Monday, 13 June 2011

Book #46 In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room

In A Strange Room was a runner up alongside C, Room, The Long Song, and Parrot and Olivier in America, for the 2010 Man Booker Prize eventually won by Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question which I reviewed earlier in the challenge.

Although it is a novel it feels strangely unlike one. The protagonist is a South African writer, also named Damon, although this is a work of fiction, the character and the writer share their story. It bears more comparison to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried however than to Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, which is a blessing. Like those two books, this novel also feels more like connected short stories than a traditional novel. Again, as with those books I started it with no idea what it was about. Metafiction, and I believe this counts, seems to be following me.

The story or rather stories, are travel stories, tapping into the new culture of going travelling, taking a gap year or going off to India to find oneself, which has so very nearly become a cliche. In these stories, Galgut exams the experience of the solo traveller, who by necessity almost, becomes involved in the lives of other travellers met along the road, and the potential artificiality or depth of those short-lived intimacies.

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. It also makes the clear point that the relationships you create via travelling become unsustainable in the real world, or will break down under the pressures of existing in a foreign land. The moral of the tale is almost travel and friendship don't mix, and also that the friendships you leave behind are damaged by the alterations that take place within you during experiences they haven't shared. There is really something rather bleak about the story, but it is still a good story.

Damon meets Reiner in Greece, unable to define the parameters of their relationship, the two succumb to a damaging power struggle. He meets three Swiss friends in Zimbabwe and travels through Africa with them and is again damaged by his inability to express his feelings and seize the moment. In the final story, Damon takes old friend Anna to India seeking to improve her mental state, when things take a dramatic turn. The stories are by no means underwritten, but they are sparsely told, allowing for a lot of reading between the lines. Damon seems to constantly travel, unable to settle, looking for something, but wherever he goes, there he is, as the saying goes, his location changes but he doesn't, continuing to make attachments that can't or won't last. The stories are much more about his psyche than any of the destinations he visits.

The odd thing about the style was that the narrative voice mostly spoke in the third person but occasionally switched to the first, giving the impression that he is viewing his own actions remotely from afar. This has a very haunting quality, as though Galgut both has and hasn't the power to control events, a passing traveller within his own story, just as he is through all these countries. Rather, it should have been 'odd' but I quite liked it.

I'm not sure it's Booker winner worthy, but I did prefer it to both Room, for which I had misgivings and The Finkler Question whose comic status I question. I can imagine myself recommending this to people as interesting short stories that examine the complexities and frailties of human relationships; or to someone who has perhaps returned from lengthy overseas travel and feels rather disillusioned.

It is short, and I had it read in under 2 hours, but I liked the feel of it and admired the writing 7/10

*I would very much appreciate it if somebody could tell me why this post is so popular it has been viewed almost 700 times as of the end of September 2011*

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