Damon Galgut’s novel, In a Strange Room, did not win the Man Booker Prize last October. It lacked the novelty of Emma Donoghue’s powerhouse, Room, the historical significance of Andrea Levy’s West Indian slave narrative, The Long Song or the wit of Howard Jacobson’s eventual winner Finkler’s Question. This semi-autobiographical novel has no gimmick, and if it has ambition, that is not readily apparent. The book is small and short, and boasts commercial appeal that is negligible at best. In a Strange Room is just another road book in a long tradition of such books, and this might make it easy to toss off.
These observations are not criticisms. It’s just that I am not convinced that the book’s distinguishing characteristics—its wisdom and compassion—had much to appeal to a committee that must reward an Important Book, and in something of a winner-take-all atmosphere for literary fiction, shortlisted books sometimes sink without due attention. There is not much in the way of plot to In A Strange Room, and nothing that I can recount here in brief will hook you. The book is divided into three sub-sections, in which the fictionalized white South African narrator, Damon, travels throughout sub-Saharan Africa and then India at different moments in his life, coping with love, loneliness and loss.
In the first two sections, “The Follower” and “The Lover,” Damon wades through romantic failures over the course of two relationships, one characterized by ribald lust and the next by chaste infatuation, both of which proves destructive in its own way. In the third part, “The Guardian,” Damon sorts through his indefensible savior complex while traveling with beloved friend, Anna, who is in crisis. The whole books, as Damon says, deals with being “more tormented by what you didn’t do than what you did” since “actions already performed can be rationalized in time” while “the neglected deed might have changed the world.”
It all sounds unbearably bleak, so bear with me as I try to capture what I found so abundant and generous here. The book successfully alternates between first, second and third person, sometimes in single sentences. Though this requires careful reading, it is hard to imagine the book being quite as complex or meaningful without the device. First person is infrequent, for rarely does Damon the narrator identify with the self he sees in memory. Second person is also rare, as it suggests both immediacy and identification with the past self.
The majority of the book comes to us in the third person. Damon explains right away:
Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.
Often, a glimmer of first person narrative, a phrase here and there, finds its way into the third person stream. When this happens, the reader is struck by the fractured quality of the narrator’s self. In some ways, the self-distance suggests that the narrator has grown wiser, more settled, in time. In others, the style simply brings home the lonely disconnectedness of that past self. And in the saddest moments of all, the flashes of first person reveal an ongoing identification with that former lost soul. These are the hints of recognition, the bleak moments from which Damon has never achieved dissociation. As much as anything, this book is about who we are in our memories, no matter how broken our past selves may be.
The writing is permeable and sparse in the sense that each word is as significant and rich as any we may find in the best contemporary poetry. It is filled with sentences that constitute little poems in themselves, so musical and lovely that their force and ferocity come unexpected. Anyone who has traveled alone through an unfamiliar country in order to escape loneliness or grief, only to find strangely powerful emotional bonds with fellow travelers, will see herself in Damon. He plans a trip with a virtual stranger in giddy anticipation.
Of the impromptu journey, Damon says:
…he has never traveled this way before, the strangeness of everything scares him, but it thrills him too, the thought of casting away his normal life is like freedom… And maybe that is the true reason for this journey, by shedding all the ballast of familiar life they are trying to recapture a sensation of weightlessness they remember but perhaps never lived, in memory more than anywhere else traveling is like free-fall, or flight.
But the experience itself soon morphs into loneliness and cruel isolation, as Reiner grows controlling and resentful of the man who follows him throughout sub-Saharan Africa. By the journey’s midpoint, Damon is exhausted, quoting Faulkner as he thinks through another lonely night in a hostel:
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. The words come to him from a long way off.
Later, Damon’s remembers a band of smug Europeans fellow travelers, and raises broader concerns with such postcolonial wandering. At first, he rails against their entitlement, incensed by these people for whom the continent of Africa is just the locale for an escapist holiday. He shames them for their superficial complaints about the grime and discomfort, horrified that they have no compassion for the poverty that circumscribes the everyday experience here in the first place.
This might come off as preachy and moralistic if the narrator didn’t recognize his own privilege as a white South African in the very next breath. He sees that he is using the continent as the selfish means to a selfish end, not unlike his acquaintances. He seeks only romantic entanglement and escape. And Galgut never fully resolves the tension for Damon. I am not convinced that the tension can be resolved for the white citizen of a settler country who travels in the postcolonial world, or that it should be.
An epiphany that transforms Damon into a rabble rouser ready to dismantle the global superstructure is what we hope for, but I think Damon’s conflicted emotions are more recognizable. I’ve been the white settler in a poor country outraged by the behavior of white expatriates, and I spoke out in outrage sometimes. But I mostly just kept moving. I didn’t change the world, and I think most of us don’t, more times than we would like to admit, when it comes to undoing our own privilege. I think this is true no matter what we do to change things, and the humility that comes with such recognition may be the only saving grace.
In the book’s final section, the book undergoes a jarring narrative shift. While the first two parts are contemplative and thoughtful, the third is chaos. Damon means to represent his tenuous role as “protector” of an unraveling friend, and the narration becomes wild and fast-moving. A more contemplative piece might have made the business of Anna’s descent into illness more closed, more put to rest, when in Damon’s guilt and regret are still palpable. The point, in part, is that these sad relationships that shape us often lack clear resolution. Sometimes no one is really the protagonist after all, and those things we didn’t do not only fail to change the world, but aid its undoing.
In a Strange Room didn’t win the Man Booker Prize, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read it. Its sometimes bleak depictions of human frailty and weakness are somehow uplifting and beautiful in the end. For a book about loneliness, the book is not at all lonely to read. There is something somehow redemptive about this fractured narrator who so often fails to change the world but has to keep on living anyway.