IN A STRANGE ROOM by Damon Galgut

Book Quote:

“He watches, but what he sees isn’t real to him. Too much traveling and placelessness have put him outside everything, so that history happens elsewhere, it has nothing to do with him. He is only passing through. Maybe horror is felt more easily from home. This is both a redemption and an affliction, he doesn’t carry any abstract moral burdens, but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (JAN 1, 2011)

I’d heard a lot of buzz about In a Strange Room, one of the titles shortlisted for the 2010 Booker prize, but since I tend to react negatively to waves of publicity, as the uniform praise for this book climbed, my interest plummeted. I almost didn’t review South African author Damon Galgut’s book In a Strange Room, but I changed my mind, and as it turns out In a Strange Room is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

In a Strange Room isn’t an easy book to review. It’s divided into three distinct sections, and it’s possible, I think, to write the review in several different ways. After chewing over the plot now for several weeks, I’d argue that in this extraordinary novel, Galgut uses travel as a way of exploring two heavily nuanced relationships, and at the same time, parallels are drawn between journeys taken and relationships endured.

In the first section, The Follower, Damon, a solitary South African traveler treks across Greece. On his travels, he runs into a German named Reiner; the two hikers share a few words, and then later that night, the South African spends the night in a hostel. Reiner is already lodged in Damon’s room–waiting as it turns out for Damon to show up. Here’s Reiner’s lame excuse about taking up residence in Damon’s room, and Damon’s uncomfortable response:

“I missed the train tonight. There is another one in the morning. I decided to wait until then. I asked him to put me in your room.

I see that.

You don’t mind.

I’m just surprised. I wasn’t expecting, no, I don’t mind.

He doesn’t mind, but he is also uneasy. He knows that the other man has delayed his journey not because of the train but because of him, because of the conversation they had in the road.”

The tension between the two men is palatable. Damon’s vulnerability is accentuated by his uncertainty and the German’s easy confidence. It’s not clear what Reiner wants from Damon, or is Damon’s unease a projection of his unexpressed desire?

In The Follower, Reiner takes a casual relationship–meeting by chance on the road and then maneuvers it into an acquaintance. In the second part of the book, The Lover, Damon writes a letter to Reiner which includes a semi-wishful suggestion of a joint trek. Reiner takes him seriously and shows up in Damon’s South African home. The first signs of trouble appear when Reiner begins training for the marathon walk, and then the two men embark on a shared journey.

In the third and final section of the book, The Guardian, Damon finds himself on yet another journey. This journey is both literal (India) and figurative–the hardest journey of all for Damon, for this journey tests the boundaries of his moral actions.

Borders indicate social and political boundaries and are significant, unavoidable aspects of travel. Border crossings navigated by passports and visas introduce different laws and new rules. Foreign countries hint of the unknown: the exotic and even possible danger, and there’s the implicit idea that the traveler may be exempt, by virtue of his lack of involvement, from a country’s internal troubles, and yet at the same time a traveler may be vulnerable due to his unfamiliarity with local customs and politics. Using these ideas, the novel draws subtle similarities between the intricacies of travel and relationships, and the two elements converge through its characters. Galgut explores the boundaries that are significant, invisible markers in relationships. The distance between the individual and the  “other”must be negotiated in any relationship. Privacy and power–these things shift when the solitary man joins another. The traveler here, Damon, finds himself in three situations, and three relationships in which the boundaries are tested and then violated in certain ways.

In a Strange Room is an intense, brilliant and sparsely written book. Emotion is largely withheld until the novel’s final section, The Guardian. The author recruits the reader into the sensation of distancing–emotional and logistical in turn–the shifting of boundaries between reader, writer and character, by occasionally moving from third person narrator to first person.

The novel’s title, In a Strange Room gives the sense of confinement in close quarters, but there’s also a vague sense of menace in the unknown. For a large section of the novel, Damon appears to be more comfortable traveling, and yet somehow that sensation wears thin as the book continues. Is Damon’s restlessness and desire for travel a manifestation of his need to avoid relationships? Throughout the novel, the confinement of relationships is compared to the apparent freedom of travel, and yet as it turns out travel brings its own problems. As Damon notes at one point, “travel is a way of dissipating yourself,” a way of introducing structure and plans into a life which is spent largely in avoidance and disconnectedness.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Europa Editions (October 13, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Damon Galgut
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Europa Editions page on In A Strange Room

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of the 2010 Man Booker Winner:

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

And the shortlist:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Room by Emma Donoghue

C by Tom McCarthy


January 1, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Literary, Theme driven, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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