In a Strange Roomby Kavish Chetty / 31.08.2010
The lives of the young and disaffected are now spent in a war against boredom. In this fresh century, modern sensations are so easy to find and experience as to have become almost assaultive: they throb on screens, and wail from radios and brush up against your thigh when you’d rather be alone. Experiences that would’ve excited and fascinated entire heritages past are reduced now to plastic playthings. There’s no excuse for anything to be boring. And this was my rather desultory impression of the opening pages of Galgut’s novel, served in cold and functional prose.
Of all the books served up to me by publishers and distributors, In a Strange Room was the obvious choice for review: it has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010. I regard the Booker with some cynicism, because while it gave me all the glorious excesses, drama and magic of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, it also seems to have a tacky love affair with J.M. Coetzee: the dry and overrated expatriate. Galgut’s nomination is not without precedent, however. This is his second time trying for the Booker; his earlier novel, The Good Doctor, was also a nominee and many were disappointed when his most recent, The Imposter, failed to make the list.
Here comes the redemptive sentence you’ve hoped for, in this repository of online cynicism: Galgut’s novel grows on you. The beauty of the language is in its isolative, dislocating quality: its tension and intensity. Whether or not the superstitious magic of the number three will prove to work in Galgut’s favour is yet to be decided by the Booker panel; but until then, this proves fascinating reading by a local author.
This thin work comes in three instalments, all following a protagonist named Damon. He is a traveller, but also a follower, spending much of his time in the company of fellow wanderers, searching out meaning in both his own being and that of others. His travels take him to Greece, Zimbabwe and India – at each location he is confronted by someone who comes to beguile him: causes him to pursue new questions, which unfurl themselves in language as much an enigma as the narrative. Galgut writes of Damon,
‘The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstances. He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid. Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details, he feels no connection with anything around him, he’s constantly afraid of dying. As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition.’
The upshot of this is that the style is almost coercively didactic, because at times it is distant and pleasureless. I find this often a con, a ruse, to encourage closer inspection, to force out the details that are buried like treasure in all our great works. Too often it reminded me of the overreaching fingers of Coetzee. But the charms of this very short book don’t need to be laboured over to be appreciated. The world of In a Strange Room is troubling, concerning and cold. But the investigation into it of our lone traveller is where the warmth is to be found.