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Harper's: "The best thing I've read about love lately."

Date: Jan 17 2011

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Reviewed by Lorin Stein


The best thing I’ve read about love lately is not a nov­el or a polemic. It is a trip­tych of novellas, in a strange room (Europa Editions, $15), by the South African Damon Galgut. Several critics have compared Galgut, a two-time finalist for the Booker Prize, with the late W. G. Sebald. It is easy to see why. His novellas follow the wander­ings of a solitary backpacker, identified as Damon, who seems to be a younger version of the author. Like Sebald’s novels (and unlike most so-called memoirs), In a Strange Room evokes the hard work of reconstructing a painful or confusing memory—something we never do in real life unless we have no choice. The novellas unfold in the present tense, slipping every now and then from the third person to the first, skipping punctuation, as if lost in their own artless quest to remember:

He has been keeping meticulous records in his little book, to which Reiner is apparently indifferent. But whenever they stop to buy something there is a silent battle about what they will choose and who will be allowed to have it. Reiner continues to buy his chocolates, for ex­ample, but if I want something there is often a dispute, hmm I don’t know about that what do we need that for. And sometimes Reiner will buy some­thing for himself, a box of sweets or a bottle of water, and wait for his com­panion to ask. The asking is humiliat­ing, which Reiner knows. Money is nev­er just money alone, it is a symbol for other deeper things, on this trip how much you have is a sign of how loved you are, Reiner hoards the love, he dis­penses it as a favour, I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.

It is rare to see a male novelist, or anybody else, write so nakedly about the wish to be loved. In this sense, Galgut is an heir as much to Emmanuel Bove as to Sebald. Longing is his subject. In “The Follower” (quoted above) Damon travels through Lesotho with a German hiker and, years later, tries to understand their falling out. In “The Lover,” he finds himself hopelessly drawn to a fellow traveler in Zimbabwe, a Swiss man, with whom he doesn’t share a language. In “The Guardian,” Damon accompanies a friend to Goa, where he watches, at a growing distance, as she succumbs to a mental breakdown. Sex hangs over each of these stories, always a possibility, al­ways a source of anguish, almost never explicitly addressed. A lesser writer would use sexual shame to explain Da­mon’s loneliness. But that’s not how shame and loneliness work when we’re in their grip. Galgut leaves the question of Damon’s sexual orientation beauti­fully just outside the picture. In a Strange Room is as remarkable for its reticence as for its nakedness. It keeps faith with its heroes, the wanderer and his older self, and uses the instruments of fiction to create the sound of truth.