“In every story of obsession there is only one character. I am writing about myself alone… for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.”
Storytellers from Homer to Elizabeth Gilbert have known that nothing works quite as well as the travelogue. We love stories about travel, and we especially love stories that romanticize travel. But despite its brilliance and critical acclaim—and the fact that one of its characters actually says she wants Julia Roberts to play her in the film version—it’s unlikely that Damon Galgut’s stark In a Strange Room will appeal to the Eat, Pray, Love masses: It’s just too harrowing.
In a Strange Room is a trilogy of novelettes linked by their protagonist, Damon, the author’s semi-autobiographical proxy. Unlike many travel heroes, Damon is not on a quest for self-knowledge, healing, or anything else—his are movements away from things, and his journeys through Africa, Asia, and Europe are borne of unhappiness and restlessness. He collides with people who change his life, and all three stories end violently.
Damon comes of age in the trilogy. In “Follower,” he meets Reiner, a preening, Teutonic alpha-male trekker for whom he holds both passionate lust and deep admiration. But while Reiner likes the company, he isn’t interested in anything else, and Damon becomes small and insecure, cut by what he sees as Reiner’s repeated sins of commission and omission.
“Lover” is an account of unspoken love between Damon and Jerome, a young, beautiful Swiss trekker. Here, Damon matures and emerges as a more sympathetic character. The story runs through a series of near misses, and little happens. But, somehow, it avoids the tedium of plotlines that go nowhere, thriving on the potential energy and restraint of the relationship between Jerome and Damon. We are shattered when we learn that theirs will forever remain an unrealized affair.
In the final piece, “Guardian,” Damon is admirable. He nobly cares for his friend Anna, who is determined to commit suicide. In one of the novel’s most sympathetic moments, Damon accepts the legitimacy of her condition. After a tantrum, she believes that Damon’s heart is filled with a “fatal coldness,” and she is sobbing. “He is just very tired, too tired to comfort her right now,” Galgut writes:
“[P]erhaps tomorrow he will be strong enough again, and this is a crucial difference between them, he thinks in terms of tomorrow and the day after that, but for her there is only now, which is eternity.”
Damon holds on until the bitter end, but there is nothing to be done.
Galgut has said that he is not a natural traveler, and In a Strange Room confirms this. Damon is always uncomfortable, and without any fixed destination he is also perpetually disoriented. All this unfamiliarity renders him deeply sensitive, and he makes mountains of travel molehills. Mundane tasks like cleaning dishes, setting up tents, crossing borders, and sharing rooms all make for remarkable obstacles.
In a Strange Room is the second book by Galgut to be short-listed for the Man-Booker prize, so it’s tempting to compare him to fellow South African author J. M. Coetzee, who is also known for autobiographical novels and has won the prize twice. But Galgut has his own voice and delivers an austere narrative that owes more to Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy than to Coetzee. More than elegant prose, what marks Galgut’s writing here is his seamless melding of two narrative points of view. After jumping-off with “It happens like this,” which serves as a kind of calling to order, Galgut immediately establishes the third-person perspective: “He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown to him and soon he leaves the little town behind.” No problem here—we’re on our way. Then, unexpectedly, he slides into the first-person in the final sentence of the first page, describing Damon’s first encounter with Reiner, “What the first man is wearing I don’t know, I forget.” Here, “the first man” is Damon the character, but it is also “I” and Galgut. It all sounds terribly confusing, but it works extremely well, as in “Lover,” where pages of third-person distance are shattered by this direct address:
“Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words, if you are only the dim evocation of a face under a fringe of hair… it’s not because I don’t remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it’s for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.”
Such literary gymnastics are innovative and exciting, but they don’t eclipse fact that In a Strange Room is void of levity and only a profile of the human experience. It is a powerful, genius work, but Galgut’s is a world in which lots of bad things happen. Brace yourself.