In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

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.

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15 Responses to In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

  1. Justine says:

    Great review. This book is on my ‘I really want to read that but have so much else to read first’ list! I like the connection that you make to Coetzee and I will be interested to see if I find the same similarities. If you enjoy South African fiction then you might find Nadine Gordimer worth reading. She is quite different in style to Coetzee but equally altering.

    • Kerry says:

      Justine,

      Thanks for the recommendation! I will definitely give Nadine Gordimer a try. She’s going high on the list for my post-ToB reads. I had vaguely been aware of her, but your suggestion (combined with your appreciation of Coetzee and Woolf, it doesn’t get better than that) makes Gordimer a priority.

      I will be looking forward to your take on Galgut and whether you find him similar to Coetzee. A word of warning: I have only read Coetzee’s late works (I am getting ready to start back at the beginning). Our only overlap is Disgrace. The closest connection I see is between Coetzee’s semi-autobiographical works and this semi-autobiographical work. But, I will be interested to see what a more well-read Coetzee fan has to say….

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Kerry: I think you hit it dead on with the enclosed loop metaphor in your closing paragraphs. What lives with me with this novel is that frustrating stasis that is present in all three stories — Damon’s inability to move forward. He does move but doesn’t progress, which is why that notion of circle is important.

    As for comparisons with Coetzee, my take is that Galgut is much more introspective in that he looks at how an individual is effected by what is around him. Yes, Coetzee also does that — but his central characters (including himself) tend to be more significant players than Galgut’s (knights or rooks as opposed to pawns, if I can be permitted a chess reference).

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, Kevin. After re-reading your and John’s reviews, I struggled with what to say about it. When I went back over my marginalia, it struck me how strongly present looping is in all three stories. This is a work that seems to stick (though I am not very far out yet, of course).

      I am not sure I have enough depth in Coetzee (or Galgut) to do more than nod my head in tentative agreement with your distinction. I do get the sense that Coetzee strikes at bigger social issues whereas, at least in this work, Galgut does remain very introspective (I mean by that, not only that he as a character is introspective, but the novel uses the outside to illuminate the inside rather than how Coetzee uses his personal introspection to write somehow more gregarious novels). Let me try once more, Coetzee is notoriously introspective and, as far as I can tell, his (main) characters are introspective too. Yet, it is an introspection turned inside out to engage with the wider world. Galgut seems to bring the world inside to enrich his introspection.

      Or I could be completely wrong. I often am.

      I always enjoy a chess metaphor, especially when it gets the game right. Although, there is more beauty in winning with a pawn than with a rook. So, your metaphor is certainly not an insult to Galgut (nor, I know, did you in anyway intend it to be).

      Thanks, as always, for enriching my reading experience with your recommendations and comments.

  3. What a wonderful review, Kerry. This book was one of my favourites of 2010 and I am glad that you did it justice. I had also spotted the parallels with Coetzee, but I would never have thought of comparing it with The Seltering Sky, although I can see why you did. I read The Seltering Sky many years ago and found it fascinating, but also somewhat frustrating. I prefer the humanity of In a Strange Room: Damon may not seem to be going anywhere but his sensitivity and the elegance of the prose gave the book a sort of soft glow that made it stand out for me and saved it from being depressing.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks so much, Anna. In a Strange Room is probably my second favorite published-in-2010 book among those I’ve read so far. I agree, too, with your bottom line reasons why the book stands out and is saved from being depressing. It does have “a sort of soft glow” from its sensitivity and the elegance of its prose. Very well put.

  4. Steph says:

    Wonderful review, Kerry. I remember reading mixed things about this book when it was up for the Booker prize last year, but the fact that you compare it to Coetzee means a lot. I do appreciate when authors break boundaries with narrative form, though it doesn’t always work for me, so I do think this would be a book worth trying.

    • Kerry says:

      I definitely think it is worth trying. It is a pleasure to read with clear and, as Anna points out, elegant prose. It also breaks up into three nearly independent sections, so fits in well with other reading if you don’t want to commit.

      I would love to hear what you thought of it.

  5. Your first paragraph has won me over … I just have to find time to read it.

  6. Not kind, Kerry, truthful!

  7. […] Hungry Like the Wolf The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut […]

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