Author: Damon Galgut
Publisher: Atlantic Books London
Release Date: 2010
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Source: From the book club at work
Hardcover: 180 pages
Summary from Amazon:
A young man takes three journeys, through Greece, India and Africa. He travels lightly, simply. To those who travel with him and those whom he meets on the way - including a handsome, enigmatic stranger, a group of careless backpackers and a woman on the edge - he is the Follower, the Lover and the Guardian. Yet, despite the man's best intentions, each journey ends in disaster. Together, these three journeys will change his whole life. A novel of longing and thwarted desire, rage and compassion, "In a Strange Room" is the hauntingly beautiful evocation of one man's search for love, and a place to call home.
It would be easier for me to list all the things this book isn't rather than find a couple words to describe it. It is one of a kind. I can't even tell you if I liked it or hated it. One thing for sure is that it didn't leave me indifferent at all.
In A Strange Room is composed of three short stories which were each written at a different time and place. Yet, since these stories are autobiographical and tell the meanderings of Damon Galgut, there is a link between them. Though not one you would expect.
The book uses both a first person and a third person narrative, in the sense that Damon Galgut writes about some episodes of his life using most of the time a third person point of view and sometimes talking about himself in first person. The reader is left wondering why. Is it a way of talking about events so far in time that it doesn't even feel like him anymore? Is it a way to dissociate himself from who he was? Is it a pure exercise of style?
The book also only uses commas and full stops, never any question mark or exclamation point. The story-telling appears as tumultuous as the emotions of the narrator - as in entirely flat. Things are just going without any ups and downs.
Other than the mysterious style of writing, there seems to be no evolution or sense of resolve in these stories, they seem to have been written just for the purpose of the exercise, more as a diary than to tell a proper story. There are rules to tell a story which the book evidently doesn't want to respect. Damon Galgut travels through Africa and then India, he meets several characters with whom he interacts and he tells the forgotten story of some characters who died since then or whom Damon never saw again. In a way, you get a glimpse of a story which should have never been told. How very voyeuristic to be fascinated by those stories!
There is a restlessness in this book that the author doesn't seem to overcome. He needs to be constantly on the move trying to find an answer to a question he himself doesn't even know. He is trying to find a home but all the places he sets foot in seem strange. You come to empathise with him at times, over his own inability to connect with people and to express what we know he feels inside, and at other times you simply resent him for being so selfish, childish and without any goal in life. I find the book to be halfway through spleen* and absurdist fiction.
They say that what is important isn't the destination but the journey. But the character in the story seems so intent on his ever elusive destination that he doesn't even appreciate the journey. He walks in what could be gorgeous landscape, but the reader is never granted a description. The reader could be travelling through his eyes to unknown lands but is never given the chance to.
I am at loss to think or feel something precise about this book. In a way, I am glad that I read it because my head is still full of interrogations as to what it all means. Most likely, it isn't meant to mean anything and it is interesting in this respect.
The book has also a latent homo-eroticism between the narrator and two other characters, one in the first, one in the second short story. There is much internal emotional upheaval which struggles to come out. You are left wondering if the narrator ever came to terms with his feelings for men or not.
The book is an interesting read, part focused on human nature, part wanting to take the reader as testimony of a life. I chose to over-think the whole thing, trying to find a meaning out of the book, but you could as well enjoy the book and take it for what it is. It is an easy read which you will probably read in one sitting as it is a book which keep you wanting more.
I honestly wouldn't know who to recommend it to besides anyone with a curious disposition and a willingness to read unconventional books.
* Spleen comes from the English word, a synonym of melancholy, which was made popular in French literature with poet Charles Baudelaire. It became a symbol of many writers of the late 1800.