- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Atlantic Books; First Edition edition (2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9781848873223
- ISBN-13: 978-1848873223
- ASIN: 1848873220
- Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 40 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,645,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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In a Strange Room Hardcover – 2010
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A young man takes three journeys, through Greece, India and Africa. He travels lightly, simply. To those who travel with him and those whom he meets on the way - including a handsome, enigmatic stranger, a group of careless backpackers and a woman on the edge - he is the Follower, the Lover and the Guardian. Yet, despite the man's best intentions, each journey ends in disaster. Together, these three journeys will change his whole life. A novel of longing and thwarted desire, rage and compassion, "In a Strange Room" is the hauntingly beautiful evocation of one man's search for love, and a place to call home.
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Yes, but it is only his starting point for doing something much deeply personal that is ultimately profoundly moving. The novel, which is subtitled "Three Journeys," features a South African writer called Damon, who is and is not the author; he refers to him in both the first and the third person, and even occasionally the second, as though an avatar of himself that he barely understands: "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." The three parts show him in distant places away from his home in Cape Town, accompanying three different figures who also remain somewhat distant. In the first, called "The Follower," he accompanies an enigmatic German man on a grueling walking tour of Lesotho. In the second, "The Lover," he travels north-east as far as Kenya, and eventually to Europe, out of friendship with a trio of French-Swiss backpackers and his possible feeling for one of them. In the third, "The Guardian," he accompanies a suicidal woman (the lover of a close friend) to Goa and Southern India. Each story is complete in itself, but what makes this a novel rather than a trio of novellas is the growth of the central figure as (in the words of the book jacket) "he comes closer to confronting his own identity." The space between the lines in the printed book echoes the space between the lines in the story, as we see the central figure gain dimension, not so much from his interactions with others as from acknowledging the distances between them.
The novel opens in Greece, near Mycenae. Walking in almost deserted country, the Damon character sees a distant figure coming towards him, walking in the opposite direction. When they meet, they have a brief insignificant conversation. "Then they part again with a nod and draw slowly away from each other on the narrow white road, looking back now and then, until they are two tiny and separate points again, rising and falling with the undulations of the land." It is an uncannily powerful passage, and also quite disturbing, as it sets up what will turn out to be a nightmare tour in Lesotho, and also the equally fraught journeys of the other two parts. Reading this after Galgut's portrait of Forster, and his difficulties in connecting emotionally with others, I began to see why he had chosen the older author as his subject. For both are loners in much the same way, and both are gay. The sexual tension in many of the scenes here is palpable, but the spaces are more important still, whatever it is that stops a pair of people from asking, finding, or granting what they most need in each other. It is a sad book, but a powerful one.
One thing that surprised me, though, was how marvelous Galgut is in his physical descriptions. He never writes mere travelogues, and for the most part this is far from tourist Africa, Switzerland, or India. And yet I found I was getting a real appreciation for the countries he was passing through, especially the long trip north through Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. It was a novel that sent me often to Google maps and images, a sporadic joy to illuminate the long journey of the soul.
The first story, The Follower, describes Damon's meeting in Greece with Reiner, a German on the road trying to decide whether to marry a woman back home. Reiner is dressed all in black, with a black haversack, and is obsessive about his appearance. He is largely silent and has an air of disdain about the world and other people. You know the type: the cool dude with the Hamlet look and attitude. Gullible Damon is infatuated with him and when Reiner later visits Damon in South Africa, they decide to take a long journey on foot in Lesotho. Damon makes the error of not taking any money, so Reiner is in control from the outset. Things begin well but as the trek continues and becomes more arduous, they fall out and Damon returns home. They spot each other twice back in South Africa, but do not speak, then Reiner is never heard of again. I breathed a sigh of relief.
At one point in The Follower, Damon wonders where Reiner gets all his money for travelling, and I was wondering the same thing about Damon, but if he expects others to be revealing, Damon himself is tight lipped.
In The Lover, Damon is adrift in Zimbabwe and joins a group of younger backpackers travelling to Malawi. He enjoys some time with them but eventually tires of their lack of respect for local people and the environment. He finds the poverty in the villages confronting - not that this changes his behaviour at all. He then meets a trio of French-speaking travellers and becomes enamoured with Jerome, even though they have no language in common and are unable to communicate in any meaningful way. All conversation is mediated through another in the group who is able to speak English. At this point I was wondering how stupid Damon could get, but the farce continues as he tries to enter Tanzania without a visa and fails to read the obvious signal from the border guard that he wants a bribe to let Damon through. They continue to Kenya but Damon turns down an offer to go to Europe. He heads home then later visits Switzerland to see Jerome. The reunion is formal and unsatisfactory so Damon leaves, realising perhaps that he is no lover after all.
The third story, The Guardian, sees Damon taking a friend Anna on a trip to India. Anna has serious psychological problems and is on multiple medications - the ideal travelling companion? It seems that the transition to middle age has done nothing to improve Damon's standing in the idiocy stakes. Anna begins behaving badly as soon as they are on the plane and it gets worse as the days rattle along. In India, Anna attempts suicide. Damon doesn't cope well but order is restored by Caroline, an English nurse on an extended stay. They get Anna to some hospitals and she slowly recovers, but the police are on her trail (attempted suicide is a crime in India). With help they manage to get her out of the country. Caroline and Damon are both emotionally drained and Caroline tells Damon about the death of her husband in Morocco some years before, the memory rekindled by Anna's ordeal. Damon continues on his travels, hears that Anna has died back in South Africa, but sticks to the road and avoids her funeral.
There is nothing to like about Damon. It is clear that he travels in order to escape emotional involvement. At times he is described as very lonely and sits weeping to himself. In the final pages he visits the grave of Caroline's husband in Morocco and again is moved to tears, if only for a short time (he has a taxi to catch). You realise he is never really crying for anyone else, only himself and the waste of a life without commitment or depth. He's been a hopeless follower, a blind fool of a lover and a tragic guardian. His tending Anna after her suicide attempt is the only time that Damon appears to show any concern for others, but you get the impression it is driven by panic and managed by Caroline rather than being a wilful choice.
An alternative is possible: at the end of The Lover he looks after a house outside Cape Town belonging to friends who are away. He loses his desire to travel, takes local walks, falls into a routine and feels a degree of contentment. But in the end the inner demons drive him on and you get the feeling that as long as the money is there he will be flitting off here and there, forever detached and unattached.
If you travel a lot you encounter four types on a journey: the tourist, the backpacker, the worker and the traveller. The first three have some purpose to their wanderings and a reasonably clear timeframe. For the traveller it is all about the endless journey. As with Damon, the source of funds is often vague and the anecdotes, at first exotic and attractive, quickly become repetitive and self-serving. Greater wealth and cheap travel have allowed these people to propagate their misery and selfishness in (mainly poor) countries all over the globe.
There is a cruel joke about these lost souls: that the sole purpose of their lives is to act as a warning to others. Damon's life is a bit like that. Do the opposite of most things he does and your life should go reasonably well. At least you'll be human.