Thursday, 22 September 2011

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut | The Silence and the Border

I should have read this novel a year ago. In a Strange Room was one of the major South African novels last year, but I remember getting the impression that this was "intellectual work" (and rightly so!), so I avoided it. Only now, when I'm in Norway, and the novel has been translated into Norwegian, do I decide to read it.

The novel is divided into three, and each part is a journey undertaken by Damon. The narrator at once identifies and distances himself from Damon the protagonist. Sometimes he refers to Damon as "he", whereas in other places the narrator uses "I". This really reminds me of J M Coetzee's autobiographical novels Boyhood and Youth (and the similarities do not end there).

In the first journey South African Damon and German Reiner, who hardly know each other, decide to hike around Lesotho together. There is a strange power struggle in their relationship. On the overt level the story is about their hike, but on the covert level the journey is into their relationship. The power is especially connected to finances, and the one with the money sets the agenda.

Dialogue in the novel is not marked by quotation marks, which works both to underline how little talking there actually is in the novel, as well as to suggest that the author is paraphrasing. Additionally, it blurs the boundary of who's saying what.

The end of the first part is strangely anti-climaxtic (Coetzeean as such), and the narrator admits that silence and uncertainty is the only closure to this story (kind of like life).

In the second part, Damon is travelling through parts of Southern Africa with some random backpackers he ran into. In the group, it is very clear that Damon is kind of an outsider. The tourists are mostly European coming to Africa for leisure, who ignore the social problems of the region. Being South African, Damon can't as easily submit to merely the pursuit of pleasure.

In the course of the journey, there are a number of border crossings, both geographical and symbolical, and Damon emphasises the difference between those who need a visa to cross the border and those who do not. Damon admits to being afraid of crossing borders, and leaving the safe behind in favour of a space beyond where anything can happen, but he also says that this is why he travels. It turns out that nothing is impossible in the borderland.

In this part of the novel there is also a strong emphasis on the distance between words and meanings. Damon meets a young European whose English is quite bad. In order to communicate properly, they need an interpreter. However, the presence of the interpreter is seen as intrusive, and their clumpsy attempts at speaking English together is mere mimickry of proper speech, where the European resorts to stock phrases and direct translations from the dictionary. Similarly, Damon is at some point denied entry in a country, and the official is hinting for a bribe, but Damon does not pick up on the hint until it is almost too late.

After the journey in Southern Africa comes to an end, Damon decides to visit Jerome, the European, in Switzerland. The visit is a good one, but Damon is confused as to Jerome's wishes for them. As Jerome is away in the army during the week, Damon eventually leaves and has very little contact with him for quite a long time, as he travels around in Europe by himself.

Once more the ending is filled with disappointment, and even grief, perhaps anticipating the actions in the third part in the novel. Damon is left with questions of whether or not he could have acted differently.

In the third part, Damon brings a close friend, who happens to be suffering under a very strong depression, to India with him. It quickly becomes apparent that the friend he used to know has transformed into a stranger after the illness took hold of her. Once more there's a power theme at work, and a question of who's in power of the situation of the two. The situation grows worse and worse until it reaches a crisis. Once more there is also a conflict with language, and, as Damon underlines, an insufficiency of language. His friend has entered a terrain where words have no power, and she has forced Damon to follow her there.

The three parts together make up a sort of journey into the self, into the deep dark Damon. His powerlessness, his perhaps petty victories, his insecurity, his fears. And while it is a strange room, it is also a familiar room. The familiar room where you are forced to question yourself and you don't necessarily like what you see. The familiar room of the confrontation you fear. This is a novel that really makes you think and reflect.

I loved being in Damon Galgut's strange room. I will probably revisit it often.

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