Longlisted for the Man Booker in 2010, In a Strange Room focuses on one man’s nomadic life. This novel is comprised of three parts, three journeys made by the South African protagonist, also Damon. Young when we meet him, middle aged by the end, Damon has no tether. Although he returns to Cape Town between trips, it seems to the reader that he only really exists on the road. Each section is titled according to the role which Damon plays within it.
The first chapter, The Follower, concerns an odd friendship between Damon and Reiner, a German he meets in Greece. Reiner is escaping a relationship with a woman who would marry him, and Damon is trying to forget his own failed relationship. Keeping in contact, they meet up later in South Africa and decide to travel to Lesotho. It’s an odd partnership, Damon clearly attracted to Reiner, who knows it but doesn’t care. Reiner does what he wants without any regard and it becomes quite a stressful read as Damon tags along behind, constantly hoping that Reiner will suddenly decide to embark upon a relationship with him.
The Lover, sees Damon travel from Zimbabwe up through Malawi to Kenya overland. His wandering seems aimless until he meets up with a group of French-speaking tourists and fixates on Jerome, a young Swiss man, who speaks hardly any English. There seems to be a mutual attraction between the two men but communication is a barrier. They are able to communicate only through a third man, Christian, who can speak both English and French. At first, Damon assumes that it is this constant presence of another that is preventing him from being able to get closer to Jerome. However, when he later visits Switzerland he finds that even alone with Jerome they are unable to move forward.
The third part, The Guardian, is the most heartbreaking and was, for me, the one that I am still thinking of days later. Damon travels to India with Anna, a friend who is recovering from a bout of manic depression:
On the last occasion that she went off the rails, years ago, she landed in a Cape Town clinic, emaciated and scarred with cigarette burns. It took months for her to recover, a process that she fetishized in her photographs, many of them pictures of herself naked, all her wounds on display. The episode is sexy in her mind, no cause for shame, and culminated in several bouts of electro-shock therapy, which she’d asked for, she later told me, as a substitute for killing herself.
Galgut’s writing is soul-bearing, the perspective shifting. In the above paragraph Damon is written as first person, but in much of the novel the prose is written in third person, often shifting within the confines of a single paragraph. I found this disconcerting at first, though got used to it. Thinking of it as a confessional, a man sharing experiences that were life-affecting, it made sense, this idea that third person can add a distance and make it easier to make certain revelations.
The strength of this novel for me was in its landscapes. As Damon travels across Africa I found myself wanting to look at how to get to Malawi, how I might lie on an unspoilt white beach and sleep in a wooden bungalow by the sea.
It took a while for this book to grow on me, but its secret is in creating visions that take time to fade rather than having an instant impact.