As those of you who regularly read this blog know, I am a huge fan of Coetzee’s spare style. He uses fewer words and less ornamentation than most other writers approaching his caliber, but manages to slice to depths others’ duller instruments never reach. Coetzee creates a sense of place and circumstance that is palpably real, but does so without describing in minute detail. One Coetzee-wrought sentence is worth a thousand pictures.
Damon Galgut is no Coetzee, he is too unique for that, but his writing reminds me more of Coetzee’s than any other contemporary writer. I hope that is an objective opinion and not simply due to my knowledge that both grew up in South Africa. This work is, like Coetzee’s trilogy of autobiographical fictions, a first person narrative told in the third person. Damon is both author and character. With this device, Galgut, as does Coetzee, emphasizes the distinction between the person of years ago and the person who recalls long-past events. But this is not simply a case of Galgut imitating Coetzee.
John Self and Kevin from Canada provide excellent summaries of the structure and plotting of In a Strange Room.
The other book that this reminded me of was The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Galgut creates a similar feeling of place and nicely paints the characters with whom he travels. Both begin as travel novels set in Africa (though different parts). Galgut’s language is less lyrical and less mystical than that of Paul Bowles, but some of the parallels are striking.
In Bowle’s work, there is a description of a character named Tunner. Tunner is simple and only admires ideas he cannot understand. His inability to understand an idea does not lead to more thought, but only an “emotional satisfaction.” Galgut also writes of a simple man:
For Reiner the complexities and contradictions of the world are a distraction, and the truth is always stark and simple, a rule that must be followed rigidly if all the confusion is to be overcome, it is possible, he believes, to survive on will-power and chocolate, and every time he offers any to his companion, that little smirk returns to Reiner’s face.
The writing in both is similarly excellent. Sickness and death play an important role in both, though in different ways. However, Bowles lost me as his novel veered into an unsettling mysticism. Galgut’s work is no less unsettling, but remains grounded in a pragmatic and unblindered look at three journeys. In fact, Galgut’s work left me more altered than A Sheltering Sky, because In a Strange Room did not try to burrow into the heart of man or Africa or life. Galgut relates his experiences as honestly as possible and what we see as is chilling as anything Bowles can imagine occurring in the Sahara.
The other divurgence is that the journy in Bowles’s work is a straight-line affair. The main characters of The Sheltering Sky continue forward and forward, always going deeper into Africa and its mysteries. However, In a Strange Room features a recurring symbol: the circle. Characters often return to their starting point, sometimes several times. In one example, Galgut summarizes the emotional journey he has taken with someone he met on the road: “it is the story of what never happened, the story of traveling a long way while standing still.”
In another, he and a friend have traveled a long distance to escape an unpleasant experience:
They arrive in the village after dark. The mood in the downstairs restaurant at the hotel is festive and the merriment infects them. They have dinner with some of the other guests and it’s as if they never left. That night they sleep in the same room upstairs, in the same bed, and the big looping journey they’ve made is just one more completed circle, bringing them back to exactly the same point.
Whether these are circles of hell or simply the inescapable sphere on which we live, the theme of closed loops returns again and again. Each iteration is slightly different, but all reinforce Galgut’s central theme. Progress is an illusion never more vivid than while traveling. We cannot, or perhaps usually do not, escape the grooves our habits have worn in the world.