to join him and his travelling companions across Africa (Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya) and, later, to travel to Switzerland itself.
All three journeys end, in their own way, in tragedy, with the third and final story, The Guardian, harrowing for Damon as he cares for the psychotic Anna whilst dealing with life-sapping Indian bureaucracy. It’s claustrophobic and insular (unlike the previous journeys and their distant horizons) with the internal landscapes of doubt, failure and self-worth explored in elegant, minimalist language.
Part travelogue, part memoire (based, apparently, on true events), part novel, In a Strange Room is something of a hybrid. Written mainly in the third person but occasionally switching to first person singular adds to the unsettling otherness and ambiguity of the book. Such a technique also enhances the validity of observation, providing an objective perspective on events as well as opinions.
Only at the end do we get a sense of any permanence for Damon, although experience has shown that this may be temporary.
A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there … In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return.