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The New York Times Book Review: "Written in spare, controlled prose, these stories have a powerful cumulative effect that is on one level hard and comfortless, yet somehow also tender and humane."

Date: Dec 17 2010

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by Maria Russo

For Damon, the white South African protagonist of “In a Strange Room,” travel is a mostly pleasureless compulsion. In each of the three linked stories that make up this novel, he moves from place to place and country to country “in acute anxiety,” like a fever running its course. He is fleeing something — a romantic disappointment is mentioned in the first story, and hints of post-­apartheid moral exhaustion pervade all three. Yet what he experiences over the course of his travels is not the fool’s paradise of distraction from himself but just the opposite: the steady revelation of a central aspect of his character. By the third story, in which he travels to India with a mentally ill friend who comes apart disastrously, some immense, sad reality of life seems to be asserting itself through Damon’s quest to keep himself moving, long past any hope that his travels will heal him. Written in spare, controlled prose, these stories have a powerful cumulative effect that is on one level hard and comfortless, yet somehow also tender and humane.


“In a Strange Room,” the South African Damon Galgut’s eighth work of fiction, was a Man Booker finalist this year (his second time in the running for that prize, after “The Good Doctor” in 2003), but it wriggles away from the usual conventions. With its central character sharing its author’s name, the book seems to fall somewhere between novel and memoir, and Galgut has said that Damon’s experiences are taken from his own life. He switches back and forth between calling his protagonist “he” and writing in the first person, sometimes within the same paragraph. Yet this shifting is accomplished so smoothly that it requires no effort to follow and doesn’t come off as a pretentious gimmick. In fact, it seems almost earnest, conveying a kind of scrupulousness about documenting many levels of the truth. “Memory has its own distances,” Galgut writes early on. “In part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.”

In the first story, “The Follower,” Damon is walking in Greece when he encounters Reiner, a beautiful, long-haired German. That night, Reiner shows up at Damon’s hostel, and the two begin an odd relationship that is both intimate and distant. It’s not overtly sexual, but when they decide to go on a long walking trip in Africa the unspoken power dynamic becomes tinged with a thwarted eroticism. Reiner’s unemotional decisiveness brings out “an answering impulse of subservience” in Damon. As they walk across Lesotho, camping at night and facing a terrifying lightning storm, Damon becomes physically depleted, helpless to resist Reiner’s insistence that they walk farther and farther each day. The German’s grooming habits start to seem monstrous and aggressive, as if he is demanding that Damon do all the work while he primps. Eventually Damon snaps and, grabbing the upper hand he has tacitly ceded to Reiner, acts in a way that will estrange them forever. But back home, he realizes that Reiner is telling mutual friends another version of the story, in which Damon is the bad guy. There’s something creepily recognizable about the tale. Drawn to the seeming freedom of a journey into the wilderness, Damon ends up chained to an inchoate drama of command and control, summoned by his own demons.

“The Lover,” which takes place a few years later, has Damon traveling to Zimbabwe, driven by “the bored anguish of staying still.” There he falls in with three travelers, a French man and Swiss twins, a man and a woman. As they drift through days at a beach in Malawi, then on to more border crossings, separations and reunions, Damon’s unease centers on the sexual pull between him and the Swiss man, Jerome. Unable — or unwilling — to make a romantic move, Damon parts from the group and promises to visit Jerome in Switzerland. But when he arrives, the two play out the same stymied story of attraction, shyness and retreat until events take a grim turn and he loses all hope of being with Jerome. In its plaintive depiction of travel as paralysis of the heart, “an absence of love,” the story is so emotionally honest it almost bridges the gap it describes.

Damon can’t live up to the roles in which he casts himself — follower and lover — and in the final story, “The Guardian,” that failure turns horrific as he can’t protect a vulnerable friend from catastrophe. Anna has “a powerful job with a very high profile,” but her obvious though unnamed manic depression is worsening. Their journey to India is meant to help her reorient herself, but instead she veers out of control.

Galgut describes the confusion and emotional chaos of dealing with the mentally ill with riveting precision. And although he taps into deep reserves of grief, he also finds humor in Damon’s situation, lost in a hellish Indian hospital bureaucracy as he tries to save the unhinged Anna. The story unfolds like a psychological thriller even as its conclusion seems, in retrospect, inevitable. “The force from which she must be protected,” Damon realizes, “is inside her.” Of course, that also applies to Damon himself. Among the many fine observations about the roots of his travel-mania that have been planted throughout this subtle and wildly original book, perhaps the most basic is never stated outright: He is endlessly fleeing a South Africa that resides, ultimately, in his own ravaged psyche.

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