'Writing is what I am'


Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, Damon Galgut’s latest novel is about loneliness and a search for self – emotions the author knows only too well, he tells Eileen Battersby

REGARDLESS OF tomorrow evening’s outcome, this year’s Man Booker judges have already justified themselves through the shortlisting of South African Damon Galgut’s eerily beautiful quest sequence, In A Strange Room. It is fair to say the other five titles, including Emma Donoghue’s Room, Tom McCarthy’s overrated Cand previous double winner Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier, were all predictable choices.

The Galgut alone suggested that here was a panel that had recognised a work of unsettling courage. It is a novel about loneliness and a search for self. The three journeys undertaken in the narrative are very close to Galgut’s personal experiences.

“Let’s say I didn’t have to research it,” says Galgut with his gentle stoic’s smile. “I’ve lived it.” His 47th birthday is a month from tomorrow, Man Booker night. As he sits in a bland Dublin hotel lobby, he looks less intense than usual, almost happy in fact. He laughs abruptly on being told this. By nature a loner, his life has been hard. “But now it is good, I’m content, I’m settled in Cape Town, I have friends; I feel my writing has been acknowledged. I had so many doubts, for so long.”

Is he nervous about tomorrow night? “No, there is nothing I can do but wait, it’s not like it’s an Olympic race and I can do something about it, it will just happen.”

Prizes are odd, “great books are often ignored and mediocre ones wins awards. But literary prizes do sell books and generate interest in reading, in getting people to talk about books; that alone makes prizes worthwhile.”

He hasn’t read any of the other five contenders. Shortlisted in 2003 for The Good Doctor, which was subsequently shortlisted for the International IMPAC, Galgut, then 40, became famous all over again. It ended years of despair. “I had lost faith in my work and for me, it, the writing, is everything, it is what I am, what I do . . . the early books . . .” he shrugs, “I was so young, it made a fuss. Then, nothing. The Good Doctorwas very good for me.”

The irony is obvious; the title of book reflects the healing that began. When it was published, many reviewers welcomed an emerging talent. But Galgut had already had a career.

His first novel, A Sinless Seasonwas published in 1982, when he was 19, he had written it at 17 and it was compared with William Golding’s classic The Lord of the Flies(1954). “I don’t like it that much now, it’s the only one of my books that I refused to have re-issued. I wish it had all begun with the second one. It’s a lot better.”

Small Circle of Beings(1988) written when he was 24, consists of a superb novella, the title work, and four other stories. The novella is a mother’s heartbreaking account of her child’s illness; the boy is expected to die. She refers to the drugs “wrapping his mind in bandages I cannot penetrate”. During the agonising hospital ordeal, the father announces he is leaving to be with another woman. The narrator tends her son and eventually begins a dangerous relationship with a violent artist. The son recovers yet drifts further and further away from his mother.

Galgut understands these agonies. Diagnosed with lymphatic cancer at six, he lived under a death sentence for five years. “I learned all about mortality too early in life.” Born in Pretoria in 1963, he studied drama at the University of Cape Town and was briefly involved in acting.

HIS FIRST PLAY, Echoes of Angerwas performed soon after the publication of his first novel. Adding to the strangeness of his early success was the fact that he was a beautiful boy, appearing wary and slightly bruised in the publicity shots on the jackets of his books. He laughs aloud and says: “I was too uptight to notice I was pretty, it’s as Oscar Wilde said, ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ Though now I look at those pictures of me and yes, I see I was pretty.” His face, though no longer beautiful, is kind and intelligent, less severe in person than it appears in photographs.

Self-contained but approachable, he is good company, a calm, deliberate speaker with a soft South African accent and a strong handshake.

Although his fiction is personal rather than political it has always had a sense of his country. “You couldn’t get away from it; there was duty, an obligation, stronger then than now, to write about it. My fiction is autobiographical because I think most fiction is, you draw on things you know, you saw, experienced. Memory is so important.”

His South Africa is a physical entity, the landscape is vividly described, the heat and the smells as much as the beauty.

“I do feel closer to the land than to the history, but you can’t get away from that either. There’s a line in The Good Doctor, ‘the past is now’. It’s so true of South Africa. I’m uneasy about being compared with Coetzee.”

Yet the comparison is valid, they share an eloquent urgency, exactness, controlled anger and an artistic vision. Galgut also has an affinity to the Russian writer Andrei Makine. In A Strange Roomis about the metaphysics of existence. “I thought about it for a long time, I made those three journeys.” He had enjoyed spending time in Goa, a state on the western coast of India “but after that third journey it’s unlikely that I will go back.”

Torment and unease, a stage of mind that so many recognise, is something he has mastered. It is also a reflection of South Africa. In The Quarry(1995; revised edition 2004) the central character, referred to only as the man, emerges from nowhere, kills a minister who befriends him and assumes his identity.

Much of the action is ambivalent, Galgut agrees: “That dream-like quality is as much about South Africa as it is about the characters.”

Of his novels to date he feels The Impostor(2008) has been overlooked. It is surprising as it is a brilliant continuation of the story of the new, post-Apartheid South Africa begun in The Good Doctor. In it Adam Napier, having lost his job to the young black intern he trained, then has his house repossessed and is forced to seek help from his brash young brother, a developer. Napier not only symbolises the new South Africa, he lives its disappointment. But there is also an early novel that demands to be read, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs(1991) in which Patrick Winter, depressed and troubled, returns to Namibia with his unstable mother, a year after doing his military service there. It is a gripping, well-observed story about dislocation on many levels. “I like it, but it needed an editor and I went to re-write it and then I felt, it was so long ago.” It’s still worth reading.

On his return to Cape Town, Galgut will be attending the wedding of Alistair Morgan, whose first novel, Sleeper’s Wake,I’ve just admired and who acknowledges Galgut’s influence.

Galgut has spent much of his life travelling, wandering, watching. He has become more optimistic but it seems his philosophical search will continue. He is working on another book. “Funny, this one is historical. For the first time I am doing research. But things are good. Recently I directed a production of Waiting for Godotin Cape Town, financed by me. It lost me lots of money, but it was great to do it and it was traditional, just the way Beckett wanted his play to be.”

Man Booker

The 2010 Man Booker Prize winner will be announced tomorrow night. The shortlist is:

Peter Carey- Parrot and Olivier in America

Emma Donoghue- Room

Damon Galgut- In A Strange Room

Howard Jacobson- The Finkler Question

Andrea Levy- The Long Song

Tom McCarthy- C