In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

IASRMembers of our group said that it was one of the best books we had reads for quite sometime..’It was remarkable.’ ‘I loved it.’ ‘It rang bells.’

It is about a man who seems of settling down in any one place, with any one person. Each story has a different title, ‘The Follower’, ‘The Lover’ and ‘The Guardian’ and it seems to me that Galgut examines the different selves you become around different people, either by the role you play in their life or the self you make yourself be to fit in with them. I am sure I’m not the only to experience this.

I too have experienced rocks being thrown at/ through train windows.

‘Damon’ is an anagram of ‘Nomad’:

Some might say that I am boring because I no longer travel much and am content in my surroundings but they say that however far you travel you always take yourself with you. What are you trying to avoid?

Is the bloke avoiding himself – he uses ‘I’ and ‘he’ interchangeably about himself? Does he know who he is?

We see his alienation from himself and from others. Is he using travel as a form of searching in the wrong way?

He fixates on three different people on his travels: two men and one woman but when anyone gets too close to him he walks away, except in the last person who self-harms and attempts suicide. Is her self-harming some sort of catharsis that he too seeks? But then he finally walks away and returns, after a long time, to her grave. That’s a safe place where the other person won’t make any demands on you.

The novel begins starkly, with sparse punctuation bit it warms up and becomes more human. The third story is best and finds humour even in the worst part of hospitalisation.

It is beautifully intense and wonderfully observant. A very few words can covey a lot, e.g. He has thick curly hair and round glasses and a serious expression which is impassive, or perhaps merely resigned. The younger man has from up close a beauty that is almost shocking, red lips and high cheek-bones and a long fringe of hair. His brown eyes won’t meet my gaze.

And: 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.

He sits in the empty room, crying.

Of the frustrations of travel: Then they walk across a long bridge over a choked green riverbed to the immigration post on the other side. It’s only now that he starts to really consider what might happen. Although he’d said airily that he’d see if they would let him in, it didn’t seriously occur to him that they might not. But now, as the little cluster of sheds draws closer, with a boom across the road on the far side, a faint premonition prickles in his palms, maybe this won’t turn out as he hopes. And once they have entered the first wooden shed, and all the others have been stamped through by the dapper little man behind his counter, his passport is taken from him and in the pause that follows, the sudden stillness of the hand as it reaches for the ink, he knows what’s coming. Where is your visa. I didn’t know I needed one. You do.

when they come to the first little town the roadside is bare and deserted. He gets down and looks around, as if they might be hiding nearby. Where are my friends, he asks, but the boy shakes his head and grins. The friends of this peculiar man are no concern of his.

So he waits for the next bus to come. It’s as if he’s arrived at a place outside time, in which only he feels its lack. He paces up and down, he throws pebbles at a tree, he watches file of ants going into a hole in the ground, all in a bid to summon time again. When the interval is over perhaps an hour and a half has passed. By then a small crowd is swelling next to the road and everybody clambers on board the bus at once. He ends up without a seat and has to hang on to roof racks in the aisle. Outside there is a mountainous green countryside quilted with tea plantations. Banana trees clap their broad leaves in applause.

It’s a full three hours or more before the road begins to descend from this high hilly country and the edges of Mbeya accrete around him. By now the sun is setting and in the dwindling light all he can see are low, sinister buildings, made mostly of mud, crouching close to the ground: He climbs down at the edge of a crowded street swirling with fumes. He asks a woman nearby, do you know where the station is. Somebody else overhears him and repeats it to somebody else, and he finds himself escorted by a stranger to a group of men loitering nearby.

One of our seasoned travellers observed: I read it while I was on holiday- luckily I was with a friend and not travelling on my own or I might have had my own story of breakdown to tell. I think its one of the best things we’ve read, extremely unsettling . Having travelled on my own, I identified with the random meetings with people, and the strange mental states and anxieties that get triggered when you’re anchorless, away from home. In the first part, I was reminded very much of my erstwhile lodger (from hell) by that German guy. Such an accurate portrayal of a certain type of person/dynamic.

At the end, we wonder what effect suicide and its aftermath will have. Will he go on running away from his feelings or stay to confront them?

Quotations:

“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.”

“Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words, 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.”

“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.”

“You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is

no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are”

The author:

Galgut’s novels are invariably set not in the towns but in the eerie, wide open spaces of rural South Africa. This, he says, is because he’s more interested in the country’s fragmented identity than its day-to-day politics and believes the more mythical landscapes of the countryside allow him to explore that more effectively.

‘Being gay myself, I’m naturally drawn to the interactions between men rather than men and women,’ says Galgut. ‘But I like to write about it obliquely because I’m fascinated by the notion of an unspoken sexual life. Also, being gay immediately placed me outside the values of the society I was growing up in. Apartheid was a very patriarchal system so its assumptions seemed foreign to me from the outset. I’ve always had the advantage of alienation.’

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