Jul 10, 2011

Notes on In a Strange Room

Ostensibly touted as a travel book, I found it hard to label Damon Galgut’s ‘In a Strange Room’ as one. True, the protagonist, a white South African named Damon, travels through, first Lesotho, then Zimbabwe and Kenya, and finally India, but these travels are just a framework to support his basic theme of travel as a means of taming or countering an endless restlessness, a relentless craving for ‘home.’ This search for home is atavistic – from Moses to Yasser Arafat to Hamas – mankind has always looked for that which it can claim as its own; it is rooted in our deepest impulses to claim and to be claimed by another. It is not a stretch to read all these undercurrents in Galgut’s novel.

Obliquely, the home also becomes a metaphor for stability, for the 'other', for our unrealized dreams. After all, aren’t we all chasing that which we believe will complete our fractured selves? But Galgut seems to be saying that this search is self defeating, his novel shows the futility of searching for an idea or chasing a dream because the dream, by its very nature, will always be elusive, escape realization and bring about endless misery. So, is it all futile? Is this another sad novel? Wrong. In the end, it is kindness that brings relief from misery, it is the strangers who pass through our lives who give us the strength to go on, it is compassion and unasked for consideration that lessens our burdens. It is as Damon says, “Without love, nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.” This is as true of Damon’s life as it is about your's or mine.

 The book is divided into 3 distinct sections where the section titles indicate the role Damon will play therein. In the first section titled ‘The Follower’, Damon meets a mysterious German named Reiner in Greece with whom he later goes on a walking expedition to Lesotho. While the section is charged with homoerotic currents, the reader realizes that in Damon, the longing is also for something more. But there is a Hamlet-like quality to Damon that keeps him from making the final move that may provide him, albeit fleetingly, with what he’s seeking in life. Even when he and Reiner are thrown in close contact, there is always something that stands tall between them: ‘Would you like some, he says, holding out an apple, I found this in my bag. The two of them pass it between them , solemnly biting and chewing, the one lying propped up on an elbow, the other sitting with his knees drawn up, all it will take is a tiny movement from one of them, a hand extended, or the edge of the sleeping bag lifted, would you like to get in, but neither makes the move, one is too scared and the other too proud, then the apple is finished, the moment is past, Reiner gets up, rubbing his shoulders….”.  Reiner is a sharp contrast to Damon and this contrast becomes more and more evident as the novel progresses and we see Damon in different roles. Reiner is insensitive, a megalomaniac who wants things to be always be his way and Damon bends to his superior will until things come to a head and in a curious reversal of his previous behavior, Damon rebels and walks out. This is where Galgut introduces the following exchange:

 “He turns. Reiner is walking towards him. If he offers one word of apology, if he concedes even the smallest humility, then I will relent. But Reiner is too rigid and too proud. Though what he does do is even stranger.
Here, he says. You’ll need this.
He’s holding out a fifty rand note.”

This is completely unexpected from a man as selfish as Reiner and just proves how little we know the people around us.

In the second section titled ‘The Lover’ Damon back-packs across Zimbabwe, Kenya & Malawi before finally landing up in Switzerland and London. He teams up with a group of European tourists – twins Alice and Jerome and their friend Christian. To me this was the book’s weakest section, not only because of Damon’s reluctance to accept what he desperately longs for and that which Jerome seems to be ready to offer him, but also because this reluctance seemed a trifle forced and rang false. What I liked about this section, however, was its title - one becomes a ‘lover’ simply in the act of loving another silently, not by making love. Like the preceding section, this also ends in tragic separation.

It is in this second section that we sense Galgut’s concerns as a white person in Africa, his self-conscious cringing at the white man’s callous response to poverty and filth. Contrast the white tourists in this section who is not only callous but wholly removed from the squalor and destitution that pervades sub-Saharan Africa, with Caroline and Sjef in the last section, two other white people who also operate amidst much squalor and chaos to go beyond the call of duty. This is the beauty of Galgut’s novel – repeatedly you come across people who are willing to do so much for nothing in return; these are the carriers of Wordworth’s famous words ‘little unremembered acts of kindness’ & they make the entire journey memorable.

The third and perhaps most vigorous section is title ‘The Guardian’ where Damon is called upon to play a role he is not only unwilling but also unsuited to play. So far we have seen that inaction is Damon’s favourite past time. He travels, he seeks, he broods, but he never touches the hand that’s extended towards him. He travels free, uncluttered and unrestrained. To me this freedom was wholly at odds with his deepest impulse to belong and it seemed completely natural too. Here he travels to India with Anna, a friend who is also like a sister to him. Anna is deeply depressed, an alcoholic, a suicidal psychotic, “It’s obvious that something in her has come loose from its moorings and is sliding around inside.” She comes on this trip, not to recover as Damon is led to believe, but for other more fatal purposes. This is the strongest part of the novel, hurtling us ahead as Damon and Anna confront one crisis after another. First she runs off with a stranger – Jean; then she loses her bag of medications, and then comes the final axe blow. This section abounds with the love of strangers, from the aged fellow passenger Mr Hariramamaurthy who retrieves Anna’s lost medicines, to Caroline and Sjef  who silently support Damon during those grueling days in the Goa hospital. None of these characters ring false – at different times in our lives, we have all witnessed such strangers. 

Galgut’s excels himself in this section with his intuitive understanding and depictions of the workings of a sick mind, the endless bureaucracy and filth in an Indian hospital, the ever shifting dynamics between Damon and Anna where he’s alternately frustrated and ready to kill her and again willing to do anything to save her.

Last but not the least is Galgut’s unconventional style where he eschews punctuation & voice in order to tell his story so much so that you don’t know initially that the omniscient narrator ‘I’ in the beginning is also Damon the protagonist. This may come across as jarring but is not so and it is a sign of how sure Galgut is with his material that he can pull of this stunt so successfully.

As I read more, I am discovering more and more writers like Galgut (Toibn and Trevor come to mind) who seem to be exploring a life of limited happiness, of failed chances and lost dreams. There is nothing spectacularly angst-worthy about their works, no high notes, but a quiet hum of sadness, not despair. Much of life is perhaps like that. 


indiana said...

a very nice review.makes the reader decide instantly to read or not to read.

drift wood said...


Er..that sounds suspiciously polite. :) The idea was to recommend it for reading coz I loved it immensely.

indiana said...

i meant the review was very evocative. for a travel book atleast. you know some might get squeamish with the homoerotic content:)

drift wood said...


You know the overtones are whatever you wanna call the 'gay' parts are so beautifully laid out, so subtle, that they're not jarring; they read like any other 'might have been' episode in the lives of doomed companions.

Anonymous said...

I have to say this that amongst all your posts, I always anticipate the book reviews. For I know, I will discover an author, a work, I haven't read previously and it will be magnificent. :)

I dont think any content will make readers feel squeamish as long as the author has taken care to lavish enough attention to ensure that it suits the mood, style and form of the book.


drift wood said...


Thanks for that!

Yeah, he does 'lavish' the care you mention. I guess that's why they say writing is a labour of love.