Running into self

2010-12-30 11:34

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, 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 realises that Reiner is telling mutual friends ­another version of the story in which Damon is the bad guy.

There’s something creepily recognisable 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 travelling to Zimbabwe, driven by “the bored anguish of staying still”.

There he falls in with three travellers – 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 centres 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 cannot 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 ­humour 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 realises, “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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