In A Strange Room is a short book, only 180 pages in the version that I read, the first time in one sitting. And I admit that when I turned the final page then, I went right back to the start and read it again — this review is the product of two readings. Galgut’s novel comes in three parts, each of about 60 pages, all featuring the same central character: “Damon”. He is a traveller, a trekker actually, who is at home on the road, not at home:
The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstances. He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid. Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details, he feels no connection with anything around him, he’s constantly afraid of dying. As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, 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.
“Always away, away”. It is a phrase worth remembering when considering this book.
Damon, like Galgut, is a South African and in the first section — “The Follower” — we meet him in Greece where he is on one of his travelling expeditions. Based in Mycenae, he is on his way to explore some ruins when he sees another trekker, walking towards him. This person (shades of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers here, if you know that book) is dressed all in black, even his pack is black. They meet, converse briefly, and part. The two were heading in opposite directions when they met on the path but the chance meeting becomes ominous when the stranger (Reiner) shows up at Damon’s hostel that night and has requested a bed in the same room.
Part one of this traveller’s tale is the story of Reiner and Damon. They agree to set a trekking agenda for the future that will see them explore together — not in Greece, but later on in the south of Africa. Reiner works for a bit in the meantime in Canada as a tree-planter (yes, that is a lucrative fill-in job for those who trek) and then shows up. The two agree to a plan to aggressively trek Lesotho, make arrangements and head there by bus — “Reiner sits on the back seat, his rucksack on his knees and his head on his rucksack, earplugs wedged into his ears”. Damon has a different experience after they arrive at a way station:
I wander around and come back, then wander again. A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb. From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.
Read that excerpt again, because it illustrates one of the very real strengths of this novel. Galgut tells most of it in the third person but every now and then (as in that paragraph) the first person intercedes. Sometimes the first person is there in the present, sometimes he is observing in memory. It is not a jarring technique in any way — the author wants the reader to join him in observing what happens from three points of view — the omniscient narrator, the person in the present and that person looking back on what happened. Part of what is so impressive with this book is the way that Galgut manages those three perspectives so effectively — we see the present from outside, we experience the present as if we are there, we look back on what happened and how it touched us.
Damon and Reiner trek and eventually fall apart. Whatever Damon was seeking in his hiking partner (and yes there are strong homosexual overtones to that) he doesn’t find. And he doesn’t know how to break the search and the split is more than awkward. If trekking represents a search for escape, this route doesn’t work.
In part two, “The Lover”, Damon is hiking in Zimbabwe — not much has changed for him and he still sees wandering as his path out. This time, he runs into and joins a group of First World hikers and Galgut has some fun in portraying that cliche. Damon, on the other hand, is transfixed by a group of three Europeans whose paths always seem to overlap with his own group, whom he is rapidly disinclined to keep following. The travel metaphor here is quite different:
In this state travel isn’t a celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by bored anguish of staying still. He spends a few days in Harare, then goes down to Bulawayo. He does the obligatory things required of visitors, he goes to the Matopos and sees the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, but he can’t produce the necessary awe or ideological disdain, he would rather be somewhere else. If I was with somebody, he thinks, with somebody I loved, then I could love the place and even the grave too, I would be happy to be here.
If Part One represents Damon looking for a fellow traveller, Part Two is about his dependence — the hope that his travelling will produce a contact on whose coattails he can ride to the future. No secret, but this doesn’t work out either.
I am going to give Part Three — “The Guardian” — the short shrift here, even though it may be the strongest part of the book. In the first two parts, Damon was the searcher, looking for partners and helpers. In Part Three, his urge to wander becomes in itself a prison because he is the post on whom his fellow traveller (kind of) leans, perhaps “exploits” is the better verb. Galgut moves from the single fellow traveller, to the group that beckons for a better future, to the traveller who literally represents stones in his pockets.
There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it is a long way from home.
Those two sentences are the summary of this exceptional novel — In A Strange Room is a powerful, powerful book and an amazing achievement. In prose that is both sparse and lyrical, Galgut gives us a character — himself — who is searching and not finding. (If you liked Coetzee’s Summertime last year, buy this book now). The full picture of his central character is never really apparent but given the autobiographical references that is understandable. The three voices that he uses to tell his story create a very rare reading experience, at least for this reader, where one moves from one perspective to the other with much ease. And the result is a deeply understood — and equally deeply troubling — narrative of what might happen if you choose to “travel” to escape your demons.
These three chapters all appeared originally in the Paris Review, so if you read that publication and they sound familiar there is a reason. And for a second, equally enthusiastic opinion of the novel from a somewhat different point of view, check out Just William’s Luck.