David Blackburn

Entering Galgut’s strange room

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'He has no house.' Volislav Jakic's epigraph opens In a Strange Room, Damon Galgut's acclaimed novel. Donne's 'No man is an island' would have served just as well. This is the story of one rootless man, Damon, and his fear of commitment.

Ostensibly, travel is Galgut's subject. Hope and desire are thwarted by chance and choice on the road. But, as Galgut is fond of saying, memory is fiction. With the globe at his disposal, Galgut explores how memory is adopted or discarded to mitigate or exaggerate moments of euphoria, grief and regret; and hints at the influence of landscape on memory. Africa - its beauty and squalor, promise and threat - is the book's most visited landscape, inspiring some of the most evocative description of time and place I've ever read.

The book is a triptych of three short stories titled: Power, Love and Guardian. First, Damon meets Reiner, an imposing mix of male enigma and Germanic heartlessness. The two men develop a personal passion, never physically consummated. Still riven by a plutonic longing, Damon recalls that nervousness was to blame for their sexual near-miss. But whilst both felt the awkwardness of imminent sex, abstention was ultimately Reiner's choice. Manipulating the relationship's imbalance, Reiner comes to dominate Damon and mocks his emotion by bedding tarts 'to relieve tension'. A vassal-like relationship develops as they trek aimlessly across scrub of Lesotho - Reiner leading imperiously and Damon following with a burden of literal and figurative necessities.

Damon always follows. In Love, he meets Jerome, a boyishly beautiful Swiss soldier. Again, Galgut deals only with yearning. Their attraction is excruciatingly tentative, even down to the language barrier. Jerome and his party wind their way through Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya and the visa-less and money-less Damon follows, torn between common sense and a sudden restless fear of loss. Damon's pursuit takes him to Switzerland: still nothing happens! Eventually his hopes disintegrate, as did the bodywork of the car that carries Jerome to a savage death in Morocco. But Damon had never had the courage to seize the day and his battered memory and consciousness concede as much:

'Jerome, if I can't make you live in words…it's not because I don't remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it's precisely this that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone; it's all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say the very heart of my life.'

Things haven't improved when he escorts his psychotic friend Anna, to India. This is the book's weakest section because Anna is execrable first and mad second. Also, though Galgut has a sense of India it does not match his rapture for the verdant Rift Valley; gentle life beside Lake Malawi; Lesotho's impoverished but serene uplands; or the tacky bustle of Mombassa. But, Anna's external torment makes a poignant contrast with Damon's inner hopelessness, and he finds himself sobbing at his loss - a constant reminder of his limitations. Or that, at least, is what he recalls.