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Malta Today: "It is true that IN A STRANGE ROOM makes an unsettling read, but it is also a very intriguing one."

Date: Jun 11 2013

'A major writer worthy to be referred to as a kindred spirit of the great Coetzee,' says a blurb in reference to South African author Damon Galgut.

For me, no author could aspire to higher praise, considering that Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee has remained at the top of my favorites' list for a number of years now. I have not read Coetzee's latest book - which carries the enigmatic title THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS - but I look forward to do so, despite the mixed reviews that it received.

IN A STRANGE ROOM shows that Damon Galgut has not entirely escaped the influence of his renowned compatriot, and yet he has also been described as 'the bold fresh voice of S. Africa'.

The book sub-titled Three Journeys, looks like a travelogue, but isn't. The story recounts mainly three journeys taken by a young man through Greece, Africa and India. The main character is called Damon, like our author. So is this book a novel, a memoir, or a travelogue? Is it a work of fiction? In the end it's difficult to classify - it is probably all of these things.

In an interview, Damon Galgut admits that the book is based on his own experiences, as he remembers them, and his relationships with chance encounters on the way. But he also says that memory is fiction - it is an act of reconstructing the past out of disparate imperceptions. This is a work about memory, how it works, what is remembered, how relationships are conveyed and how memory fails at times. 'What you don't remember never happened,' Galgut writes.

I was drawn to this book because I had read an earlier work by the author called THE GOOD DOCTOR, where it was evident that one was in the presence of a very fine writer. The earlier work, while it dealt with moral issues, had as background the political climate of his country and the problems that came after apartheid. This is a very different novel.

But should it be called a novel? This is a departure from the conventional novel, being more like three novellas tied up together through the protagonist Damon, who describes three encounters he had on his journeys. Galgut is present in all three stories both as narrator and as the character Damon (the three stories were first published separately in The Paris Review).

The entire layout of the book is rather odd. The stories have no speech marks, and the narrator at times talks in the first person, while at other times he reverts to the third person. Yet despite all of this, it is still very easy to read.

The first story, 'The Follower', describes Damon's encounter with a sinister German, Reiner and a power game that is established between the two. The second, titled 'The Lover', is about desire, and details his encounter with a young fellow traveler called Jerome. A homoerotic undercurrent is present in these two stories. The last - 'The Guardian' - is the most accessible and emotional, and is about a woman friend, Anna, bent on killing herself, possessed by 'this thing that's taken up station inside her, driving her along with so much fury and power'.

Ostensibly, the main theme is travel but in reality, the book is about self-examination.  All three intense relationships are doomed to fail, for Damon is 'endlessly gnawed by the absence of love' admitting that in 'every story there is only one character, one plot... I am writing about myself alone, it is all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love.'

This may sound quite bleak, but in fact, it is not. It has its sad moments, but there are also touches of black comedy, particularly in the third episode, which is also the most harrowing of the three stories. Written in simple, elegant prose, the stories evoke ideas and emotions, and prompt the reader to ask questions to which Galgut refuses to provide answers.

This is a book that will strike a chord with backpackers who have travelled on their own and can easily identify with the protagonist despite his confusion and restlessness.

The title of the book is taken from a passage in William Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING.

'In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep.' It is true that IN A STRANGE ROOM makes an unsettling read, but it is also a very intriguing one.