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Friday, 13 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room is formed of three sections, each an account of journeys made by the narrator, Damon, and his interactions with other travellers. Which said, it should not be thought that this is travel writing, though it is in part a reflection on the nature of travel, or at least the reasons that provoke Damon to travel.

In the first section, subtitled 'The Follower', the narrator comes upon, Reiner, a German walking along a Greek road. This encounter leads them to visit other sites together, and later they agree to make another journey in Southern Africa. But when this new trip to Lesotho starts, a tension between the two develops, caused so it seems to the narrator by the German's wilful superciliousness.

The second section, 'The Lover', finds Damon travelling through southern and eastern Africa when he encounters three Europeans, a Frenchman and Swiss twins, Jerome and Alice. The friendship that forms through the rigours of the journey sees a sexual attraction, unfulfilled at this stage, develop between Damon and Jerome. They invite Damon to visit them in Europe.

In the third section, 'The Guardian', Damon accompanies a friend, a woman recovering from a serious mental illness, on a trip to India. When the woman suffers a relapse, Damon has to deal with the crisis that develops.

In each case, Damon longs for some sort of contact with his companions that ultimately fails. The journeys involve interaction with uncomprehending local people; they frequently experience the threat of violence and exploitation. Their travels are obscurely motivated; the ruins that they trudge around seem a poor recompense for their efforts. Reiner seems to regard Lesotho as some sort of personal adventure training course. Damon at one point says, "movement has always been a substitute for thought." Later, he says, "A journey is a gesture inscriped in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there." And yet for all this, Damon's compulsive yearning to travel is an essential fact of his life, and these journeys are profound experiences. The text is his reflection on these experiences.

The book is told largely in the close third person and we witness the events from the perspective of Damon. However, the narrative quite often slips into the first person, recalling these past events. Here is an example from the beginning of the first section, in which Damon sees a man walking towards him:

"When they draw even they stop. The figure is a man about his age, dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his rucksack is black. What the first man is wearing I don't know, I forget."

A little later in the first section, the narrator says of some ruins that they visit, "I can't even remember what they are now...." The second section begins, "A few years later he is wandering in Zimbabwe."

The essential nature of the text is that it is, despite its sense of immanence, Damon's later reflection on these encounters. At several points in the text, Damon describes the sensation of feeling as though he is watching himself as events unfold, as though he is standing outside himself. For all the drama on the road that the narrator describes, Damon is primarily involved in unsentimental self-examination.

The writing throughout In a Strange Room is sharp, economical and precise. Much of it has the rich intensity of poetry. It is a model of concentrated expression, and for that reason I found reading the book a longer and fuller experience than its 180 pages might suggest. A marvellously good piece of writing.

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