Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room was short listed for the 2010 Man Booker Award, the second time Galgut, a South African, has made the cut. To call the book a novel is a bit of a stretch but no other term is more applicable for the three novellas in the volume, all originally published in The Paris Review. Variations on a theme of loneliness, passion and sexual frustration connect the three in a startling way as the reader moves from one section to the next. Galgut writes magnificent prose: sensuous, lyrical, mesmerizing.
In the first tale, "The Follower," two back-packers in Greece discover that they are all alone in a hostel during the off-season. Damon, the narrator and a South Africa, is drawn to Reiner, a German, and the chemistry is such that one assumes that they will shortly be in the same sleeping bag. But that doesn’t happen in the hostel or later during the weeks they spend together on a journey to Lesotho. That trip unfolds after they’ve corresponded with one another and Damon, at least, has assumed that Reiner has returned to Southern Africa because he, also, wants an intimate relationship. But frustration is all that Damon gets, as Reiner struts around mostly naked when the two of them are together, and preens, teasing Damon?perhaps?to express his attraction for his German companion.
Damon’s frustration is acute but he’s too closeted to make the move that Reiner expects he’ll make. Their conversations avoid intimate details of their feelings, yet they frequently share a bed together: "In their place in this new intimacy, the practical one between them, in which they lie next to each other and bump against each other in the dark, and look into each other’s faces first thing in the morning, and in a certain sense it’s this intimacy that is the engine of their journey." You might say that they share one strange room after another, unable to make any move toward satisfaction.
That inability to act, physically, or even to express passion verbally is also at the core of "The Lover," the second novella which is similarly platonic in the relationship between Damon and Jerome, a Swiss backpacker, whom Damon encounters traveling with his sister and another guy in South Africa. The relationship is accidental, again, travelers drawn to one another because of unfamiliar environments and buried emotions. With no more than a few words of encouragement from Jerome, Damon follows him through Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya and finally on to Switzerland, all with the desire of a relationship between the two men. But Jerome, like the earlier Reiner, seems unclear about his feelings?perhaps afraid to express such feelings for another man. So the journey ends in frustration with Damon observing, "I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life."
Turning the page to "The Guardian," the reader assumes that Damon has one more opportunity to find satisfaction with another man. But that doesn’t happen here either, in the most tempestuous story of the three when Damon lets an old friend, Anna, take a trip with him to India. Clearly, Anna is interested in Damon but he does not feel the same way about her. More out of charity than anything else, Damon has agreed to let Anna, whom he has known for years, tag along with him for a couple of months so that she can end her dependency on alcohol and drugs.
There’s a clue quite early in the journey that Anna has another objective, not controlling her addictions. "Ever since he’s known her there’s been this talk about killing herself one day. It never comes up in a dramatic way, more as a casual aside in conversation. He remembers asking her, for example, how she imagines she might look when she grows old, to which she immediately replies that she never will be old. She is always planning her funeral, telling her friends to play this piece of music, or to have the service in that particular church, and her tone at these moments suggests that she herself will be present, a spectator at the event."
Galgut’s writing is his strength, deceptive sentences that frequently collapse the third and first person. Ostensibly, the three novellas are related in the third person, but a shift occurs, often startlingly, as sentences move to the first person, thus providing a sense of interiority for a character who has been depicted externally. Here for example, a sentence when Damon observes Anna: "When he gets back she’s sitting downstairs having breakfast, but he doesn’t join her, why exactly I can’t say."
In a Strange Room captures a sense of repressed desire, of lives lived in such close proximity that intimacy is impossible.
In a Strange Room
By Damon Galgut
Europa Editions, 207 pp., $15
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.