Saturday, 6 November 2010

Book Review: In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

Read: October 2010

Reviewed for Borewrimo, a month in which I aim to experiment with the form and purpose of book reviewing by writing 50,000 words of book reviews as short stories.

“The world you’re moving through flows into another one inside, nothing stays divided any more, this stands for that, weather for mood, landscape for feeling, every object is a corresponding inner gesture.”

She cannot now remember which came first: that churning unease in the pit of her stomach, or reading that book. Perhaps she had been feeling that way for a while; perhaps she only became aware of it when that unacknowledged sensation was represented back to her in words; perhaps…

She is not sure.

A classic case of cause and effect, one could say, though she doubts it is quite that simple.
From this vantage, months later, she has traced the feeling back to within a few days of starting the book. But when she tries to focus in further it distorts and she loses perspective.

So she doesn’t try

Except that she does. Here, now, writing this. What else is it if not an effort to understand? In writing she seeks to solidify what she has learned about herself in reading. In writing she tries to replicate the intensity she has felt while reading. She quotes liberally to breathe life into a person she briefly was, but that has now been and gone.

She suspects that In a Strange Room comes from a similar compulsion; that Galgut felt compelled to replicate what he has felt during long, meandering journeys. There are three of them here, to Swaziland, through southern Africa, and around India. They are linked, she feels, not by characters or plot but by a shared atmosphere, a shared narrator, a shared individual trapped inside himself.

“In this state travel isn’t celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by the bored anguish of staying still.”

Though he finds companions on each of these journeys, they are characterised by an introverted, self-reflective, lonely quality which infuses every letter of every word. With those he travels he plays a different role, yet remains indelibly himself. The first journey, ‘The Follower’ takes place in a vast empty landscape populated only by the wandering travellers and occasional tribes. She feels agoraphobic, exposed. Uprooted and disconcerted in a way that she cannot put her finger on. This atmosphere is maintained in the second and third journeys where empty landscapes are gradually replaced by bustling trains and cities, hospitals and hotels. The world he travels grows full of people yet he remains alone in their midst. The strange room of the title is himself. It is the incongruity of a rootlessness that drives one on to wake up in a familiarly strange room every morning. At one point he mentally addresses a friend who, for a short time, offered the possibility of something else.

“Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words, if you are only the dim evocation of a face under a fringe of hair, and the others too, Alice and Christian and Roderigo, if you are names without a nature, it’s not because I don’t remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it’s for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.”

My life. Galgut writes of his narrator Damon as though of himself. The narrative flits between first and third person, often passing back and forth within a single sentence. Somehow Galgut pulls this off, further alienating both narrator and reader from the landscapes through which they travel, the selves they have become. Like JM Coetzee’s Summertime, In a Strange Room appears to be first and foremost a game of hide and seek, or perhaps a long string – laid discarded for too long – whose ends are pulled hard so that it twists into a knot the reader cannot ever hope to untangle. Whether it is biography or not is for literary critics to argue over. She does not think it matters.

She loved this book viscerally rather than mentally, not because of its ideas or storyline but for the way it made her feel. It affected her more than any book she has read in a long time. It shook her to her core and she is still trembling.

She is reminded of the French writer Marcel Aymé whose best-known story Le Passe-Muraille (The Walker Through Walls) tells the tale of a man who finds he is able to walk through walls. She feels that she has somehow slipped through a semi-permeable membrane into another persons head, but that when she tried to leave found herself stuck, half inside and half out.

She is not sure where to go from here. This book was a journey from which she may not be able to return.

“A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and onto somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return.”

In the end she comes to a conclusion that is not really a conclusion at all. They happen together, her life and the book. It doesn’t matter which came first because neither could have been as they have without the other. Well, the book could have been. But not for her. And what, I ask, is a book without a reader?

In a Strange Room is published by Atlantic Books. (180pp, ISBN: 9781848873223, £15.99)


Anonymous said...

Good start to Borewrimo. And what an interesting idea. I'll keep checking in to see how it turns out. Now that we're almost half way through November, how do you think it's going? Have you hit the 25k mark yet?

Sam Ruddock said...

Thank you for your comment, Helen. I'm pleased you think it is an interesting idea.

Unfortunately, half-way through November I have only done 5k so far so don't think I'll be succeeding this year! But it's still 5000 more than I might have otherwise done, so I'm having a great time nonetheless!