“In a Strange Room”, the latest book from South African born playwright and novelist Dalmon Galgut, is not one story, but three. In the book, Galgut takes us on a journey though Africa, India, and Greece. Read William Skidelsky’s review of this interesting read – an excellent travel book, and well worth the money.
Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between the fox, which knows many things, and the hedgehog, which knows one big thing. A similar dichotomy can be applied to novels: while some attempt lots of things simultaneously, others pursue a single course. It’s easy to assume that novels of the first type, being superficially more complex, necessitate greater ambition on the part of the writer. But there’s a kind of ambition, too, in narrowing your focus, in doing all that is required to get one thing absolutely right.
Damon Galgut’s superb new book, In a Strange Room, is about as hedgehog-like as a work of fiction can be. It consists of three sections of roughly 60 pages, each describing a journey undertaken by the protagonist, a young South African known only by his first name, Damon. In the first part, subtitled “The Follower”, Damon is walking alone in Greece when he encounters Reiner, a long-haired German man. The pair become friendly and spend a few days together. After Damon returns home, they keep in touch and decide to go on a more challenging trek together in Lesotho, a tiny, inhospitable country situated within the interior of South Africa. For reasons that have to do both with Reiner’s bossiness and Damon’s inability to stand up to his companion, the trip turns out to be a disaster.
The next section, “The Lover”, takes place a few years later. Damon is travelling by himself in Zimbabwe when he meets three Europeans – a French man and a pair of Swiss twins, Alice and Jerome. In the way that often happens while travelling, he keeps bumping into this trio – they’re on the same boat as him, then at his guesthouse.
After a while they invite him to travel with them through Tanzania. Although this involves a complicated change of plan, Damon, after much procrastination, takes up their offer. The reason is obvious: he has fallen for Jerome, who has “a beauty that is almost shocking”.
Yet he can’t quite admit this to himself, let alone bring himself to act on his desire. What follows is a kind of comedy of inertia as he repeatedly attempts to detach himself from the group before, at the last moment, always staying with them. He ends up crisscrossing much of Africa this way and even follows Jerome back home to Switzerland. But it’s obvious all along that nothing is going to happen.
Unsurprisingly, the novel’s final part concerns yet another unsuccessful journey. This time Damon accompanies Anna, a female friend with manic depression, to India; she’s been dispatched there by friends in the hope that a month away will do her good. Damon’s job is to protect her (the section is called “The Guardian”) but, as with his other roles, it’s one he proves ill-suited to. At almost the first opportunity Anna takes an overdose and Damon rushes her to hospital. There he encounters inertia of a different type – this time with potentially catastrophic consequences. Anna is in a critical condition – there’s a real risk of her dying – but, before the doctors agree to treat her, Damon is told that he must queue up at a pharmacy and purchase the necessary drugs and equipment. Next Anna is transferred to another hospital and the whole ridiculous ordeal begins again. Galgut spares no details and the whole episode, suspended between horror and comedy, is almost unbearably powerful. Eventually Anna receives the right treatment and recovers her physical health; but all the same things don’t end well.
In a Strange Room is written in the third person, but with a twist. Every so often the narrative flits to the first person, before returning to the third. For instance: “He spends a day in a gallery of outsider art, paintings and sculptures made with the vision of the mad or the lost, 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.”
This device, which is less disruptive than one might imagine, achieves two paradoxical things. On the one hand, the use of the personal, authorial voice suggests that what we are reading actually happened – that In a Strange Room is a kind of memoir. But even as it helps establish the work’s basis in fact, the device chips away at its reliability, since Galgut invariably uses these interjections to express doubt about what he is describing: “I can’t remember”; “I forget his name”. The first person, then, simultaneouly implicates Glgut in what he is describing while reinforcing his distance from it, establishing In a Strange Room’ as a work poised between memoir and fiction.
Galgut, who is 47 and lives in Cape Town, is hardly an unknown quantity. He has written several accomplished novels including one, The Good Doctor, that was shortlisted for the 2003 Booker prize. His work has often been compared to that of his older compatriot, JM Coetzee. But with this new book he has struck out in a new direction and taken his writing to a whole other level. It is a quite astonishing work.
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