Wanderer on a quest he does not understand
EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews In A Strange RoomBy Damon Galgut Atlantic, 180pp, £15.99
THE STRANGE room of the title is not a room. Instead, it refers to the terrifying space within one’s mind, and exactly how terrifying a space that is depends on the individual. The three self-contained sequences of this, the seventh book by the gifted South African, Damon Galgut, are intense, candid and bleak.
Partly narrated by a first-person voice, clearly Galgut’s, the pieces frequently revert to a more impersonal third person. The theme is loneliness and the search for love. The narrator/central character is driven by an oppressive need to belong. His restlessness dominates a book best described as philosophical. It is not about story; it is concerned with moments of crisis and choice which invariably yield to realisation. Galgut is here exploring a self, his self. Although described as a novel, the book is more like a personal odyssey. The exactness is unnerving.
Galgut, the most sensitive of writers, invariably describes psychological suffering and emotional alienation with the accuracy of a punch dispatched hard and deep to the stomach.
Since the publication of his first book, A Sinless Season(1982), followed by Small Circle of Beings(1988) and The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs(1991), he has not only traced the development of an individual, he has placed his characters, however introverted they are, as in The Quarry(1995, revised edition 2004), against the backdrop of a country in torment. He sees the tormented and the tormenting.
Since his re-emergence as a writer with the publication of The Good Doctor(2003), which saw him shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, his subtle genius has been recognised. The Good Doctorand its successor, The Impostor(2008), followed individuals caught in personal hells but also looked at a changing South Africa. In A Strange Roomexplores the metaphysics of existence, as Damon, a man with no home, no job, travels endlessly, engaged in a quest he does not understand. It is as if this very modern narrative, consisting of three major episodes, is a variation of some ancient quest. Man is a wanderer doomed to search for an elusive prize, contentment.
Galgut as stylist shares many things in common with Andreï Makine. Yet whereas the Paris-based Makine looks to the history of his native Russia, Galgut is preoccupied by his stance as an outsider. South Africa is the stage. His characters are loners, inhabiting the margins.
Early in the first sequence, the weakest in the book, the narrator is asked, by a mildly interested stranger he meets while hiking through Greece, to explain his trip. “Me. Just travelling around. Just looking.” The narrator looks and notices but never quite understands anything, least of all himself. Galgut makes him sympathetic; odd beyond belief, self-obsessed, humourless, but always sympathetic.
The stranger, who is also travelling around Greece, is a self-possessed, godlike German who dresses in black and appears to know what he wants. Little happens, their conversation is tentative, yet they resolve to meet again.
Time passes, and Reiner arrives in South Africa. The pair set off on a long hike that develops into an endurance test. Damon breaks. He throws a tantrum and stalks off, only to regret his temper. As he hitches back to where the hike had begun he “looks out through the window at the countryside passing by. It’s strange to be seeing in reverse the whole extended panorama of the long walk they did just days ago . . .”
The closest he had come to having a friendship with Reiner was through the letters they had exchanged: “Was what happened between him and Reiner love or hate or something else with another name. I don’t know. But this is how it ends . . .” He recalls finding a notebook in which the German had once written his name and address, “and after looking at the tiny narrow handwriting for a while he throws it away”. He then throws away the bundle of letters.
In the second narrative, the central character is again travelling, this time in Zimbabwe: “No particular reason or intention has brought him here . . . what is he looking for, he himself doesn’t know. At this remove, his thoughts are lost to me now, and yet I can explain him better than my present self, he is buried under my skin.”
Within sentences he is describing travel as “a kind of mourning . . . He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by the bored anguish of staying still”. He meets up with a group of Europeans who are touring Africa, and then moves on to another group. The various personalities encountered along the way are not important; what matters is the desperation with which Galgut describes his narrator/central character’s need to join them, even to the point of arguing with border officials. Eventually he experiences a delicate rapport with a Swiss man named Jerome. Nothing happens, but a contact is established. Throughout the sequence, Galgut conveys the peculiarly non-African status of the South African in Africa, which he articulated so convincingly through the experiences of Patrick Winter, the young soldier in The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.
The strongest writing in the book is to be found in the superb closing section, in which the by-now-familiar part-time narrator/central character attempts to escape from his own problems by helping a friend. The young woman, Anna, is intent on suicide. She goes with him to India in an attempt to heal herself, but disaster soon takes over. When he discovers her close to death following an overdose, he gets her to a primitive hospital and, from then on, the writing is vivid, expressing the exasperation of the witness left to assume responsibility. Anna’s resentment at having her suicide disrupted is loud and, at times, violent. As she lies in bed, Damon is aware that, in India, attempted suicide is classified as a crime. “For her,” he thinks, “there is no dirty floor to endure, no passing time, no rats or insects, these elements belong to the rest of us, and to the days that follow.”
It is the honesty that consolidates this thoughtful, intelligent, cohesively human book. Galgut, ever the wanderer, always the seeker, is here at his most deliberate; as intent on finding meaning as on asking questions.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Timesand author of Second Readings: 52 – From Beckett to Black Beauty, published by Liberties Press