Join us


The New York Times: "A taut, mesmerizing novel."

Date: Nov 24 2010

@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }@font-face { font-family: "Georgia"; }@font-face { font-family: "Garamond"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }



Reviewed by Adam Langer

At first you might wonder why the stories seem so disturbingly familiar. An alienated traveler, wandering through a deserted landscape, forges a brief, doomed relationship with an inscrutable, black-clad stranger. The same traveler, seemingly incapable of finding meaningful human connection, futilely scrambles after a remote possibility of romance. Years later the traveler, now middle aged yet still dissatisfied by his inability to engage meaningfully with others, discovers that he is powerless to alter the fate of a self-destructive friend.


In the book you are reading, unsettling themes, situations and insights resonate. Where, you might wonder, have you encountered them before? In some vaguely erotic yet disquieting, late-period Michelangelo Antonioni film? In that one novel in the Paul Bowles collection that you never finished? During a foreboding early sequence in an Alex Garland novel moments before the plot devolved into hallucinatory madness?


And yet the further you delve into “In a Strange Room,” Damon Galgut’s taut, mesmerizing novel, a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, the more you realize that the shocks of recognition do not arise so much from any particular artwork you may have encountered but from the uncanny relevance that the novel ultimately seems to have for your own life. Or perhaps more impressively, from how deftly Mr. Galgut uses rhetorical devices to intermingle his narrator’s thoughts with your own, even if you have little in common with his narrator, a tragically isolated South African traveler named Damon.


The Pretoria-born Mr. Galgut, whose 2003 novel  “The Good Doctor” was also shortlisted for the Booker, has divided this new book into three sections: “The Follower,” “The Lover” and “The Guardian.” Each title represents a role at which the narrator finds himself unable to succeed, a relationship to another human being that he cannot fulfill.


In the first section Damon travels through Lesotho with Reiner, a preening, obsessive, and solipsistic Teuton, whose cold, pragmatic, and seemingly self-assured approach to life and, in particular, sex, alternately attracts and repulses the narrator. Reiner’s imperviousness to, and general contempt for, Damon’s resistance to his rigorous and ascetic travel regimen (“People want to make themselves comfortable. It is not necessary.” ) provide the novel’s wittiest exchanges before the uneasy and somewhat homoerotic friendship between the two men inevitably disintegrates.


“The Lover” finds Damon madly challenging and bribing African officials to catch up with a group of backpackers, one of whom seems as if he will offer the narrator friendship and perhaps love. Yet Damon flees that relationship almost as eagerly as he ran toward it. In the book’s final episode, “The Guardian,” which features Mr. Galgut’s most emotionally wrenching and graphic material, Damon takes the ill-advised step of bringing his suicidal friend Anna along on a trip through India with results as horrifying as they are predictable.


Mr. Galgut subtitles the novel “Three Journeys.” But the journeys he describes are not so much chapters or interconnected novellas as they are movements in a concerto, variations on the theme of futile trips, leading to inevitable isolation. They are stories “of what never happened, ... of traveling a long way while standing still.” Though Mr. Galgut alludes to the passage of time and to current events — the end of apartheid, the gulf war, elections in Tanzania — these references serve mostly to establish the narrator’s distance from time and history.


Damon’s name, nationality and presumably a fair number of his experiences (though, for Mr. Galgut’s sake, you hope not all) are taken from the author’s own. But Mr. Galgut is not so much engaging in cheeky, modish self-referentiality here as he is commenting on the insignificance of identity and what he seems to see as the universality of his impotence.


In the rare instances that we hear Damon’s name spoken, the author seems almost to be reminding the reader and himself that he actually has a name. When another character mishears Damon’s name and instead calls him “Noel” — an anagram for “lone,” just as Damon spelled backward is “nomad” — Damon decides to answer to “Noel” rather than bother to correct the mistake. (It’s here that the echoes of Antonioni’s 1975 film, “The Passenger,” seem especially loud.)


Such self-effacement is typical of the character of Damon, who, though certainly a loner, is not one by choice. He is hardly your cool, existential antihero but instead a flawed and sympathetic human being far more adept at crossing geographical boundaries than emotional ones; his increasingly desperate attempts to connect only alienate him further.


The narrator’s fatalism and, in “The Guardian,” his occasionally lugubrious tone can become oppressive. But the elegance of Mr. Galgut’s writing and the relentless and uncompromising pursuit of his themes are remarkable. He never allows the reader to escape Damon’s perspective.


Dialogue is presented without quotation marks, always filtered through Damon’s interpretations. Question marks do not appear at the ends of questions, assuring both a flatness of delivery and certainty of tone.


The title itself is taken from a passage in William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” (“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep”), a book Damon reads on his journey with Reiner. But Mr. Galgut immerses the reader so deeply in Damon’s mind that he chooses not to refer to “As I Lay Dying” in the text of his novel and credits Faulkner only in his acknowledgments, as if to demonstrate how effortlessly Damon’s thoughts fuse with Faulkner’s, in much the same way that they fuse with the reader’s.


Perhaps most memorably and effectively, throughout his novel Mr. Galgut frequently shifts back and forth from third person to first, and even upon occasion to second. How quickly, he seems to tell the reader, significant moments become distant memories, how quickly our actions become those of someone we barely remember or recognize. In the books we read and in the lives we lead, how easily I can become he, and he can become you.

Join Our Newsletter and receive a FREE eBook!

Stay updated on Europa’s forthcoming releases, author tours and major news.

Are you a bookseller? Click here!

Are you a librarian? Click here!