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Los Angeles Times: "A spare and careful narrative of the innate search for the unnameable, of a restless traveler with a growing sense of gravity."

Date: Dec 12 2010

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Reviewed by Carolyn Kellogg for the Los Angeles Times


The traveler at the center of Damon Galgut's new novel "In a Strange Room," a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize, is walking down a remote road in Greece when he sees a stranger in the distance. As the road dips and bends, the two draw closer, mirror images of one another. They meet, then continue in opposite directions, but will meet again.

 

The stranger, dressed all in black, is a handsome German named Reiner. As easy as it is to get a handle on him — self-possessed, focused, a little vain — the first traveler is harder to pin down. We don't know his history, nor even his name — just that he's a young man who's been to a half-dozen countries in half as many months, "traveling around," he says, "just looking."

 

This is his story, and the story bears a resemblance to the author's. Galgut eventually reveals that his character, like him, is named Damon and from South Africa; more interestingly, he occasionally moves from the distancing "he" to the personal "I," quietly seeding his fiction with (what seems like) his truth. Early on, he writes, "He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past. Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching."

 

The book is divided into three sections — "The Follower," "The Lover" and "The Guardian." In each, Damon journeys through different parts of the world, growing older as the novel progresses. He is driven by a restlessness that the travel both exacerbates and feeds. "[H]e is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place," Galgut writes, "and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition."

 

In "The Follower," Reiner comes to visit Damon, after they spend time together in Greece and form a deep yet unarticulated bond. The two take a walking-and-backpacking trip through Lesotho, the tiny country entirely surrounded by South Africa, into remote and stunning landscapes. Yet Damon observes it intermittently, so busy is he spinning through waves of feeling toward Reiner — eagerness to please, disappointment, anger, desire. He doesn't know himself, doesn't know what he wants and the not-knowing cascades into deeper and deeper unhappiness.

 

That trip helps Damon define himself in a way that rests quietly in the blank spaces between paragraphs. In "The Lover," he is still an itinerant traveler, but he better understands what he wants in his traveling companions, eventually falling in with a small, likable group of Europeans that includes the gorgeous, soft-spoken Jerome. The trip takes Damon from Zimbabwe to Malawi to Tanzania to Kenya — more than 1,000 miles — and after it is over, he goes to Europe, and Jerome. More than the meandering travelogue it seems to be, it shows how the man who at first lived so much in his head has learned to inhabit his yearnings and pursue connection.

 

That ability to maintain connections is put to the test in the last section, when an older Damon brings his friend Anna along on a trip to India. He has done this itinerary before, and he hopes it will help heal her, a high-powered creative professional experiencing the recurrence of an unnamed mental illness. Mostly, she seems manic: She's revved up, heedless and emotionally raw, taking handfuls of pills to keep a teetering balance. When Damon tries a half of one of her sedatives, it knocks him out for two days; she rages through much larger doses. Caring for someone in that state might be challenging in a controlled environment — while traveling, with trains and hotels and a shifting backdrop of strangers, it's nearly impossible. One morning, he is cold to her at breakfast, the inevitable crisis just hours away. "Would it make any difference to what follows, perhaps it would," he wonders, "perhaps everything comes down to one silence too many."

 

In the first part of the book, young Damon observes that Reiner cares for only the landscape and his path through it — he wears earplugs as they walk — not for the people he might encounter. Damon spends the rest of the book moving in the opposite direction: His focus shifts from the trips he's taking to the companionship he finds to the consuming nature of another individual's needs, exotic train stations notwithstanding.

 

Galgut is one of South Africa's most acclaimed novelists. In 1991, before he turned 30, he won that nation's leading literary prize; the middle section of this book was a finalist for the National Magazine Award after it appeared in the Paris Review. Here he has written a novel that is untraditional in both its three-section structure and its overlay of fiction and truth. It is a spare and careful narrative of the innate search for the unnamable, of a restless traveler with a growing sense of gravity.