In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed.”

‘In a Strange Room’ is a weirdly brilliant book. Weird because normally these kind of stories of angst ridden narrators looking back on their lives of privileged wandering and existential monologues tend to grip me very rarely. And this one had all the hallmarks of one of those dreary Booker nominees that become a chore to get through. And yet, it had me captivated, caught up in the hypnotic pull of its spare (but illuminating) prose, almost to the extent that I can say it’s probably the best book I’ve read this year. Considering its Booker shortlisting in 2010, I am more than a decade late to it, but every book has its time and an age when you would appreciate it more. And similar to another Booker luminary which I read recently, ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes (winner in 2011), this is a book which one appreciates more with age. Definitely much more than the eventual winner in 2010, ‘The Finkler Question’, which I was left particularly cold by.

The narrator here is a curious mix of storyteller and autobiographer, sometimes referred to in the third person and occasionally in the first person. I found this a bit grating initially, and I’m still not sure if it really made much of a difference, but I can understand the trope. Perpetually confused, perpetually uneasy in his recollections, the switching mirrors the ambiguity of the narrator’s travel pursuits. Why does he travel? He doesn’t seem to be an avid collector of cultural footnotes or memorabilia of the places he goes to, nor does he show much anthropological interests in the places. His travels are more of a strange extension of his ubiquitous rootlessness, a feeling of being in a place and yet not belonging. As someone who grew up mostly in countries not his own, the illusionary nature of roots and belonging is something I can identify with myself and probably not something everyone will really get.

“But this is also one of the most compelling elements in travel, the feeling of dread underneath everything, it makes sensations heightened and acute, the world is charged with a power it doesn’t have in ordinary life.

(…) in the end you are always more tormented by what you didn’t do than what you did. Actions already performed can always be rationalized in time, the neglected deed might have changed the world.

In this state travel isn’t a celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself.”

Despite the seemingly pared down prose, there are some beautiful insights as the above which ring reverently true to life and actually make one see things in a different light. Travel is an oft mentioned hobby for many, but how many can truly decipher why they travel and what they really get out if it? Perhaps not as many as one may think.

If we break the story down to its bare bones, it follows our narrator/author as he makes journeys in three parts. In the first he traverses through Greece, where he meets an enigmatic German who meets up with him again when he is at home in South Africa. After this, they make plans and travel together across Lesotho before acrimony finally sets in. The second story follows his travels in Tanzania, Malawi and Kenya and his conflicting emotions as he makes a group of transitory friends, at least one of which he intensely desires to have more of a lasting bond with. This section too ends with a bitter aftertaste. The final part is more personal, as compared to the ones preceding it, where he is in a place where he has to act as guardian to a mentally unwell friend as they travel through parts of India on what should have been something of a trip to make her feel better but one which results in him having to extend his caring duties much beyond what he thought he had signed up for.

The common thread through all is of course travel. But another is of, ironically considering the physical exertions of walking, inertia; an inability to act on his strongest desires and forge connections which extend beyond the here and now. And when he does eventually try to make something of a go, the eventualities are not very pleasant. Through all of this, the feeling of his lack of a strong sense of belonging to anything, places or motivations, rings strong. Who are we if not of the places or people we belong to? We could be a lot of things in fact, but what if we are unable to put the pieces together to figure it out?

“Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words, if you’re only the dim evocation of a face under a fringe of hair, and others too, Alice and Christian and Roderigo, if you are names without a nature, 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 is for this precisely 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 at the very heart of my life.”

Damon Galgut eventually won his Booker this year (2021) for ‘The Promise’ and I surely hope to get around to that one soon enough. But for now, I am enthralled by his bleakly beautiful vision of a different kind of travel diary. One which captivates and despairs in equal measures but remains indelibly etched inside.

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